Despite all the talk about the SNP’s path to shutting down the majority, the makeup of Holyrood’s misfits will offer Sturgeon huge encouragement in the upcoming Scottish Parliament election.
Since Alex Salmond’s surprise entry into Scotland’s 2021 elections, there has been a lot of talk about how the nature of the Scottish electoral system – namely ‘regional seats’ – might deny the SNP a majority.
There are 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, of which 73 – around 57% – are elected by first-party constituency voting, the same system used for every seat in UK parliamentary elections.
However, the first past the post system does not always allocate seats fairly, especially for small parties, so UKIP won 4 million votes in the 2015 general election, but only obtained one. only seat. Thus, with Scotland’s additional membership system, the remaining 43% of seats – “regional” or “list” seats – are allocated through a compensatory system based on the share of votes in a particular regional area.
In the 2016 election, this compensatory system was the downfall of the SNP. The Party won 42% of the regional vote, but due to its success in the constituencies, it won only 7% of the regional seats – four in total. This, combined with Alex Salmond’s party inevitably gnawing at the SNP’s regional vote share this year, means Nicola Sturgeon cannot afford to rely on regional seats for a majority like she did in 2011.
But there is another path to a majority for Sturgeon – one that would represent an unprecedented feat in British electoral history. The SNP could win 65 of the 73 constituency seats available: an outright majority obtained through constituency seats alone.
The system is just not designed to do such a thing; a constituency-only majority would force the SNP to win 89% of the available one-round majority seats. This has never been done in British decentralized elections, and rarely in recent European history using a comparable voting system – the last time in Albania in 2001.
And yet remarkably, it is a possibility in this election.
The SNP won 59 constituency seats in 2016, so to reach the 65 for a majority mark the party needs a net gain of six. As simple as it sounds, this is a big request with no margin for error. The SNP did not even come close to it during its historic victory in 2011.
So how is this election different?
The state of play in the most marginal constituencies of Holyrood offers some indications. As shown in the charts below, only one of Scotland’s 10 most marginal constituencies is currently owned by the SNP. It is therefore the Conservative and Labor Party that sits on the most vulnerable electoral assets.
If only six of those marginal seats turn yellow, then the SNP will be in a strong position for a constituency-only majority.
What seats can the SNP win?
Politically, the last election in Holyrood took place in a different political era. This election took place two prime ministers ago and before the 2016 Brexit referendum.
So, to get an idea of how the SNP might behave in these marginal seats in 2021, it helps to look at how the same regions voted in the following 2017 and 2019 general elections. This is not an exact science, as the constituencies of Westminster and Holyrood are worded slightly differently, but they still show some significant patterns.
Since the last Scottish election, the SNP has won in five equivalent constituencies in the UK parliament, which it failed to win in the last Holyrood election in 2016:
Labor-owned Dumbarton, a strong pro-independence zone, and Tory-owned Edinburgh Central, where popular Ruth Davidson is retiring, both appear winnable targets for the SNP this year. The party is also hoping to secure Eastwood, Ayr and East Lothian, all of whom returned yellow in the 2019 general election.
However, even if the SNP won all five and retained all of its current seats, it would still lack a constituency-only majority.
The most difficult task for the SNP will be to return the extra seat it needs. It would be the one they haven’t won in any of the previous three elections in Holyrood and Westminster:
Edinburgh Southern and Dumfriesshire would seem less likely targets for the SNP, but keep your eyes peeled for results in Aberdeenshire West and Edinburgh Western, both won by the SNP in 2011. Voting in these seats has fluctuated a lot over the past decade. , and if either go yellow this year, it will be a troubling omen for SNP rivals.
With a potential electoral improvement for the SNP now over the 2016 result, the SNP winning the six additional seats it needs, looks more than possible. But that’s only half the job.
Can the SNP keep all of its seats?
Although nine of Scotland’s ten most marginal constituencies are held by opponents of the SNP, the party will still have to own all the constituencies it won in 2016.
Two danger zones for the SNP are Moray and Caithness and Sutherland & Ross; although no majority was particularly slim in 2016, the SNP performed poorly in both areas in more recent general elections.
Nonetheless, there is good news for the SNP in both cases. Tory leader Douglas Ross, who claimed responsibility for the SNP’s scalps in the previous two Westminster elections to Moray, will not contest the seat this time around. Meanwhile, the challenge to Caithness, Sutherland and Ross comes from the Liberal Democrats – whose current riding average is almost two points lower than their 2016 result.
The SNP has clear reasons to be optimistic about the constituency vote this year. Their current vote in their constituency is 4% higher than their actual result in the last election. To win an outright majority in Holyrood on the basis of constituencies alone, 4,628 votes are enough to change out of six marginal seats.
Although the SNP ballot has fluctuated in recent months during the Salmond inquiry, the party still has a real chance to make British electoral history by winning a majority without the need for a single list seat. If they did, they would send a signal to Westminster that Boris Johnson might find more difficult to ignore.