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. All five of these parties have been present in the Scottish Parliament since Devolution in 1999, and all currently have Councillors. Four of these parties also have seats in the UK Parliament, the only exception being the Scottish Green Party.

Conservative and Unionist Party

Leader: Douglas Ross
Political Position: Centre-Right
Constitutional Position: Pro-Union
Party Colour: Blue
2019 European Election Result: 1 of 6
2019 General Election Result: 6 of 59
2021 Scottish Parliament Result: 31 of 129
2022 Local Election Result: 214 of 1226

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, most notably by electing 13 MPs at Westminster, their largest number since 1983. At the next snap UK Election in 2019, they lost most of those seats to the SNP, though with 6 still to their name they remained the second party overall.

At the 2021 Scottish Parliament Election, the Conservatives held almost entirely steady, returning the same number of MSPs as they had previously. A small shuffling in the distribution of their seats took place, as they suffered a decrease in support in Edinburgh but made gains in the Highlands. However, bruised by the ongoing issue of the UK Government’s lockdown parties, they slid back into third place at the 2022 Local Elections, with notable losses including wipeout in West Dunbartonshire and the loss of three-quarters of their seats in Glasgow. That was nonetheless their second best performance in decades.

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

NewSlabLogo

Leader: Anas Sarwar
Political Position: Centre-Left
Constitutional Position: Pro-Union
Party Colour: Red
2019 European Election Result: 0 of 6
2019 General Election Result: 1 of 59
2021 Scottish Parliament Result: 22 of 129
2022 Local Election Result: 282 of 1226

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, reduced to a single seat. They slipped to a once-unimaginable third in both the 2016 and 2017 elections, although they bumped up to 7 seats at Westminster, leaving this once-dominant party a shell of its former self. In the 2019 snap election, they were once again reduced to a single MP, meaning they came fourth in terms of seats.

The party’s woes continued into the 2021 election, keeping to their trend of losing seats at every successive Holyrood vote. However, the ship appeared to have steadied somewhat, as a net loss of just two seats was their smallest drop between elections. Benefitting from a poor period for the Conservatives, they went onto a moderate recovery in the 2022 council vote, with a net gain of seats and votes across the country, and a shock majority win in West Dunbartonshire.

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

Scottish Lib Dems Logo

Leader: Vacant
Political Position: Centre
Constitutional Position: Pro-Union
Party Colour: Orange
2019 European Election Result: 1 of 6
2019 General Election Result: 4 of 59
2021 Scottish Parliament Result: 4 of 129
2022 Local Election Result: 87 of 1226

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. At the following UK election in 2019, Labour’s collapse allowed the Lib Dems to become the third largest Scottish party at Westminster with their 4 seats and a reasonable bump in vote share, but the party were badly bruised by the loss of their leader Jo Swinson’s seat.

That increased in support dissipated again incredibly quickly, and the 2021 election for the Scottish Parliament became their worst yet. Although the party held all four of their constituency seats, most of them with stonking majorities, they lost their final remaining list seat in the North East. Not only did that leave them with their smallest MSP group ever, but that group is now so small it doesn’t qualify for full party status in Parliament, substantially reducing their influence and role in the day-to-day proceedings at Holyrood. They turned things around for the 2022 local elections, gaining councillors for the first time in the STV era, with particularly remarkable performances in Edinburgh, Fife and Highland councils.

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
Party Colour: Green
2019 European Election Result: 0 of 6
2019 General Election Result: 0 of 59
2021 Scottish Parliament Result: 8 of 129
2022 Local Election Result: 35 of 1226

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. They repeated this performance in 2021, when in an election that was rather quiet overall, they recorded the largest vote and seat share increase of any party. Though their best result yet they fell narrowly short, by just over 100 votes in the South Scotland region, of securing representation in every region for the first time. Shortly afterwards, they entered into a “Cooperation Agreement” with the SNP, resulting in the first Green government ministers in the UK’s history.

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. Though less proportional than the Holyrood voting system, STV for local elections opened the door a crack for the Greens, starting with 8 councillors (in 2 councils) in 2007, growing to 14 (in 5) in 2012, then 19 (in 6) in 2017. The party experienced a substantial breakthrough in 2022, exceeding expectations to elect 35 councillors across 13 councils.

Green support has typically been strongest in Edinburgh and Glasgow, then developed pockets has pockets of relative strength in areas such as Stirling, Midlothian and the Highlands. This was followed in 2022 by strong growth in areas such as Clackmannanshire, East Lothian and the Borders.

Scottish National Party (SNP)

SNP Logo

Leader: Nicola Sturgeon
Political Position: Centre-Left
Constitutional Position: Pro-Independence
Party Colour: Yellow
2019 European Election Result: 3 of 6
2019 General Election Result: 48 of 59
2021 Scottish Parliament Result: 64 of 129
2022 Local Election Result: 453 of 1226

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 at the next regular election. 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. When a second snap came around at the end of 2019, the party regained most of the seats it had lost in 2017, winning a still whopping 48 in total.

They remained clearly dominant in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election despite a seemingly serious split leading to the foundation of the Alba Party, winning yet more constituencies, and gaining a seat versus their previous performance. That still left them one short of an overall majority, but secured their position as the governing party for another term. Although they continued to fail to live up to parliamentary performance, the 2022 local elections saw the strongest SNP share of both votes and seats yet.

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 have won any seats at the most recent Westminster, Holyrood or Council elections.

Alba

Alba Logo

Leader: Alex Salmond
Political Position: Indeterminate
Constitutional Position: Pro-Independence
Party Colour: Dark Blue

Alba are a new party led by former SNP leader and First Minister Alex Salmond. Some time after Salmond lost his Westminster seat in the 2017 election, he, the Scottish Government, and the wider SNP found themselves embroiled in a series of court cases relating to allegations of sexual misconduct during his time in office. Though acquitted, the relationship between Salmond and his former party, and his former Deputy and successor as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, became extremely bitter.

With just weeks to go until the 2021 Holyrood election, Salmond announced the shock launch of Alba as a party focussed on Independence, arguing that the SNP weren’t putting enough urgency on the matter. Nonetheless, the party recommended voting for the SNP on the constituency ballot, whilst tactically voting for Alba to deliver an ill-defined “Independence Supermajority” and minimise the number of pro-Union MSPs elected. The party very quickly picked up two disaffected SNP MPs in the form of Neale Hanvey and Kenny MacAskill, as well as a dozen or so councillors who had been elected under the SNP banner.

Despite the headlines surrounding them, polling mostly suggested this new party would struggle to make headway, averaging at around 3% support. Their performance on the day fell short of even that. Winning just 1.7% of the vote left them far from a seat in any region. Although many expected that Salmond himself might be able to count on substantially more support in his traditional North East stomping grounds, even there the party only achieved 2.3%. 

Their next hope after this inauspicious first outing were the 2022 local elections, which they entered with a number of defecting councillors standing for re-election under their new banner. None of those candidates were elected, with support for Alba barely registering even in some of those wards. Their strongest result came in a Glasgow ward without a sitting councillor, and was followed a week later by the candidate leaving to join the SNP. The prospect of becoming Salmond’s version of Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity looks increasingly likely.

Reform UK

Scottish Leader: Michelle Ballantyne
Political Position: Right
Constitutional Position: Pro-Union
Party Colour: Turquoise
2019 European Election Result: 1 of 6

Reform UK are the re-branded Brexit Party, who opted for a change of name in January 2021 after the UK ended the transitional period of exiting the EU. It’s still notionally a 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 tests so far have been those 2019 EU Elections, in which they came a distant second and elected a single MEP, and the 2019 UK Election where they barely registered. 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.

In January 2021, former Conservative MSP Michelle Ballantyne was announced as the leader of Reform UK Scotland. She had left her previous party in November of 2020, citing dissatisfaction with its direction. That gave Reform UK their first parliamentarian, but the party faded into obscurity in the 2021 election, winning just 0.21% of the vote.

Scottish Socialist Party (SSP, RISE)

Political Position: Left
Constitutional Position: Pro-Independence
Party Colour: Dark Red

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. In 2021, the SSP announced that for the first time, they would not be contesting that year’s Scottish Parliament Election, whilst the 2022 local elections saw the fewest SSP candidacies yet.

Solidarity

Solidarity Logo

Political Position: Left
Constitutional Position: Pro-Independence
Party Colour: Even Darker Red

Solidarity was 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 showed up in local elections following the Independence referendum under the “Hope Over Fear” banner that Sheridan had been using as an attempt to re-start his career, to little avail. The party initially intended on contesting the 2021 Scottish Parliament election as part of the Alliance for Independence group, but that stood aside for the Alba Party. They’ve since formally dissolved as a party, bringing to a final end a rather unedifying chapter of Scottish politics.

UK Independence Party (UKIP)

Political Position: Right
Constitutional Position: Pro-Union
Party Colour: Purple

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

In addition to these national parties, small local parties are not unknown. At the moment, there are a few such parties represented in councils across Scotland.

British Unionist Party

BUP Logo

Political Position: Mixed
Constitutional Position: Pro-Union
Party Colour: Dark Blue
2022 North Lanarkshire Council Election Result:1 of 77

Although not strictly a local party, this seems to be where the BUP best fit. This is an odd outfit, founded in the aftermath of the 2014 Independence Referendum, as a heavily devolution-sceptical pro-Union party. They contested a number of wards in 2017 under the banner of “No Referendum Pro Union Maintain Brexit”, and managed a notably strong 11% in North Lanarkshire’s Fortissat ward. That ward elected a Conservative who had clearly never intended to win and refused to take up his seat. At the resulting by-election the BUP delivered a thumping result to place second, ahead of the SNP, with 23% of the vote.

Seemingly set to pick the seat up in 2022 if only they kept up a local presence, they had a very shiny website for a while. However that disappeared, they failed to contest a 2021 by-election in Fortissat, and their leader appeared to have moved onto another hardline pro-Union wheeze in the form of the “Abolish the Scottish Parliament Party”, which barely registered at the 2021 Holyrood vote. Whether they are fans of BBS and had seen my utter bemusement at complete lack of strategy or by chance, they got their act together and stood a candidate in the ward in 2022. Their only candidate nationwide, he was duly elected.

The Rubbish Party

The Rubbish Party Logo

Political Position: Anti-Rubbish
2022 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 year’s local election results. Cogley was quite comfortably re-elected in 2022.

West Dunbartonshire Community Party

WDCP Logo

Political Position: Left
2022 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. It successfully carried him to victory in 2022 as well, though for the first time since STV was introduced Bollan failed to win on first preferences alone.

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. Some even claiming the old district council to be the only place in the UK where Communists ever held the most seats. I’ve never had the time to verify that statement, given how hard it is to collate data from such old elections.