Political Parties

Note: Within each of the categories on this page, parties are listed alphabetically – there’s no hidden meaning to the ordering otherwise. Additionally, the “Political Position” for each party is based on that party’s self-declaration, not a subjective analysis on my part.

Holyrood Parties

There are five parties currently represented in the Scottish Parliament, and which could therefore be considered the five primary parties of Scotland.

Conservative and Unionist Party

Leader: Jackson Carlaw (Acting)
Political Position: Centre-Right
Constitutional Position: Pro-Union
2016 Scottish Parliament Result: 31 of 129
2017 Council Election Result: 276 of 1227
2017 General Election Result: 13 of 59
2019 European Election Result: 1 of 6

The Conservative and Unionist Party, usually referred to simply as the Conservatives, is one of the oldest parties in the UK, descending primarily from the Tory Party of the pre-democratic era. “Tory” remains a widely used term, both externally and internally, for members of the party. Its full formal title reflects its status as a merger of the (English and Welsh) Conservative Party and the (Scottish) Unionist Party in 1965. Just to muddy the waters, the Unionist Party traced its heritage to an offshoot of the Liberal Party.

As the Unionist Party they had substantial support across the country for most of the 20th Century. It may surprise modern voters to hear the Unionist Party garnered some of that support from being a specifically Scottish party in opposition to a centralising British Labour Party – the “Unionist” at that point referring to that between Ireland and Great Britain, not Scotland and England. They famously won (alongside the allied Liberal Unionists) just over half the vote in 1955 before entering a long period of decline that the 1965 merger did nothing to forestall, accelerating in the Thatcher era and culminating in a complete wipeout in 1997.

Although they opposed Devolution, proportional representation gave the party a lifeline, coming consistently third in Holyrood during a time the extent of their Westminster recovery was to keep winning a single seat. That all changed in 2016 when they nearly doubled their seats in the Scottish Parliament, surging into second place. They repeated that performance in both of the 2017 elections, electing 13 MPs at Westminster, their largest number since 1983.

Conservative support has tended to be strongest in rural Scotland, in Dumfries & Galloway and the Borders in the south, as well as an arc curving up from Perth & Kinross through Angus and Aberdeenshire into Moray. Support for the party in urban areas had largely ebbed away by the early 90’s, though it still showed notable strength in affluent areas like East Renfrewshire and parts of Edinburgh. Though the party’s recent resurgence has been felt almost everywhere, it is these more rural and affluent urban areas it shows the strongest.

Labour Party

Leader: Richard Leonard
Political Position: Centre-Left
Constitutional Position: Pro-Union
2016 Scottish Parliament Result: 24 of 129
2017 Council Election Result: 262 of 1227
2017 General Election Result: 7 of 59
2019 European Election Result: 0 of 6

The early days of the Labour Party in Scotland and the wider UK mirror the rest of Europe – a small party dedicated to working people’s issues formed in the late 19th century, making limited headway until universal suffrage in the early 20th century allowed the party to replace the Liberals and become a major political force, particularly in urban areas.

For the first half of the 20th century, Scotland adhered to the familiar see-saw between handing the most seats to a party of the centre-right (Unionists) in one election, then opting for a party of the centre-left (Labour) in another. From the late 50’s however, Labour became increasingly dominant in Scotland thanks to strong support in the urbanised Central Belt which makes up most of the country’s population. This was a major contribution to Scottish discomfort with the UK’s Conservative Government under Thatcher in the 80’s, and led to Labour becoming increasingly keen on and taking part in the Devolution process, finally committing to a Scottish Parliament (subject to a referendum) in their winning 1997 manifesto.

Proportional representation took the edge off Labour’s dominance in the newly founded parliament, but it nonetheless won a substantial lead in seats in both 1999 and 2003 which allowed it to lead the early governments (Executives), despite an initial revolving door of First Ministers following the tragic death of Donald Dewar. In 2007 the party suffered a shock – but extremely marginal – defeat by the SNP, and entered opposition. The 2010 UK election, where the party held all their seats, seemed to suggest they were on track to return to government at Holyrood, but in fact they lost further ground in 2011, and were almost wiped out at the next UK election in 2015 following the Independence Referendum. They slipped to a once-unimaginable third in both the 2016 and 2017 elections, leaving this once-dominant party a shell of its former self.

Labour support used to be seemingly overwhelming in the Central Belt, with the party registering unassailable majorities in urbanised areas like Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, Midlothian and parts of Ayrshire and Fife. They also tended to perform well in Dundee, Aberdeen and in parts of the Highlands. Although the party has been on a downward trend since roughly 2007, that pattern of support still largely holds true.

Liberal Democrats

Leader: Willie Rennie
Political Position: Centre
Constitutional Position: Pro-Union
2016 Scottish Parliament Result: 5 of 129
2017 Council Election Result: 67 of 1227
2017 General Election Result: 4 of 59
2019 European Election Result: 1 of 6

Alongside the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats are one of the UK’s ancient parties, having their roots in the Whig Party of the pre-democratic era. Also like the Conservatives, the modern party came about from a merger, in this case in 1988 of the Whig-descended Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party which had split from Labour in 1981.

As with the rest of the UK, the Liberals in Scotland did not weather the transition to democracy particularly well, quickly ceding their status as one of the two major parties to Labour. By the middle of the 20th century they held a mere half dozen seats across the UK as a whole, and just one in Scotland – their now long-standing bastion in Orkney and Shetland. A marginal bounce back in terms of seats was bolstered when the Social Democratic Party was founded, as the two parties quickly formed an electoral alliance. Although still underrepresented for their vote share, the Alliance increased their number of seats, and the merged party would go on to be the second strongest Scottish grouping in Westminster after the Conservative collapse in 1997.

Leading proponents of Devolution, the Lib Dems entered into coalition with the Labour Party to form the first two governments (Executives) in the new Scottish Parliament. Their conditions for joining those coalitions contributed to setting Scotland on a distinct political course, abolishing up-front Tuition Fees in their first term and implementing (semi) proportional representation for council elections in the second. After the 2007 Holyrood elections they did not return to government, but remained a significant voice in the chamber. However, after entering coalition with the Conservatives at UK level in 2010, they suffered catastrophic losses at Holyrood in 2011 when they fell to 5 seats and in Councils the next year, followed by losing all but one of their Westminster seats in 2015. By 2017 they regained some seats at Westminster, though without a corresponding increase in their vote share.

Lib Dem support is quite geographically scattered, in keeping with the party’s tendency to pick up seats in by-elections then build a base from there. In addition to their eternal stronghold in the Northern Isles, they have a long history of support in the Highlands which dates back more than a century. Parts of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire have also tended to be favourable to the party, and they have very strong pockets of support in the north east of Fife, western Edinburgh and East Dunbartonshire. Historically strong in the Borders, they seem to have been firmly supplanted there by the Conservatives.

Scottish Green Party

Co-Leaders: Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie
Political Position: Left/Green
Constitutional Position: Pro-Independence
2016 Scottish Parliament Result: 6 of 129
2017 Council Election Result: 19 of 1227
2017 General Election Result: 0 of 59
2019 European Election Result: 0 of 6

The Scottish Green Party is the youngest of Scotland’s main political parties, officially founded in 1990 following the amicable division of the UK Green Party into three independent parties. The UK Green Party traced its development back through the Ecology Party to the PEOPLE Party which was founded in 1972. It wouldn’t be until 1999 that the Greens would see their first election breakthrough, as the partly proportional voting system used for the newly founded Scottish Parliament saw the surprise election of Robin Harper in the Lothian region as the first Green parliamentarian elected anywhere in the UK.

In the 2003 election that led to the so-called “Rainbow Parliament”, the Greens were able to grow their vote share enough to win 7 MSPs across 6 Holyrood regions. However, in the 2007 election they dropped back to just 2 MSPs – though the introduction of another partly proportional system for council elections held on the same day saw the party elect its first councillor groups in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The 2011 elections once again saw the party win just two seats at Holyrood. In the campaign surrounding the Scottish Independence Referendum that followed that election, the Greens’ position as the only other party in Holyrood to support independence led to them being given more of a platform than at any other time in their history.

Following the referendum, the party saw its membership increase sixfold, and a more modest increase in support at subsequent elections. This was most prominent in the 2016 Scottish Parliament Election where the party won 6 MSPs, becoming the fourth largest party in the chamber, ahead of the Lib Dems, for the first time. This relative success at Holyrood has not been repeated for elections to the UK Parliament at Westminster, where the party has never elected an MP under the first past the post system. Although the party is present on just a handful of councils, following the 2017 elections the Greens hold a (shared) balance of power position in both Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, and in the capital and second largest city, Edinburgh.

Green support has typically been strongest in Edinburgh and Glasgow, though it also has pockets of relative strength in areas such as Stirling, Clackmannanshire, Midlothian, and the Highlands.

Scottish National Party (SNP)

Leader: Nicola Sturgeon
Political Position: Centre-Left
Constitutional Position: Pro-Independence
2016 Scottish Parliament Result: 63 of 129
2017 Council Election Result: 431 of 1227
2017 General Election Result: 35 of 59
2019 European Election Result: 3 of 6

The Scottish National Party – invariably referred to simply as the SNP these days – dates back to 1934, when two minor nationalist parties merged. Strange as it may seem to today’s eyes one of those parties, the Scottish Party, was a split from the Unionist Party.

Apart from a brief spell holding a seat in Motherwell after a by-election in 1945, the SNP were a minor party for the first few decades of their existence, with support for Independence a fringe view. Their breakthrough would come with victory in another by-election in 1967, when Winnie Ewing famously won Hamilton. Although she did not hold the seat at the next election, Ewing was the start of the SNP’s continuous representation at Westminster, as they doubled their vote to 10% and won the Western Isles. Further growth in both of the 1974 elections put the SNP in a very strong position, and led to a first Devolution referendum, which was defeated not for lack of majority support amongst Scottish voters, but for lack of a large enough majority. Angered by the failure of Devolution, the SNP contributed to the fall of the by-then minority Labour government in 1979, losing substantial support and sitting largely at the fringes for most of the Thatcher era.

The Conservative wipeout in 1997 allowed the SNP to become the third Scottish party at Westminster, whilst the successful implementation of Devolution at the second try led to them forming the primary opposition at Holyrood. This gave them a platform enough to end up leading a slender minority government in 2007 before going on – amidst universal shock, given the system of proportional representation – to lead a majority government in 2011. That government arranged for an Independence Referendum, which was lost on the narrower than expected margin of 45:55. Rather than damage the SNP, defeat saw them sweep to an astonishing 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in 2015. However, the party narrowly failed to hold their majority at Holyrood in 2016, remained relatively stagnant in the 2017 council elections, and lost ground and seats the following month in the snap UK election.

SNP support has historically been strongest in the North East of Scotland, particularly in Dundee, Angus, Moray and northern Aberdeenshire. Recent elections indicate that the party is experiencing a major shift in their voter base, with their strongest support now being found in the western Central Belt, especially Glasgow.

Other National Parties

There are a handful of other parties which have had some degree of success in Scotland in recent years, though none of them are currently represented at Westminster, Holyrood or in Councils.

The Brexit Party

Political Position: Right
Constitutional Position: Pro-Union
2019 European Election Result: 1 of 6

The Brexit Party is a notionally very new kid on the block, having formed in early 2019. They could however perhaps be considered primarily as UKIP with a fresh coat of paint, being led by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage and having picked up most of UKIP’s 2014 MEPs by the time of the 2019 EU Election, including Scottish then-MEP David Coburn.

As a brand new party, their only electoral test so far has been those 2019 EU Elections, in which they came a distant second and elected a single MEP. At the time of writing, they have not participated in any by-elections to Scottish Councils since that date, nor did they contest the Shetland by-election to the Scottish Parliament.

Scottish Socialist Party (SSP, see also RISE)

Political Position: Left
Constitutional Position: Pro-Independence

The Scottish Socialist Party is to a certain degree the tragicomedy of Scottish politics. Founded in 1998 as a coalition of various socialist groups in Scotland, it was headed by Tommy Sheridan. Sheridan had been involved in Militant Labour and rose to prominence for his role in the anti-Poll Tax movement, for which he was jailed – from where he was elected to Glasgow City Council in 1992! That profile led to Sheridan being elected as an SSP MSP for Glasgow in the first Holyrood election in 1999, viewed very much as a surprise MSP alongside the Greens’ Robin Harper.

The 2003 “Rainbow Parliament” saw the SSP win 6 seats at Holyrood, and look set to continue as an important player in Scottish Politics. The next year, Sheridan resigned as convener of the party, and in 2005 was the subject of allegations in the News of the World that he had visited a swinger’s club. Sheridan took the paper to court for defamation, igniting a dramatic period of infighting in the SSP as most leading members of the party refused to testify on his behalf, claiming he had admitted to such visits. The party eventually split, with Sheridan forming Solidarity, and the SSP continuing on for the rest of the term with 4 MSPs. They were now irreparably damaged however, and elected no MSPs in 2007 or 2011, though they did have a single councillor in West Dunbartonshire elected in 2007 and 2012 – albeit one with an entirely personal vote (see the West Dunbartonshire Community Party.)

They formed an official part of the Yes campaign for Independence in 2014, and claimed a substantial membership increase following the referendum. Another group of activists who had been central to the Radical Independence Campaign would go on to form a new left alliance called RISE for the 2016 Holyrood election, which the SSP elected to join up with. However, RISE failed to live up to its name winning just half a percent of the vote, therefore coming behind Sheridan’s Solidarity party. The SSP have since distanced themselves somewhat from RISE, and both remain on the political margins.

Solidarity

Political Position: Left
Constitutional Position: Pro-Independence

Solidarity is the party – some might say ego-vehicle – set up by Tommy Sheridan in 2006 following the dramatic split of the SSP over his libel action against News of the World. Of the 6 SSP MSPs elected in 2003, the only one to follow Sheridan was Rosemary Byrne, and neither of them were re-elected in 2007. However, the party did elect a councillor in Glasgow at the concurrent election, though she eventually defected to Labour.

They have been a marginal presence electorally since then. Prospects weren’t exactly boosted when Sheridan was convicted of perjury in 2010, having lied during his original defamation case. Despite attempts to capitalise on their support for Independence in the 2016 election, the party only effectively increased their share of the vote by 0.1% (having backed George Galloway and RESPECT’s run for the Glasgow region in 2011) to 0.6%. The party occasionally shows up in local elections under the “Hope Over Fear” banner that Sheridan has been using as an attempt to re-start his career, to little avail.

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

Political Position: Right
Constitutional Position: Pro-Union

Founded in 1991 with the aim of ending the UK’s membership of the European Union, the United Kingdom Independence Party – UKIP – have a very different story in Scotland to what I would be writing if this was a UK-wide or English website.

In the 00’s and early 10’s as UKIP experienced  steady growth in England, they amounted to almost nothing in Scotland, despite the use of proportional representation for Holyrood and Councils. The party only ever elected one person in one election in Scotland, winning an MEP in the 2014 European Election. Even then they came a distant fourth in an election they had the lead overall in the UK, winning just over 10% of the vote here versus the 27% UK-wide. Similarly they polled a mere 2% for the 2015 UK election in which they managed 13% UK-wide, a low figure they repeated the next year in Holyrood elections, whilst elections held at the same time for the Welsh Assembly saw them win 13% of the vote and a solid number of seats.

After Nigel Farage resigned as leader following the Leave side’s success in the 2016 EU Referendum, UKIP have effectively collapsed across the whole of the UK, experiencing a quite astounding succession of short-lived leaders, losing all of their MEPs, and most of their councillors. For Scotland though, that simply means the party lost the one representative they’d ever elected here, and their passing is barely noticeable.

Local Parties

There are a handful of local parties which currently hold seats on Scottish Councils, which it is worth briefly mentioning here.

Aberdeen Labour

Political Position: Centre-Left
2017 Aberdeen City Council Election Result: 0 of 45, currently 9 of 45

Strictly speaking not an actual party, Aberdeen Labour are included here to give a brief explanation of an odd situation. Following the 2017 elections in which the mainstream Labour party won 9 seats on Aberdeen City Council, they opted to enter a formal coalition with the Conservative Party. Although there are a handful of Labour administrations in other councils which are effectively reliant on tacit Conservative support, an official coalition was considered a step too far by the party’s leadership, and the councillors were suspended. The group have since been distinguished as Aberdeen Labour, and remain both in the coalition and in limbo – the suspension has neither been lifted nor progressed to an expulsion.

Orkney Manifesto Group

Political Position: Centre-Left
2017 Orkney Islands Council Election Result: 2 of 21

The Orkney Manifesto Group has its roots in a small group of Independent candidates who opted to contest the 2012 Council elections on a joint manifesto. They took issue with what they perceived to be the opaque politics and structures of a purely Independent council, whilst seeing value in a partisan affiliation that was specifically Orkney-flavoured rather than simply expect the national parties to step in. All three independents standing on that platform were elected.

The OMG then chose to register as a formal political party, with their first contest being the West Mainland election when OMG-aligned councillor Alistair Gorton passed away. The OMG’s Rachel King won that by-election on first preferences, and alongside another continuing OMG councillor (the third retired) was re-elected in 2017 as the first formal outing of the party at a full election.

The Rubbish Party

Political Position: Anti-Rubbish
2017 East Ayrshire Council Election Result: 1 of 32

The Rubbish Party is the one-woman vehicle of East Ayrshire councillor Sally Cogley with a particular focus – as the name implies – on littering and waste. The Rubbish Party garnered outsized attention in the 2017 Elections because UKIP’s collapse saw them reduced to a single councillor for that set of elections in England, putting the two parties on par in reporting of that election’s results.

West Dunbartonshire Community Party

Political Position: Left
2017 West Dunbartonshire Council Election Result: 1 of 22

The West Dunbartonshire Community Party was formed ahead of the 2017 elections by SSP Councillor for the Leven ward Jim Bollan and Independent Councillor for Dumbarton George Black. Only Bollan was re-elected in 2017, though it’s worth noting that Bollan carries an extremely strong personal vote which has gone with him through the Labour party, as an Independent, the SSP, and now the WDCP. The Leven Ward (which covers the area I grew up in, much to my political nerd delight) is part of the Vale of Leven area which, especially around Renton, has a long history of radical left politics, with some even claiming the old district council to be the only place in the UK where Communists ever held the most seats.