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Holyrood elections: will the SNP secure a majority?

Independence and post-covid recovery are the two most debated topics in 2021’s election campaign


by: Isti Miskolczy


After being halted to pay respects to the death of Prince Phillip the Duke of Edinburgh, campaigning for the Scottish Parliament elections went underway for the second time last week – with some of the major parties publishing their manifestos. 129 seats are up for grabs in Holyrood with post-covid economic recovery, social issues, and Scottish independence at stake.


To even attempt to achieve the latter by popular mandate, SNP-leader and incumbent First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would need to secure a clear majority on the 6th of May.


Currently, Scotland is governed by the SNP’s minority government, upon the party falling short of the majority by just 4 seats in 2016. Out of the 65 needed for the majority, the Scottish National Party only accounts for 61 MSPs. With that, however, they still hold the biggest fraction in the parliament.


The number of MSPs by parties as of now (based on the 2016 elections). Diagram made by the author.



The second place with 30 MSPs is currently held by the Scottish Conservatives, who overtook the Labour Party for the first time in 2016. From that, one can clearly see that the most important topic that has been characterising Scottish politics for almost a decade now is independence - the Scottish Conservatives (alongside the Liberal Democrats) are opposing a second independence referendum, whereas the SNP (and the Greens) are very much in support of it.


Conservative leader Douglas Ross did not specifically rule out the possibility of an anti-independence coalition against the SNP - who are clearly the favourites in this election too.


Labour said they will oppose Indyref2 "until at least 2026" because Scotland should focus on its post-covid recovery. However, they did not specifically rule out a second independence referendum for eternity. With that, they are taking the third approach yet again: attempting to shift the focus away from a constitutional issue (in 2019 from Brexit, now from independence) to social issues (in 2019 to the situation of the NHS, now to the recovery from the pandemic). Nonetheless, such a strategy resulted in Labour's historic loss in 2019, so one might wonder what outcome it will bring only two years later.


Taking sides on independence seems to be key in this election, but what else do parties promise to the electorate?

SNP ("Both votes SNP")

  • Putting Scotland’s recovery in Scotland’s hands

  • Increasing NHS wages and frontline spending

  • Doubling Scottish child payment, improving childcare system and free school meals

  • Green transport revolution, ScotRail in public hands

Conservatives ("End division, No referendum, Rebuild Scotland")

  • £2 billion extra investment in the NHS

  • £500 skills grant for everyone

  • Appointment of an independent school inspector, recruitment of 3000 more teachers

  • Opening more local train lines

  • Full fibre broadband rollout

Scottish Labour ("Both Votes Labour", "Ready for Change")

  • Putting national recovery in the collective focus, instead of a constitutional division

  • Creating 170.000 jobs in Scotland

  • NHS funding including getting cancer treatment back on track

  • Doubling child payments and ending child poverty

  • Green New Deal, Climate Justice Plan

Scottish Greens ("Our Common Future")

  • New, green ways of creating energy, reducing emissions by 75% by 2030

  • People working 4 days a week, support for trade unions

  • Creating a fairer income tax scheme including scrapping council tax

  • Integrating climate change in education curriculums, recruiting 5500 teachers

  • Green Infrastructure investment plan

Liberal Democrats ("Put Recovery First")

  • Supporting Long Covid and mental health with training more mental health specialists

  • 15% of new health spending will go to mental health

  • £5000 grant for students in counselling courses

  • Fair budgets for local councils and fair opportunities for disabled and ethnic people

  • Creating a programme helping children in “bouncing back” to primary education

  • Job guarantee for 16-24-year-olds including 2000 paid graduate internships


How does the voting system work in Scotland?

Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) are elected through the so-called ‘Additional Member System’. This means that out of the 129 representatives in total, 73 are elected in local constituencies and 56 are elected based on regional ballots.


Hence anyone who is aged 16 or over and a resident of Scotland will get two votes.


Photo courtesy of Elliot Stallion via Unsplash



First, the 73 MSPs from the local constituencies of Scotland are elected by the ‘First Past The Post’ system on the purple ballot paper, which is very similar to the UK General Election. People can vote for individual candidates standing in their constituency (where they are registered to vote). Whoever receives the most votes wins and becomes an MSP.


Second, in the regional peach-coloured ballot paper people vote for parties (party lists) and elect 56 MSPs in total from eight regions: Central Scotland, Glasgow, Highlands and Islands, Lothian, Mid Scotland and Fife, Northeast Scotland, South Scotland and West Scotland. Voters are eligible to vote for party lists in their own regions, each of which accounts for seven MSPs (8x7=56).


Based on the number of regional votes (and with the constituency votes of a particular region also taken into account through a mathematical formula) parties are then allocated a certain number of seats in each region. These seats are filled in by the candidates on the lists of each party in each region. This is to make the overall result more proportional and fair.


What do the opinion polls say?

The latest BallotBox figures (accumulating polling data from five different sources) project 64-66 seats for the SNP, 25-28 seats for the Conservatives, 21-23 seats for Labour, 7-9 seats for the Greens and 5-6 seats for the Liberal Democrats.


This would mean a slight increase for the pro-independence parties (SNP and the Scottish Greens) and a decrease for the Conservatives. The number of Liberal Democrats and Labour MSPs are likely to remain the same. Nevertheless, Gaudie hustings-guest Alex Salmond's newly established Alba Party with the aim of securing a "supermajority" for independence might turn the tables of the election.


Could Alba be the tiebraker?

Mr Salmond's party is understood to stand only on the regional lists. With that its main aim is to pick up regional pro-independence votes, which - according to them - "go to waste" otherwise because "the more success a party has on the constituency vote, the less well it does on the regional list vote".


Their significance depends on the voting results. Different polls predict a lot of different outcomes, including results ranging from 2% to 6%. With that, they are said to be having the potential of winning from zero to seven regional seats, and the latter outcome would greatly advance the cause of a second independence referendum.


"FM, Alex Salmond Address" by communitylandscotland is licensed under CC BY 2.0



Especially when a clear majority of the SNP is still - to some extent - doubted to happen. This might be due to the recent scandals surrounding the nationalists. A combined majority of several pro-independence parties, however, is more likely to occur.


With the margin to the majority being so narrow, the SNP will need to tailor their campaign to the needs of the local people in the individual constituencies to attempt to convince them to turn up and vote for their party, if they would like to see a second independence referendum.


This will bring an exciting battle in many constituencies, but especially in those won by either party with a very small gap in 2016. These "Scottish swing states" (term originating from the US presidential elections) are likely to be the constituencies deciding the final outcome and confirming or denying an SNP majority.


Which constituencies are these "Scottish swing states"?

In 2016 there were four constituencies where a candidate won by less than a 1000-vote margin. In all of these, the SNP came second with either Labour or the Conservatives winning. This article considers them as the so-called "Scottish swing states".


The smallest difference of all occurred in Dumbarton (Labour hold in 2016), where Labour-candidate Jackie Baillie won by only 109 votes with the SNP's Gail Robertson coming second. This time the re-running Ms Baillie will have to face a new challenger from the SNP: Toni Giugliano, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Manager for the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland.


Edinburgh Central (Conservative gain in 2016) has been a Conservative constituency, but only because of 610 votes. That was the difference between Ruth Davidson (Conservative) and Alison Dickie (SNP). On the 6th of May 2021 however - unless a third party can cause a major surprise - Edinburgh Central is going to be decided in between Scott Douglas (Conservative) and Angus Robertson (SNP).


A little bigger, but still a quite small margin of 750 votes was in the election results of Ayr (Conservative hold in 2016), where John Scott (Conservative) defeated Jennifer Dunn (SNP) in 2016. Mr Scott will have the opportunity to defend his position, but this time against Siobhian Brown from the SNP.


The fourth constituency that had a margin in between candidates smaller than a thousand votes is Aberdeenshire West (Conservative gain in 2016) with Alexander Burnett (Conservative) winning over Dennis Robertson (SNP) by 900 votes. Here Fergus Mutch (SNP) will challenge the incumbent Conservative MSP in 2021.


But of course it is the overall picture that matters.

In order to secure a majority, besides maintaining what they already have, the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon will either have to win all four of these constituencies or win fewer from them but balance that out with an improving result in the regional voting. The latter, however, seems to be harder with the emergence of former First Minister Alex Salmond's Alba Party.


Also, even though a majority is secured by the number of seats, a majority in the number of votes might still be missing. BallotBox Scotland polls the SNP in the first place with a large margin, but only with 40% on the regional polling and just under 50% on the constituency polling. What effect would an outcome like this bring to the SNP-Westminster debate on a second independence referendum remains unclear.


"Scottish First Minister Nicola #Sturgeon in cruise control" by Ninian Reid is licensed under CC BY 2.0



In second place, there are the Conservatives (21% on both the regional and the constituency polling) followed by Scottish Labour (17-18%). As for the remaining, the Liberal Democrats are polled stronger on the constituency polls (among others as a result of such traditionally strong Liberal Democrat constituencies as Orkney or Shetland), while the Scottish Greens, who did not win in any constituencies in 2016 are projected to be ahead of the Liberal Democrats on the regional polls.


Following the 6th of May, it will be seen to what extent these polls were right. An SNP with a clear majority will immediately start pushing for a second independence referendum. Nevertheless, if they do not have a majority by popular vote, or remain in a minority government that will need the help of another party, the question of independence will be much more complicated.


The article contains data obtained from the Scottish Government's website and/or BallotBox Scotland. The article - to some extent - also contains the views of the author which are not representing the opinions of The Gaudie, AUSA or the University of Aberdeen.

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