The results of the May 6 elections will determine whether Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party can secure a majority (65 seats) in favour of a second Scottish independence referendum.
Unlike the Welsh Senedd, the makeup of the Scottish Parliament has changed dramatically since its creation in 1999. The SNP have gone from 35 seats in the first Holyrood election to 69 at their best result in 2011, and are currently just short of a majority government at 61 seats. Scottish Labour, meanwhile, have seen their seats more than halve over the past two decades, while the Scottish Conservatives have made steady gains and became the official opposition in 2016.
The independence-supporting Scottish Greens won six seats in 2016 and have given their support to the SNP on budget bills and constitutional matters, and they are predicted to double their seats this year. The Scottish Liberal Democrats’ future looks uncertain, as national polling has them underperforming their 2016 vote percentage.
Unlike the rest of the UK, Scotland employs the additional member system (AMS). In this system, voters across Scotland elect 73 constituency MSPs, and the candidate with the most votes in each seat wins, in line with how seats are won in Westminster. However, Scottish voters also get to cast an additional ballot in which they vote for a party. These votes are then counted in eight regions, and seven seats are allocated in each region to top up the constituency totals in order to make the regional totals more representative of the party vote share.
Because of this, parties that win a lot of constituency seats (SNP) tend not to win as many additional regional seats, as the regional lists aim to make the overall result better reflect the national vote. In the 2016 elections, 59 of the SNP’s 63 seats were constituency seats, while 52 of the 66 opposition MSPs from the main political parties were elected via regional lists.
Will this change this year? Well, one high-profile figure is aiming to use the system to advance the cause of Scottish independence: former SNP First Minister Alex Salmond. Salmond’s recently-formed Alba Party may, on the face of it, look as if it might split the independence vote. However, Alba are not challenging the SNP in constituencies and are hoping to boost the cause for independence in the regional lists, creating a so-called ‘super-majority’ for independence. Although with Alba polling bellow the Scottish Greens, it is unclear how successful this strategy will be and whether it will have any sizeable impact.
Constituencies to Watch
We’ve rounded up the 15 constituencies and three key regions which will help decide the outcome of the election and potentially Scotland’s future as part of the UK.
The SNP draw most of their vote from Scotland’s Central belt, encompassing Edinburgh in the East, towns like Linlithgow, Falkirk and Stirling in the middle, across to Glasgow in the West. This is where 70% of the Scottish electorate are also located. Meanwhile the Scottish Conservatives gain most of their vote in the wealthier Scottish borders and in the north-east. The Liberal Democrats have consistently returned candidates from the Orkneys and Shetland Isles, while Scottish Labour typically relies on working class areas in Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh for support.
1. Aberdeen South and North Kincardine (Maureen Watt, SNP, retiring)
2016 result: 2,755 majority, 42.1% vote share
The SNP’s retiring incumbent Maureen Watt has held this old Lib Dem stronghold at the last two elections. However, the party could face a substantial challenge from the Conservative Liam Kerr this time around, hoping to capitalise on a lack of name recognition for Watt’s replacement candidate Audrey Nicholl.
2. Aberdeenshire West (Alexander Burnett, Scottish Conservatives)
2016 result: 900 majority, 38.1% vote share
The Tories gained Aberdeenshire West from the SNP with a 2.6% majority in 2016, and the nationalists are desperate to win it back. With the North East of Scotland being a shootout between the Tories and the SNP, this contest will be a bellwether for the election as a whole. Fergus Mutch runs for the SNP.
3. Cowdenbeath (Annabelle Ewing, SNP)
2016 result: 3,041 majority, 46.1% vote share
Formerly a solid Labour seat, the old mining town has never been particularly productive for the Tories. It’s likely to be a two-horse race between SNP incumbent Annabelle Ewing, who sits on a majority of around 3,000, and the constituency’s former Labour MSP Alex Rowley.
4. Dumbarton (Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour deputy leader)
2016 result: 109 majority, 40.2% vote share
Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie has been the MSP for Dumbarton since 1999, though the 4,758 majority she won then was slashed to just 109 at the 2016 election, making this an eminently winnable seat for the SNP’s Toni Guigliano. However, the pro-Union parties and wavering Tory voters could vote tactically to keep this out of the SNP’s hands.
5. Dumfriesshire (Oliver Mundell, Scottish Conservatives)
2016 result: 1,230 majority, 37.3% vote share
Historically a safe Labour seat, Oliver Mundell’s Dumfriesshire is a key target for the SNP as polls suggest young voters look set to back independence and regeneration of the neglected market town of Dumfries at the constituency’s heart. Joan McAlpine runs for the SNP.
6. Eastwood (Jackson Carlaw, former Scottish Conservative leader)
2016 result: 1,611 majority, 35.7% vote share
Eastwood is one of Holyrood’s closest three-way marginals. With former Tory leader Jackson Carlaw holding a slim majority of 1,611, the seat could feasibly be lost to the SNP’s Colm Merrick or Labour’s Katie Pragnell.
7. Edinburgh Central (Ruth Davidson, former Scottish Conservative leader, retiring)
2016 result: 610 majority, 30.4% vote share
A complicated constituency with a razor-thin Tory majority, having been a Labour-Lib Dem marginal up until 2011. The race features candidates from all major parties, including former depute leader of the SNP Angus Robertson. Scott Douglas is running to retain the seat for the Conservatives as former party leader Ruth Davidson retires.
8. Edinburgh Pentlands (Gordon MacDonald, SNP)
2016 result: 2,500 majority, 39.5% vote share
As with many constituencies, Pentlands is originally a Labour seat at Holyrood but the party have long since trailed the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives. Watch out for an increased vote share here for Tory candidate Gordon Lindhurst as an indicator of their electoral strength in other areas of the country.
9. Edinburgh Southern (Daniel Johnson, Scottish Labour)
2016 result: 1,123 majority, 35.5% vote share
The SNP are hoping their candidate Catriona MacDonald can flip this diverse seat, which is home to many EU and international voters, as well as a sizeable chunk of young people who study in the city and list climate change and independence as top concerns.
10. Edinburgh Western (Alex Cole-Hamilton, Scottish Lib Dems)
2016 result: 2,690 majority, 41.9% vote share
A seat many believe could secure a pro-independence majority for the SNP. It would be a tough seat for them to take, but with the Liberal Democrats polling poorly nationally, combined with incumbent Alex Cole-Hamilton’s fairly slim majority, the SNP’s 29-year-old candidate Sarah Masson could pull off one of the results of the election.
11. Glasgow Southside (Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader & First Minister)
2016 result: 9,593 majority, 61.4% vote share
While it is all but guaranteed that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will retain her seat, this one will be of interest as it pits two party leaders against one another, with Labour’s newly-elected leader Anas Sarwar challenging Sturgeon. A strong showing for Sarwar could point towards a diminished night for Sturgeon and the SNP.
12. North East Fife (Willie Rennie, Scottish Lib Dems leader)
2016 result: 3,465 majority, 43.8% vote share
Even when things go poorly for the Liberal Democrats, North East Fife can typically be relied upon to return a liberal MSP. However, the once solidly-orange seat is back on the SNP’s radar, and despite a decent majority being held by party leader Willie Rennie, the SNP have campaigned strongly here behind Rhuaraid Fleming.
13. Perthshire North (John Swinney, SNP, Deputy First Minister)
2016: 3,336 majority, 48.6% vote share
The Deputy First Minister isn’t seen as seriously being at risk of losing his 3,336 majority. However, after surviving a vote of no confidence in March over the government’s controversial decision not to publish legal advice on sexual assault allegations against Alex Salmond, it will interesting to see whether his electorate take the same dim view of his actions as his counterparts in Holyrood. Former Scottish Conservative deputy leader Murdo Fraser is the Tory challenger.
14. Perthshire South & Kinross-shire (Roseanna Cunningham, SNP, retiring)
2016 result: 1,422 majority, 42.4% vote share
An SNP seat with a majority of 4% and a retiring incumbent make the constituency a key target for the Tories and their candidate Liz Smith. The Westminster equivalent has switched between the SNP and Conservatives at the last three elections, including two years where the MP was Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, now an Alba Party candidate on the regional list. Jim Fairlie is running to hold the seat for the SNP.
15. Shetland Islands (Beatrice Wishart, Scottish Lib Dems)
2016 result: 1,837 majority, 47.9% vote share
Shetland was a toughly-contested seat at the 2019 by-election, with the SNP enjoying a sizeable 14.9% swing following an expensive campaign which saw them spend nearly £100,000 – more money than they spent on the entire EU referendum. Despite the Liberal Democrats holding on, the SNP’s Tom Willis believes the 1,837 majority is far from insurmountable just two years down the line.
Glasgow Regional List
The regional list election in Scotland’s largest city could well play a crucial role in determining the outcome of the election with several parties in contention to gain seats.
If Labour’s hopes of a resurgence under new leader Anas Sarwar are to be recognised, they will need maintain the four seats they won in 2016 and hope that the ever-present Scottish Greens underperform. How well the Greens do in the constituency vote in Glasgow Kelvin could be an indicator of their broader Glaswegian appeal. The Scottish Conservatives garner support from the city’s Unionist supporters and will expect to return at least two MSPs. Alex Salmond will also be hoping the predominantly ‘yes’ voting city will allow Alba to sneak an MSP.
Lothian Regional list
The SNP doesn’t hold any Lothian list seats because it has six out of the area’s nine constituencies and, unless there is a surprise upset, it’s unlikely they will take any seats through the AMS.
With the Liberal Democrats typically performing poorly in regional lists, that leaves it as a three-way contest between the Conservatives, Labour and Greens. Due to the complex nature of the regional and constituency method in Scotland, if the Conservatives fail to hold Edinburgh Central, which Ruth Davidson narrowly won in 2016, but the regional vote stays the same, they could qualify for a fourth regional list MSP.
Another indicator as to the fate of the Alba Party will be the electoral performance of former SNP justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, arguably Alba’s second biggest name.
North East Regional List
The election in the Conservative-dominated North East list will draw considerable interest because of the candidacy of former SNP First Minister Alex Salmond, who is running under the banner of his newly formed Alba Party. A recent Survation survey, however found that only 3% of Scottish voters will back Alba at the ballot box nationally, a figure which polling expert Professor John Curtice says would be 2% below the requisite number to realistically win a seat in Holyrood through the regional list system.
The SNP holds nine out of 10 North East constituency seats and lost its only regional MSP at the last election. However, if it does manage one this year, newcomer Fatima Joji tops the party’s list and would become Scotland’s first-ever Black MSP and first female BAME MSP if elected.