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EDINBURGH â€” Alex Salmondâ€™s Alba Party isnâ€™t the only political startup hoping to disrupt a crunch Scottish election in May.
The former first minister of Scotland caused a stir when he announced plans to pit his new party against current Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon â€” a former ally turned nemesis â€” and her ruling pro-independence Scottish National Party, in an effort to build a â€œsupermajorityâ€ for Scotland breaking away from the U.K.
Meanwhile, after fourteen years of SNP rule in Scotland, some high-profile politicians opposed to the cause of Scottish independence have turned to creative new ways to try and force Sturgeon from power.
Among them is former Labour MP George Galloway, a controversial lifelong left-winger now at the helm of a new anti-independence party styled All 4 Unity.
Speaking to POLITICO over Zoom, Galloway â€” sporting his trademark fedora â€” said he is â€œprepared to unite with almost anyone to stop Britain breaking up.â€ The veteranâ€™s new group boasts an old Etonian conservative and the founder of right-wing Eurosceptic party UKIP among its ranks.
â€œThey have been far too cosy in the Holyrood club,â€ he said when asked why he founded a new venture, instead of joining an existing party . â€œThe opposition parties have been far too content to be the opposition.â€
The Scottish Parliament is often referred to as Holyrood, after the part of the Scottish capital Edinburgh where the parliament is located.
Although one backs independence and the other opposes it, Gallowayâ€™s key aim is similar to Salmondâ€™s â€” encouraging tactical voting to game the Holyrood electoral system, where Scots are given two different votes.
On one of those, a straightforward winner-takes-all constituency vote, Galloway urges pro-union voters to â€œhold their noseâ€ and vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the SNP.
Galloway argues that if enough voters do this and then use their other vote â€” which goes towards electing regional members on a list using proportional representation â€” for All 4 Unity, enough unionists would be elected to remove Sturgeon. He could then broker what he calls a â€œgovernment of national unity of all the talents.â€
However, mainstream unionist parties are steering clear of Galloway and his party, with Scottish Conservatives Leader Douglas Ross arguing that All 4 Unity will simply split the unionist vote.
Other potentially sympathetic politicians may be put off by Gallowayâ€™s history of courting controversy. One example came just hours after he spoke to POLITICO, when he described the first Muslim member of the Scottish government Humza Yousaf as â€œnot more Scottish than meâ€ and â€œnot a Celt like me.â€ Describing his tweet as â€œrace-baitingâ€, Yousaf said voters will show Galloway the â€œcat flap again come May 6â€ in a reference to Gallowayâ€™s infamous impression of a cat on reality show Celebrity Big Brother in 2006.
Splitting the bill
While defections from the SNP to Salmondâ€™s Alba Party have garnered media attention, the pro-unionist parties arenâ€™t exactly free of divisions. In November last year, a prominent Scottish Conservative member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) caused a splash when she quit the party over differences with then-new leader Ross.
Fast-forward a few months, and the MSP, Michelle Ballantyne, is leading the Scottish satellite of what was Nigel Farageâ€™s highly influential Brexit Party, freshly rebranded as Reform UK. Farage has since left the party and frontline politics.
With COVID lockdowns tentatively easing across the U.K. almost in time for Mayâ€™s slate of elections, Reform UK Scotland are moving away from an initial focus on opposing the restrictions and instead campaigning for a shake-up of the U.K.â€™s institutions.
â€œThe [Scottish] Parliament is badly designed to actually hold people to account,â€ Ballantyne said, explaining that her party will try to â€œget a conversation out around the dinner tableâ€ about the powers Scotland has, though is vague about policy details.
Describing herself as a â€œlibertarian,â€ Ballantyne acknowledged she voted against the creation of the Scottish Parliament altogether in 1997. Despite this, she said she wouldnâ€™t now support scrapping Holyrood. â€œWe need to make sure itâ€™s working for the people rather than for the politicians and civil servants,â€ she said. â€œWe have Holyrood, for better or worse.â€
Taking a much harder line on devolution is a separate new fringe party formed by disgruntled unionists, appropriately named the Abolish Holyrood Party.
While a similar outfit looks set to make a breakthrough in Wales, there are few signs of Abolish Holyrood making a dent on the Scottish electoral scene.
Game changers or game spoilers?
It will be difficult for any MSPs from fringe parties to get elected, even under Scotlandâ€™s proportional system.
If they win a sizable number of votes without getting any candidates elected, the new unionist parties risk dividing the anti-independence vote and letting in more nationalist representation.
â€œThey will need to get around six or seven percent of the [regional list] vote to be elected,â€ Newcastle University election process expert Alistair Clark said. â€œThatâ€™s a tough call for very new organizations with no sort of ground organizationâ€.
History backs up this assessment, while still offering some hope for Reform U.K. and, in particular, Gallowayâ€™s All 4 Unity.
â€œWhen small parties have been successful in Scotland theyâ€™ve typically had a fairly high-profile character as a figurehead,â€ Clark said, pointing to the breakthrough in the 2000s by the Scottish Socialist Party, which was led by prominent activist Tommy Sheridan.
Galloway argues that he has the name recognition to make an impact, citing a YouGov poll conducted for his party that indicated more Scots (77 percent) have heard of him than any of the other pro-union opposition leaders.
However, the same poll shows that only eight percent of voters think he would provide the strongest opposition to the SNP. Just one percent picked Ballantyne.
For both new leaders â€” who along with Salmond have been excluded from Tuesdayâ€™s first televised leadership debate â€” the focus will now turn to finding a way to improve those numbers.
Galloway is desperate to be involved in the next debate and get a chance for a face-off with Sturgeon, a prospect that is only possible if his party achieves a breakthrough in opinion polling. â€œAfter all, that would be box office, wouldnâ€™t it?â€ Galloway said with a smile.