IN their first local election since launching last year, Alba leader Alex Salmond has claimed his party are on the verge of a political breakthrough despite failing to get any seats in the Scottish Parliament. We met general secretary and Inverclyde Council candidate Chris McEleny on the campaign trail in Gourock to find out how people are reacting to Scotland’s newest independence party and how confident he feels about his own chances …

It was a sunny April day by the Firth of Clyde, one of the hottest days the west of Scotland has seen so far this year. A new season had arrived.

It seemed fitting with the heat now very much on in the final fortnight before Scots head to the ballot box for the local elections.

Following their disappointing result at the Scottish Parliament vote last year, one of the key questions for independence supporters is: will it be a sunny new day for the Alba party?

General secretary Chris McEleny coincidentally met me outside the Spinnaker Hotel in Gourock, a polling station for the Inverclyde Council election, to allow me an insight into how he might fare when people cast their vote on May 5.

He was certainly unafraid to show his colours, arriving in a bright blue “Yes” campaign jumper and, as we began chatting while we walked along the waterfront, it was clear he was not concerned about how his switch of allegiance from the SNP might affect his support.

Party leader and former first minister Alex Salmond announced the launch of Alba – a new party for independence – out of the blue in March 2021.

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His main aim was to convince people to vote SNP in the constituency vote and Alba on the list to create a so-called “super-majority” of independence-backing politicians at Holyrood.

There was no doubt it caught the attention of Yes supporters but, in the aftermath of a trial where Salmond was accused of sexual misconduct – and was later acquitted of all charges – and a feud between him and Nicola Sturgeon after he accused her “inner circle” of plotting against him, the party flopped at the election and didn’t win any seats, attracting a measly 1.7% of the vote.

But as a passer-by greeted McEleny – who defected from the SNP last year – from across the street and pledged his support even though he was “not a nationalist”, it seemed as though he had little reason to panic about Alba’s rocky start to life in Scottish politics.

On the doorsteps

People spoke to him on the doorsteps about issues he was working on, such as trying to make Cloch Road – which runs by the water – an average speed trap, and most were only interested in what was happening on their doorstep, not in Edinburgh or London.

He has been a councillor for 10 years and his family name has become familiar throughout Gourock and Greenock, with his dad Jim standing again in the latter after becoming a councillor five years ago.

“I’ve got a 10-year track record of campaigning pretty hard for my community and I’m confident that at least some of them will keep faith in me,” he told the Sunday National. “I’m not alone either. Councillor Brian Topping in the North-East has been a councillor since the 1980s, so the suggestion that just because he’s now an Alba candidate makes 40 years worth of delivering for people worth nothing doesn’t make sense.

“Anyone who wants to write off that sort of track record does not understand what a local election is all about.”

How is it looking for Alba?

So why should he be worried? The reality is that there is yet to be politician elected into any office under the Alba banner and signs would suggest that is not about to change.

It’s often a struggle for a new party to hit the ground running and win seats just like that, but they’ve been around for more than a year now and failing at this election, where the single transferable vote system could work in their favour, will surely look much worse.

A Survation poll for Ballot Box Scotland suggested Alba would only pool 1% of first-preference votes.

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And bar perhaps the defections of MPs Kenny MacAskill (above) and Neale Hanvey, McEleny’s was one of the most high-profile switches since he had been SNP group leader on Inverclyde Council for some time and put his name forward for deputy SNP leader twice.

But McEleny insisted he was not interested in what polls had to say.

“You can’t quite extrapolate national data into local elections because local elections are about local issues. They’re about who the candidate is and what their values are,” he said.

“I’m confident a lot of people who believe in independence but don’t necessarily vote SNP will back me.

“The majority of people that voted for independence don’t necessarily identify themselves with a party so these are people I hope would give me their support.

“I’m confident we will have the first ever elected politicians under the Alba banner in this election. I’m confident we will gain Alba seats in Inverclyde and in the North East, across the central belt and I think that would be a good showing for a party that’s only a year old.”

"No one owns any votes"

McEleny was also quick to challenge me when I referred to him possibly losing “his seat” insisting it was not something he owned nor had a right to.

He added: “I’ve never used the phrase my seat, because it’s not. I think that’s what people are sick of in politics, the entitlement. No one owns any votes.

“I’m not worried [about losing]. It’s a possibility in every election. You hand yourself over to the voters and you say ‘judge me on my record’. I think I’ve got a pretty good track record.

“I’ve taken my marching orders from voters and I’ve pursued their issues in the chamber. Regardless of political affiliation, I think a lot of people appreciate that.

“My dad feels similar. We’re a family that don’t take elected office as an entitlement.”

The confidence he displays is admirable, but what if a strong track record isn’t enough? What if this was a giant risk not worth taking?

McEleny was not for speculating on potential doom and gloom and proclaimed, just as Salmond did at Alba’s manifesto launch last week, they will make a breakthrough.

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“We’re still here. We’ve got two MPs. We are leading debates at Westminster and playing an important role in Scottish politics,” McEleny added.

“There’s a lot of incompetence at the moment on the part of the Scottish Government and we can’t allow that to be seen as something that could damage the case for independence.

“If we’re talking hypotheticals, I’m only interested in positive ones, so I’m confident we will win seats.

“When the SNP started getting seats in the 1990s suddenly Labour became a bit more interested, and I think if Alba make gains you’ll see the SNP get more serious on independence.”