Sturgeon versus Davidson: 5 outcomes for the 2021 Scottish elections

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.

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.

4. Large Conservative plurality

The rise of the SNP in 2007, their majority win in 2011, and their victories in 2015 and 2016 tell us that Scotland has a very different party system. The main centre of political gravity north of the border is in Holyrood not Westminster. When one thinks of Scottish politics, one thinks of Edinburgh not London, at least at first.

One counter-argument to this is that the 2017 election saw the return of the Scottish Conservatives and the surprise resurrection of Scottish Labour. While Labour’s return north of the border can probably be put down to Jeremy Corbyn’s radical programme, the rise of the Scottish Tories was not an endorsement of Theresa May’s vision - it was a vote for the union and a vote for the charismatic Ruth Davidson, who has perfectly cultivated her brand, and created a narrative that she can save the union. 2017 saw signs of a return to “British politics” in Scotland on the face of it, but voters were arguably voting for different things when they put their crosses next to Tory candidates.

Next take UKIP, who were at the end of the day a flash in the pan. However, they only really succeeded in England – winning 14.1% of the vote – while in Scotland they struggled to make an impact. Numerous reasons contributed to UKIP’s lack of success in Scotland – which I have outlined