A plan to set up a new nationalist party in Scotland to fill Holyrood with pro-independence MSPs is likely to backfire, the UK’s top polling expert has said.
Sir John Curtice, a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde, said the move risked splitting the independence movement, while a perception of trying to “game” the electoral system could turn off voters.
Dave Thompson, a former SNP MSP, revealed that he will quit the party he had been a member of for 55 years to help set up the “Alliance for Independence” (AFI), which will stand candidates at next May's Scottish Parliament elections.
The new party plans to put forward candidates on the regional lists, where the SNP finds it harder to win seats due to their dominance in first-past-the-post constituencies, under Holyrood’s hybrid electoral system.
Mr Thompson has claimed the tactic could deliver between eight and 24 AFI MSPs, with the new party planning to use the slogan “max the Yes”.
However, Sir John said the “ruse” was fraught with potential problems, which would include accusations of "cheating" the system, struggling to persuade voters to back a new party and undermining Nicola Sturgeon’s ability to govern following the election. The SNP does not support the AFI plan.
“Like many attempts to game rules, it’s a clever wheeze,” Sir John said. ”But often in politics, it’s not necessarily sensible to be too clever by half.
“One of the advantages the nationalist side of the debate has over the unionist side, is it is effectively a one-party [option]. Nationalist voters are for the most part congregated inside the SNP, with a little bit of help from the Greens.
“Whereas one of the fundamental problems for unionism is it’s divided between Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. Why would you want to fragment one of those strengths, which is unity?
“And why would they want to do this at the very moment that it looks as if, if the polls are right, the SNP are going to get a majority anyway without anybody engaging in subterfuge?"
He added: “This is surely not the time to fragment a movement over a clever wheeze that runs the risk of being accused of cheating and may end up causing dissent. It’s the oddest move to make at this particular point in time.”
Interesting article on the List vote. The Alliance for Independence is the answer! https://t.co/27MuAGAzgf— Dave Thompson (@Davyt49) July 13, 2020
There has been speculation that Alex Salmond could join the new party, although the former SNP leader has not commented on the claim. Mr Salmond quit the SNP when he faced sexual misconduct charges, but has since cleared his name.
He will become eligible to apply to rejoin the SNP next month, but it is not known if he plans to do so. His once close relationship with Ms Sturgeon has broken down.
Ms Sturgeon is enjoying high personal approval ratings with the public for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and recent polls suggest a majority of Scottish residents now back independence. However, she has been criticised for some within her own party for her failure to secure a new referendum and her stance on issues such as transgender rights, as well as her handling of the allegations against Mr Salmond.
Sir John said that he “could think of no better way of putting the SNP’s current electoral dominance at risk” than having Mr Salmond stand for a separate party.
However, Mr Stewart told The Daily Record: “Every regional list vote for the SNP will have no impact - it will achieve nothing. Whereas, if a lot of these votes came to AFI, we can garner a lot of MSPs.”
Mike Russell, the SNP constitution secretary, said his former colleague was "mistaken in his analysis".
He added: "The SNP is clearly a key part of that movement - I've been a member of the SNP for more than 40 years and I'm certainly not changing my view."