Ten things to watch for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election

Ten things to watch for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election

On May 6th, Scots will go the polls in the sixth Scottish Parliament election since devolution.

Against a backdrop of the global pandemic and a dramatic year in Scottish year politics, the spotlight is on a Holyrood election that will have monumental implications for the future of the UK.

Gregor Smith writes Portland’s ten things to watch for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election.

1) An SNP majority and a mandate for an independence referendum

The key question in this election is whether the SNP can secure a clear mandate from the people of Scotland to hold an independence referendum.

Consistent opinion polling has shown the SNP on course for a majority. A majority for the SNP, which they secured in 2011, would be the clearest mandate for a referendum. This is the prize the SNP have in their sights – and they would seek to present it as a public mandate to intensify pressure on the Prime Minister to agree to a referendum.

It’s not the only route supporters of independence have to demonstrating public demand for a referendum in this election – a pro-independence majority could be established with the support of the Scottish Greens and Alex Salmond’s Alba Party.

But the driving mission of the opposition parties will be to deprive the SNP of a majority – and anything less will be presented as a hammer blow to the independence cause.

The Prime Minister, of course, has insisted that he will reject any proposals for a referendum – whatever the result.

2) Alex Salmond and the Alba Party

Never one to shy from the political limelight, Alex Salmond has announced his return to frontline politics with the creation of the pro-independence Alba Party.

Already bolstered by a handful of high-profile defections from the SNP, they will stand in the regional lists in the hope of playing their part in delivering a “supermajority” for independence.

The key question is whether Salmond’s Alba Party will help – or hinder – the effort to establish a pro-independence majority in the Parliament.

Whether Alba gains seats will depend to a large extent on the former First Minister’s ability to leverage his considerable political talents to cut-through in the national campaign.
But this is not the same Alex Salmond that took the SNP to a majority in 2011. Recent events that have brought to light his conduct as First Minister have led to his popularity with the Scottish electorate plummeting lower than that of Boris Johnson.

The spectre of Alex Salmond has changed the tone of the campaign. For the first time during a Scottish Parliament election, the independence movement looks divided, with the Salmond v Sturgeon storyline set to be a significant undercurrent to the campaign.

3) The pandemic election

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, campaigning will be very different from previous elections.

We won’t see large manifesto launches, public gatherings, and the usual trappings. The campaign will largely be fought online and on the airwaves, so expect to see candidates on your newsfeed rather than doorstep.

This cannot be underestimated as a variable in the campaign.

For the Parties with a strong ground game this may be cause for concern. And those that struggle to command air time will struggle in the polls. Parties are tooling up their digital abilities with some urgency and an air war doesn’t come cheap, so we may expect some squeezing of minor parties.

On the other hand, given the several high-profile campaign faux pas in recent elections, some may breathe a sigh of relief.

4) The fight for second place

In this election – which is all about the constitution – who comes second has equally huge implications.

Opinion polling suggests the Conservatives’ grip on the official opposition is slipping. This will be first major test for new Leader Douglas Ross, who will be wanting to set a marker and stake his claim as leader of the main opposition and defender of the Union.

But he faces a stiff challenge from a rejuvenated Scottish Labour Party under new Leader Anas Sarwar. Taking the reigns of the Scottish Labour party in February, Sarwar hasn’t had much time to get his feet under the table.

As a former MP and now MSP, Sarwar is a canny political operator and this election is the start of a two-election cycle strategy to return Scottish Labour to official opposition – and then government.

Despite being almost certain to win a seat through the Glasgow regional list, Sarwar also pitted himself directly against the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in her Glasgow Southside seat in what is a clever move to place him centre of the campaign.

Should Labour supplant the Conservatives in second place, there are interesting implications for the how the Unionist cause is articulated in the months and years ahead. Do Labour steal the Conservatives’ clothes as the Party of Unionism and staunch opposition to an independence referendum? Or do they rediscover their devolutionist roots and offer a ‘third way’ between status quo and independence?

5) A bold policy agenda

Beyond the constitution, economic recovery, health and the climate will take centre stage as policy issues.

The SNP have now been in Government in Scotland for 14 years and they are defending a record on public services that has not been without its problems.

Voters will be assessing who is best placed to address the challenges of the future and who has the best policies to deliver economic recovery for Scotland from the pandemic.

We can expect bold retail policy offers from the main parties.

The SNP are keen to demonstrate that after over a decade in government, they still have bold ideas and a vision for Scotland. Scottish Labour have staked their campaign on a ‘National Recovery Plan’. And in the year that COP26 comes to Glasgow, the Scottish Greens will find greater resonance for their policy agenda.

The manifestos – expected from early April – will reveal pretty bold policy agendas from the main political parties.

6) Trust in leadership

For all the clamour over who has the boldest policy agenda for Scotland, it may be that there is little to separate the parties’ plans for economic recovery.

What will matter more is who the people of Scotland trust to deliver.

An unprecedented year in Scottish politics has left the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s public approval ratings surprisingly unscathed. And with new and untested leaders for Scottish Labour and the Conservatives, expect the SNP to leverage the theme of leadership heavily.

7) Changing of the guard – old and new faces

Across all parties, a large number of long-serving MSPs took the decision to not seek re-election.

Ruth Davidson is off to the House of Lords. Scottish Conservative big hitter Adam Tomkins is stepping back. And SNP veterans Roseanna Cunningham, Bruce Crawford and Stewart Stevenson are all looking forward to retirement.

Their departure leaves the space for an unprecedented number of new faces and a passing of the baton to a new generation of Scottish politicians.

But we can expect the return of some familiar faces to Holyrood, too.

Angus Robertson, former leader of the SNP at Westminster, will be hoping to win Ruth Davidson’s old seat, Edinburgh Central. If the return of Alex Salmond wasn’t enough political nostalgia, George Galloway is also seeking election through the South Scotland region list as part of his pro-union All For Unity Party.

8) Don’t expect a quick result

Disappointingly for those that enjoy an election all-nighter, due to COVID-19 restrictions results will be counted the following morning, with the final result not anticipated until the weekend.

Not quite as long a wait as seen in last year’s US Presidential election but expect a healthy dose of expectation management and hopefully some extra days with Professor John Curtice on our TV screens.

9) Wasted vote watch

Scotland’s Additional Member System provides some of the smaller parties a chance at securing a handful of seats. 2016’s election handed the Scottish Greens the position of kingmaker and securing the independence majority, a position that they’ll be hoping to replicate and build upon.

Prepare for many of the smaller parties calling for regional votes and the larger parties warning of complacency. Campaigners and number crunchers will look closely at tactical voting in the hope of denying the SNP seats on regional lists.

10) The constitutional battle is only just beginning

And of course, dominating every discussion will be the big constitutional question.

An aggregate of polling over the last 12 months suggests that support for independence is now the majority view in Scotland. But public opinion is volatile and it is a soft lead.

An SNP majority or pro-independence majority will put wind in the sails of those seeking a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future. For Unionists, stopping the SNP is priority number 1.

Whatever happens, don’t expect the campaigning to finish when the votes are counted. The election far from settles the question of whether a referendum will happen. In fact, it is only just the beginning of the constitutional battle.

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