Keep tabs on all the latest polling, articles and information ahead of the 2021 Scottish Parliament election in the Ballot Box Scotland Holyrood Hub!
Patrick Harvie (2008 – )
MSP for Glasgow (2003 – )
Lorna Slater (2019 -)
Not currently elected, #2 candidate for Lothian
Whereas the other four parties at Holyrood are “big beasts” that have been around Scottish politics for many decades, the Scottish Green Party in its current form was born in 1990, the same year I was. That was when the then-UK Green Party split amicably into the SGP, GPNI and GPEW. Though they didn’t have any elected representation, a Green did take part in the Constitutional Convention that led to the Scottish Parliament. Many would have expected that to be the extent of their involvement in Holyrood.
At the very first elections in 1999 however, Robin Harper won a surprise victory in the Lothian region to become the first elected Green parliamentarian anywhere in the UK, shortly before Caroline Lucas and Jean Lambert of GPEW became MEPs. Sure, AMS was meant to be proportional, but only amongst the cosy four parties that had long held seats at Westminster – certainly not upstarts like the Greens or the Scottish Socialist Party!
With a foot in the door, 2003’s famous “Rainbow Parliament” saw seven Green MSPs elected across Scotland. Circumstances at the time and pushing a “Second Vote Green” campaign seemed to have worked in their favour, but it wasn’t to last. In 2007 most of those Greens disappeared, leaving the party with just two seats – though that left them in a much better position than the SSP, who were wiped out following a brutal split.
Despite those losses, the tight arithmetic of the minority SNP government made the Greens worth courting for budget votes. The party even nearly brought the budget down in 2009 before an “everyone but the Greens” approved budget passed at the last minute. In 2011 the party remained on those two seats, and an SNP majority made them less relevant in the chamber. They were nonetheless able to garner significant time in the spotlight thanks to the Independence referendum, as the only other Holyrood party to back Independence, providing TV producers and newspaper editors across Scotland with some diversity of voice during the campaign.
Following the referendum, the Greens experienced a similar (albeit smaller) membership surge to the SNP, jumping from 1,500 to 9,000 members. An influx of cash, attention and activists helped bring them close to matching their 2003 performance by netting 6 MSPs, including the youngest MSP yet elected, Ross Greer.
(2021 Polling Average figure is as of 1st of April.)
Note: the Greens didn’t contest any Constituency seats in 1999, 2003 or 2011. They contested 1 in 2007, and 3 in 2016, out of 73 total.
2016 Vote Distribution
What might happen this time?
Based on their 2016 vote spread, the Greens could win big or face crushing disappointment based on just a 2% variance in result. At 7% they would typically be expected to hold all 6 of their current seats. Drop down to 6% and they could be left with just a trio of MSPs. But go up to 8% and they’d be in line for 9, or even 10 on a good day. Their polling a month out from the election was just shy of 9%, which if it was repeated on the day would put them on the success side of that spread.
However, in previous elections the Greens have tended to underperform against their polling, which could be for a number of reasons. One option is that the two-vote nature of AMS is hard to capture entirely accurately in polling. Another is that since Green voters tend to be younger and younger voters have lower turnout polls aren’t quite capturing that. And it could be a degree of squeeze on the day itself as people default to larger parties. It’s important not to just assume the same thing will happen again, but that tendency shouldn’t be forgotten either.
Effectively, this time we’re watching both to see what the final result is, and whether polling was right. Growing their seats and keeping their fourth placing would re-emphasise the party’s status as real contenders that are here to stay. If they go backwards and return to the role of smallest party in the chamber, expect a more difficult future.
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.
Nowhere is the fine line between Green success and defeat more evident than Lothian, where last time the Greens managed to dodge a quadruple threat. Had they won just 556 (0.2%) votes fewer, Labour would have clinched the 7th Lothian seat ahead of the second Green candidate. That’s the first threat. The other three came from Constituencies, as the SNP’s overall proportional entitlement in this region was 6 seats, and they won 6 constituencies.
Had any of the non-SNP constituencies stayed yellow, they’d have produced an overhang that would have knocked the second Green out of final list seat they proportionally deserved, with the Conservatives (Central), Labour (Southern) or Lib Dems (Western) taking it instead. The SNP have spent the past 5 years being very cross about the perception the Greens cost them the win in Edinburgh Central, but it’s rather unlikely the latter are going to apologise for winning their fair share of seats rather than losing out on one so the SNP could have more than theirs.
West Scotland (Region)
West has a similar issue with overhang, where the SNP won exactly their proportional share of seats via constituencies. The one Labour seat, Dumbarton, ended up as the most marginal in the country and had the SNP taken it, Labour would have made up the loss on the list and bumped the Greens out. The same would have been true for the Conservatives had the SNP won Eastwood instead of them.
The list vote situation here was much comfier than in Lothian though based on the votes as they were, coming 2,126 votes ahead of the safe minimum to prevent the SNP from taking the 7th list seat.
Mid Scotland & Fife (Region)
And finally for currently held seats, Mid Scotland & Fife was similarly shaky in 2016, not least because this was the one region where the SNP did have an overhang, costing Labour a seat they should fairly have won. Had the Greens won about 735 (0.25%) votes fewer, they’d have been the victims of the SNP overhang rather than Labour. In addition, if the Lib Dems hadn’t won North East Fife, the overhang would have been even worse, and cost the Greens their seat too.
South Scotland (Region)
South was one of the regions the Greens missed out on last time, by a relatively small margin of 2,020 (0.64%) behind what was necessary to knock the Conservatives out of the last seat. The general trend of recent polling has suggested this one would move into their column, but an SNP performance strong enough to take multiple constituencies from the Conservatives and Labour in this region risks an overhang that’d raise the bar.
North East Scotland (Region)
Another relatively near-miss, by a margin of 2,047 (0.67%) from displacing the Conservatives. Again, recent polling may be in their favour here, but the SNP re-taking Aberdeenshire West does have a (relatively mild) risk of inducing an overhang that’d raise the threshold somewhat. Success here may depend on how much the party can leverage support in Aberdeen and Dundee.
Central Scotland (Region)
In the third and final non-MSP region for the Greens, the story is very similar. The absolute number of votes behind the Conservatives for seat 7 here is lower than elsewhere, at 1,813, but the vote share (0.67%) is marginally the highest given turnout. The SNP already have every constituency here so there’s not much of an overhang risk, and the Greens would just have to hope for maintained strong national polling to help raise their share here across the line.
Glasgow Kelvin (Constituency)
The Greens haven’t yet won a constituency at any election – indeed, as noted above, they’ve barely contested any due to the nature of the voting system. However, they delivered a shock to Labour in 2016 by pushing them into third in the Glasgow Kelvin seat.
They’ll be hoping to win a constituency this time around. There are similarities here to Brighton Pavilion in 2005, which the Green Party of England and Wales went on to win in 2010. However, strong SNP polling nationally and a likely dearth of student votes due to the pandemic may make this more of a challenge to convert.
It’s not just Kelvin that the Greens are eying up in Glasgow. They saw a respectable increase of 3.5% of the list vote in this region last time, and further gains could put them in a position to grab a second list seat – either from the Conservatives or from a weakened Labour party. Compared to the Lothian region, there’s less chance of SNP overhang because they are much stronger here, which on some projections actually makes Glasgow a more comfortable bet at a second Green seat than Lothian.
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