Ever since Alex Salmond launched his Alba Party, which I wrote about last week, political Twitter has been consumed with long and often quite technical debates about the potential impact of smaller parties and how useful they are to whatever side of the constitutional cause you’re on.
This has been particularly pointed for unionists because All for Unity, the big-tent pro-UK coalition that George Galloway has stitched together, is trying to claim that it can do for the Union what Alba threatens to do for the separatists: game the system and deliver and inflated number of pro-Union MSPs to the Scottish Parliament.
Yesterday, I set out on ConservativeHome why this is not the case. Whilst other commentators have set out in detail why All for Unity are more likely than not to cut the number of unionist MSPs returned and give the SNP an easier run to a majority, I offered a big-picture view about why their original pretence to be a ‘unionist Alba’ was always nonsense.
The response from A4U’s committed supporters was telling. Having started to realise that the game is up on the idea that they’ll help overall, the focus is now on the idea that just taking seats from the traditional unionist parties is actually a good thing. The old lot have failed, and Galloway and his young bloods will be able to ‘really take the fight to the SNP’. Some also said that parties which can’t win constituencies don’t deserve list seats, which is big talk for a party which isn’t standing in the constituencies.
Galloway himself, meanwhile, insinuated that I was only undermining his project because I’m a ‘hireling’ and thus a Conservative shill, which will be news to all the Scottish and Welsh Tories I vex on a regular basis. So I wanted to zoom out even further and explain why All for Unity is a bad unionist small-party project by comparing it to a good unionist small-party project: the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party.
The key differences between the two are that Abolish has a distinct policy and ideological offer; that this gives them the chance to reach new voters and thus expand the unionist electoral coalition; and that both of these allow them to exert useful influence over a major party. A4U has none of these.
Let’s start with the most obvious one. Abolish is about, well, abolishing the Welsh Parliament. You can think this is a good idea or not, but it is a coherent position that has until now been largely excluded from Welsh political debate. This is particularly egregious because reintegration actually commands a pretty solid level of support amongst Welsh voters, despite the two-decade omertà on discussing the idea amongst Welsh politicians and commentators.
That brings us to point two: Abolish are expanding the pro-Union electorate. For all the big talk from devocrats about the UK being ‘over’, turnout for a Welsh Assembly election has yet to top 50%. A big reason for this is that hundreds of thousands of Tory voters back the party at Westminster and the locals whilst tuning Cardiff Bay out, which is why the party is comfortably Wales’ second at general elections but bumps along with Plaid Cymru for devolved ones.
If Abolish can start getting these voters to the polls in numbers, that will have a significant effect on the makeup of the Senedd’s shrunken electorate. They can also, like UKIP before them, woo strongly pro-UK Labour voters who may be alienated by their party’s increasingly open flirtation with nationalism and even separatism.
Should they win representation – and polling suggests they’re on track for four or five seats – they will be the best and perhaps only plausible coalition partner for the Conservatives, as well as a threat to the Tories’ unionist flank at the polls. This has already forced the latter to stop making eyes at Plaid and run on a platform of ‘no more powers’. Demonstrable impact.
All for Unity don’t do any of this.
They don’t have a defining policy offer or ideological niche. Whilst Galloway’s defenders like to point out that he can be a powerful salesman for the Union to very left-wing voters, they have to face the fact that he isn’t running such an operation. A4U (the A originally stood for ‘alliance’) is explicitly catch-all, fielding candidates from across the ideological spectrum. Which means they will find it very hard, if not impossible, to offer a coherent and compelling policy programme on economic or social issues.
This is the exact same problem that faces Andy Maciver’s intermittent campaign to split off the Scottish Conservatives for a new pro-UK party. A big-tent party united only by the constitution will be able to talk only of the constitution, and thus have few ways to reach overs who don’t share their stance on that issue. (Unsurprisingly, at least one A4U candidate has similarly tried to tempt the Conservatives into an Ulster-shaped cul-de-sac by talking up the prospect of being able to ‘stand up for Scotland’ without the onerous task of defending ‘mothership UK’.)
As a result, I have seen scant evidence that A4U are systemically winning over new voters to the pro-UK coalition. They aren’t running a tightly-focused campaign either at left-wing voters, abolitionists, or any other group which is currently voting separatist or staying at home. Instead, the plan seems not to be simply to claw some seats off the main parties by misleading committed unionist voters about how the Scottish electoral system works – or if that fails, just by rubbishing the old guard.
Maybe this will work. Not a few such voters seem to want to give the main parties a kicking. But it’s hard to see how A4U can hope to exert the sort of useful pressure Abolish are wielding because they don’t stand for anything discrete. The Tories are not going to try and be more like Galloway, and it will be tough for him to put much pressure on Labour if he’s shackled to a party that’s officially led by a Conservative Party member. There’s no obvious point of triangulation.
The best case to be made for Galloway – that he speaks to left-wing voters the main parties can’t reach, and makes arguments they neglect – is not a case for All for Unity. It’s a case for the Workers Party of Britain, which he leads (and whose logo A4U basically lifted). But for reasons best known only to him, Galloway didn’t fancy putting that on the ballot paper.
I share the deep frustrations of many unionist voters at the main parties’ stubborn commitment to the decaying cause of devolution and instinctive appeasement of the nationalists. I’m very happy to make the case for a new pro-Union party if it is doing something useful for the cause.
But whatever the merits of a handful of individual candidates or ideas, All for Unity are not. If your priority is defending seats against the separatists, vote tactically for the major parties. And if you’re that desperate for an alternative, make a better one. Here’s a template.
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