SP21 Party Profile – Scottish National Party

Keep tabs on all the latest polling, articles and information ahead of the 2021 Scottish Parliament election in the Ballot Box Scotland Holyrood Hub!



Nicola Sturgeon (2014 – )
MSP for Glasgow Southside (2007 – )
(Previously Govan, 2007-2011)
MSP for Glasgow (1999-2007)

Depute Leader

Keith Brown (2018 -)
MSP for Clackmannanshire & Dunblane (2007 -)
(Previously Ochil, 2007-2011)

Holyrood History

If Independence Day is what the SNP have been dreaming of for their whole existence, Devolution Day would have been a close second. The establishment of the modern Scottish Parliament in 1999 was seen by the party as a key stepping stone to achieving their dream. That it used PR also gave them a big credibility boost, allowing them to become the leading opposition party. Although they’d placed second in vote share at a few UK Parliament elections before this point, FPTP had never translated that into coming second in seats. Despite this success, then-leader Alex Salmond resigned from the role a year into Holyrood’s first session.

They maintained their overall ranking in Holyrood at the second election in 2003, but were the biggest losers in the Rainbow Parliament era, dropping 8 seats. A poor result that year and in the 2004 European elections ended the leadership of John Swinney, and despite initial refusal to stand, Salmond was returned to the leadership.

In 2007, the party was able to squeak the narrowest victory possible over Labour, at 47 seats vs the latter’s 46. An extremely delicately balanced period of minority government followed, with the SNP carefully steering their policies through parliament by variously appealing to the Greens, Lib Dems, Conservatives, and occasionally even Labour. This was expected for much of the period to be nothing more than a blip, and that government would return to Labour in 2011.

Instead, the SNP won an outright majority. No one was more stunned by this than the SNP themselves. As the voting system is proportional, this kind of outcome wasn’t meant to happen – emphasis on “because the system is proportional”! That majority then ensured a referendum on Independence took place in 2014, which (as I’m sure readers recall) ended in defeat for the Yes campaign. Salmond resigned from the leadership, replaced by Nicola Sturgeon, and for a brief moment some thought this would be what broke the party…

And again, those expectations proved wrong. In the 2015 UK election they won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, in what the late former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy dubbed in his concession speech “the Night of the Long Sgian Dubhs.” The stage was set for a repeat majority in 2016 – but this time, it was the SNP falling short of expectations, as they came two short of that majority, in large part due to resurgent Conservatives and a steep loss of votes traditional heartlands in Perthshire, the North East and Highlands.

(2021 Polling Average figure is as of 1st of April.)

2016 Vote Distribution

What might happen this time?

The SNP are simultaneously the easiest and most difficult party to answer this question for. On the easy side, the SNP are all but certain to be the largest party at Holyrood, and to place a country mile ahead of their closest competitors. The difficult bit is saying whether they’ll win a majority or continue as a minority government.

One month from the election, the seat projection on the basis of the polling average has the SNP estimated at 66 seats, one more than the number needed for a majority (caveats firmly in mind). That’s down from 72 at the start of the year. Over the period, their list vote polling has dropped by just over 3% to 42%, and their constituency by almost 5% to 49%. Of the most recent polls, some have said a majority, some have said they’ll fall just short, and one even suggested they might lose seats.

It also remains to be seen what effect the Alba Party, launched by former leader Alex Salmond, will have. Though First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is far more popular than her successor, he’s a genuinely big name that is vastly more likely to draw voters away from the SNP than any of the other fringe, hardline pro-Independence parties were. 

The stated aim of Alba is to bolster the ranks of pro-Independence MSPs alongside an expected SNP majority won on constituency seats alone. But if the SNP’s downward trend in the constituency vote continues, they may fail to win such a majority, and shedding list votes will be potentially damaging. And that’s saying nothing of the (un)likelihood of the party wishing to make common cause with Alba to form a government, should they win any seats as a result.

Key Seats

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.

Whereas for the other parties I’d pulled out the individual chart for each key constituency, here I’m just piling them into some joint charts. As the largest party in the country, the SNP is in the position both to gain or lose the largest number of constituencies of any party. Starting on Friday we’ll be looking at those in much more detail via the Ballot Box Battlegrounds series, so rather than repeat myself and have a massively long post, it’s easier to do it this way.

Prospective Gains from Conservatives

Of the 7 seats the Conservatives won in 2016, 6 of them are prospective marginals that the SNP could pick up. Of these, I’d be inclined to suggest that Edinburgh Central will be easiest for them to take. That’s not just because it’s the 2nd most marginal seat in the country, but also due to former Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson not standing again. It will however be one of the messiest contests in the country.

I’d also be inclined to say that Ayr and the Galloway seat are more likely to tip the SNP’s way than Dumfriesshire, Eastwood or Aberdeenshire West. That’s just gut feel, and also that those have the highest SNP vote shares to start with of any of these seats.

Prospective Losses to Conservatives

These are all seats, some held for the entirety of Holyrood’s existence, that based purely on current polling and projection, the SNP should hold. However, we all know that national figures disguise much greater variation at local level. The Conservatives have done extremely well in these areas over the past few years, and strong local results could flip them.

Prospective Gains from Labour

The handful of constituencies Labour won in 2016 are all amongst the most marginal in the country – the first, fifth and sixth most marginal. Given Labour’s recent polling has tended to be lower than their result then and the SNP’s has been higher, the SNP’s chances would appear pretty good here.

But remember, elections can be funny things. In Dumbarton, Jackie Baillie has twice previously proven immovable in the face of national swings that could have swamped her. Edinburgh Southern was a surprise gain for Labour. And though their East Lothian MP of 14 years, Iain Gray, is standing down, his replacement is the 2017-2019 MP for the UK seat. Don’t assume any of these are guaranteed to be SNP gains.

Other Key Constituencies

That leaves a smattering of constituencies where they are facing off against the Lib Dems, and even one where their challengers are the Greens. Edinburgh Western and North East Fife are the constituencies the Lib Dems retook in 2016. They also currently hold the Westminster equivalents, and despite what simple modelling from national polling may say, they’ve probably dug themselves back in here and will prove hard to shift. Caithness, Sutherland and Ross is an SNP held seat that the Lib Dems will be trying to flip, having taken the Westminster equivalent in 2017 and narrowly held it in 2019.

Glasgow Kelvin is a unique case where they are defending against the Greens. In a more normal election with lots of students in the constituency and an energetic campaign, they’d probably be feeling the heat here, especially with their incumbent MSP standing down. However, COVID having prevented most campaigning for months may make this one more comfortably SNP than otherwise.

South Scotland (Region)

South was one of just two regions that the SNP picked up list seats in 2016, with the constituency dominance they achieved elsewhere not matched here. Indeed, South was the only region they didn’t win a majority of constituencies, winning instead four of the nine. On a day where the Conservatives hold some of constituencies here, the SNP would be in the running for list seats, and could lose out.

Although they look reasonably comfortable here on 2016 results, if they traded just 2671 of their votes (0.85% overall) to the Greens that would have been sufficient to both see a Green elected instead, and to place behind the Conservatives in the competition for the last seat in the region. 

Highlands and Islands (Region)

Highlands and Islands is the other region the SNP won a list seat in – and just one, as they had most of the constituencies here but lost 7.8% of their list vote. Again, that seat isn’t the most secure in the world, as if they’d had just 3388 (1.6%) fewer votes in 2016, the Conservatives would have taken it instead. Alternatively, had the Conservatives themselves picked up 1936 (0.9%) more votes that’d have put them over the line. 

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