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Anas Sarwar (2021 – )
MSP for Glasgow (2016 – )
MP for Glasgow Central (2010 – 2015)
Jackie Baillie (2020 -)
MSP for Dumbarton (1999 – )
Having established themselves as Scotland’s dominant party by the 60’s, Labour were clear favourites to win the first ever Holyrood election in 1999. They did so comfortably, winning a large majority of the Constituency seats, though Proportional Representation would necessitate forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Modest losses followed in 2003 but the overall coalition majority was maintained.
Although Labour didn’t shed a huge number of votes or seats in 2007, the SNP had gained enough support to narrowly push them into second place and into opposition. The new SNP minority government only had a one seat lead, and with Labour performing strongly in the 2010 UK General Election many in the party assumed 2007 was a blip and 2011 would be a return to form.
Instead the SNP swept to a majority government, and in the process deprived Labour of 22 sitting constituency MSPs, some very senior figures such as Finance Spokesperson Andy Kerr amongst them. This was a consequence of Labour operating a policy of not allowing “dual candidacy” on the Constituency and List ballots for sitting MSPs – a policy that would be highlighted by the New Zealand Electoral Commission as an example not to follow in reviewing their own (similar) electoral system in 2012.
As in 2007, defeat in 2011 had more to do with the SNP’s upwards trajectory than a massive loss of support for Labour. That would change in the aftermath of the 2014 Independence Referendum, when the party was nearly wiped out at Westminster in 2015. At Holyrood in 2016 the party dropped below 20% on the list vote and suffered a net loss of a further 12 constituencies to leave them with just 3. Even worse for them, they were overtaken by the Conservatives for the first time in Scotland since the 50’s to end up in third place.
(2021 Polling Average figure is as of 1st of April.)
2016 Vote Distribution
What might happen this time?
For a long while there the rosiest thing about Scottish Labour was their logo. Polling was in the doldrums and leader Richard Leonard seemed to be struggling to make any headway, with Labour recording its worst ever results in both of the 2019 elections. By June 2020 the party was polling at around 14%, and manoeuvrings to replace Leonard were rumbling on without much success.
Despite this there was a modest recovery in the polls, with the average on the BBS tracker peaking at 18% on the 13th of January this year. On the 14th of January, Richard Leonard resigned as leader, finally pitching the party into a leadership contest with just months to go until May’s elections. Anas Sarwar was elected as the new leader by the end of February in a remarkably swift contest by Labour standards, with hopes of mounting a return to second place rather than outright victory.
A month from the election their polling average sits at 17%, over 4% behind the Conservatives, so the scale of the challenge facing Sarwar is clear. If that was repeated on the day it’d be yet another record low for a party that has never increased its seat share at a Holyrood election. However, that average disguises a couple of recent polls which put them at least equal to their 2016 result, raising the prospect of at least stabilising if not reversing the decline.
Note that in the regional vote charts, “Seat 7” indicates the minimum “safe” vote share to win the final seat in 2016. This safe value can be different for each party, as the assumption being made is that their vote changes but everyone else’s stays the same. It’ll also be different in 2021. This isn’t a predictable measure, but instead something we can only pinpoint after the fact.
This seat, which coincidentally includes my hometown, ended up the most marginal in the country at the 2016 election. Current Deputy Leader Jackie Baillie has held it since 1999, with an extremely slender majority of 109 votes last time. That doesn’t necessarily make it an easy SNP gain, however, as Baillie has weathered both the SNP surge of 2011 and Labour collapse of 2016. Expect her to put up one hell of a fight to hold this once again.
East Lothian (Constituency)
Back in 2011, then-leader Iain Gray had a stressful count night here, coming out just 151 votes clear of the SNP candidate after a recount. Despite the substantial decline for Labour nationally in 2016, that gap actually widened to 1127. That’s still a relatively narrow margin, however, Gray is not re-contesting the seat he has held since 2007, and the SNP regained the Westminster equivalent in 2019.
Edinburgh Southern (Constituency)
In an election where Labour’s remaining constituencies were falling like dominoes to the SNP, Edinburgh Southern stood out starkly as a Labour gain. In 2011 the SNP’s Jim Eadie had narrowly won it in a tight three-way contest with the incumbent Lib Dems and Labour both within 5%. In 2016 wholesale Lib Dem collapse here saw 19% of the vote up for grabs, and Labour taking enough of it to come out on top. Again, however, this isn’t a huge margin, with just 1123 votes in it.
Despite the name of the constituency, it isn’t entirely comparable with the UK Parliament’s Edinburgh South constituency. Beyond the massive personal and tactical vote for Ian Murray in that seat, the boundaries don’t entirely align. Nonetheless, if there was a seat anywhere in Scotland that Labour could hold against a national tide this election, especially buoyed by the usual FPTP tactical voting, this would be it.
Highlands and Islands (Region)
At every election since 1999, Labour have won multiple MSPs in each of the eight Holyrood regions. Their recent polling suggests that they may be at risk of dropping to just one MSP in the Highlands and Islands. This region has a double-whammy of the lowest Labour vote in 2016 and the fewest MSPs overall, which slightly bumps up the vote required to win a seat.
It’s not that Labour don’t have strength here – historically speaking, they’ve always been reasonably strong around Inverness, in the Western Isles, and perhaps surprisingly, in Caithness and Sutherland. That support has always been lower than elsewhere, however, as H&I has consistently been one of Scotland’s most politically diverse areas.
Starting with 4 MSPs overall in 1999, they dropped to 3 in 2003, and further eroded to 2 in 2011. In 2016, the Conservatives were only about 1,100 votes shy of nabbing the last seat in the region from them and leaving Labour with that solo MSP.
North East Scotland (Region)
This is the other region at risk of dropping to a single Labour MSP, despite containing Scotland’s third and fourth largest cities. Compared to H&I they do have an advantage here in having won more votes in 2016 and this region having the most MSPs overall and thus the lowest vote share required to win seats. If the Greens do well enough to gain a seat and/or if the Conservatives lose Aberdeenshire West to the SNP, a more competitive list contest could combine with even a 1-2% loss of vote share to deliver that single seat outcome.
Though Glasgow remains an area of comparative strength for Labour, it’s also an emblem of how far they have fallen. In the 1999 election, when the region consisted of 10 constituencies, Labour won them all handily. By 2016, the SNP were the party with a clean sweep of the 9 constituency seats now making up the region, leaving Labour with just 4 regional list MSPs.
Whether Labour retain all of those seats in this election will depend not only on their own performance, but that of the Conservatives and Greens. Though the chart above makes it look like they’ve got a comfortable margin to play with, if both the Greens and Conservatives were on roughly 11%, which is perfectly likely on current polling, Labour’s “safe” vote share to keep their fourth seat becomes just over 22%.
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