Sturgeon versus Davidson: 5 outcomes for the 2021 Scottish elections

Scotland Flag

It’s 2021, and Scotland is going back to the polls, but how will the country vote after fourteen years of SNP-rule?

In 2007, the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition lost its majority, and the SNP, led by Alex Salmond, emerged as the country’s largest party. Salmond became first minister and formed a minority government, one which grew into a majority administration four years later. In 2016, Scotland went back to the polls and returned the SNP to power, albeit just short of a majority and with a new opposition led by the Scottish ConservativesRuth Davidson.

MSPs are elected via the proportional Additional Members System, and are currently allocated as follows:

  • SNP – 63
  • Conservatives – 31
  • Labour – 23
  • Greens 6
  • Liberal Democrats – 5
  • Presiding officer – 1 (formerly a Labour MSP)

1. SNP plurality (pro-independence majority)

It’s hard to imagine the SNP losing power at the next election. Under this scenario, the SNP would emerge as the largest party and the Greens would get enough seats to ensure SNP-rule continues and that the parliament keeps its pro-independence majority, which has been in place since 2011. Such a scenario would likely lead to a second independence referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon

2. SNP plurality (pro-unionist majority)

Under this scenario, the SNP and the Greens combined would fail to win 65 seats. If they came close to that magic number then SNP-rule would likely continue, however, the smaller their combined total the more likely the chance of opposition parties challenging the SNP hegemony. Could an alternative government emerge?

3. Small Conservative plurality

After June’s election victories, the wind is certainly in Ruth Davidson’s sails. One possible option is that the Conservatives could emerge as the country’s largest party. This seems difficult to imagine, but a year and a half ago it seemed unlikely that the Tories would become Scotland’s second largest party – something they managed to achieve last May. The question then would be: what next? The SNP would not dare support a Conservative minority administration, and if Richard Leonard (the bookies' favourite) wins this month’s Scottish Labour leadership contest against Anas Sarwar, then that would all but guarantee no support from Scottish Labour. The party has been accused of siding with the Conservatives before, a criticism that saw them lose all but one seat in the 2015 UK elections, so they will not be making that mistake again. Labour’s best option would be to support, or reluctantly prop up, an SNP administration and push it to the left on key issues.

Ruth Davidson MSP

4. Large Conservative plurality

Under this scenario, the Scottish Tories would make significant gains at the expense of the SNP. If the party won over 50 seats, then the Conservatives could convince the opposition parties to give them a chance in government. But even then, Labour would be reluctant to support to the Tories, and it would be out of the question for the SNP, who would no doubt try and form an opposition deal with Labour to stay in power. The only hope for the Conservatives would be from the Liberal Democrats, but after the UK-wide coalition that resulted in near annihilation for the party, would they be willing to help out the Conservatives?

5. Labour plurality

At this stage, it seems very unlikely, but Labour could emerge as the largest Scottish party in 2021. Their seven wins in June has given them a much-needed confidence boost, and likely new leader Richard Leonard could be the inspirational leader the party needs. The clear split between the SNP and the Tories on the union and most policy issues plays to Labour’s advantage. The chance for a change in rule in Scotland would tempt the Tories to not to vote against Richard Leonard for first minister. The SNP could put forward an alternative first minister candidate, but a newly emboldened Scottish Labour could win over support from the Greens to support a more radical government.