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A critical election for the future of Scotland

By Mark Glover
17 September 2020

On 6 May next year, Scotland will go to the polls to elect MSPs to serve in the Holyrood Parliament. After twelve years of rule by the SNP in the Scottish Parliament the normal rules of politics suggest you would expect to see a confident Opposition looking to make gains. Yet each of the three pro-Union parties, who provide the opposition to the SNP, are facing their own problems, meaning they struggle to make the SNP’s record in Government the issue.  

Looking at the Conservatives, currently the second largest party in Holyrood, they have rather effectively just changed their leader but are now represented by Douglas Ross MP a member of the Westminster Parliament. The Scottish Conservatives are also suffering from the performance of Boris Johnson and his Cabinet and the aggressive nature of the London press who challenge every political decision. With the decline in Boris’s polling numbers there is also a decline in the electoral performance of the Scottish Conservatives. Whilst they will aim to become the main pro-Union Party in the Scottish Elections, the line of also being the Pro-Brexit Party may be difficult to navigate. Ross is also no Ruth Davidson and it is yet to demonstrate his ability to impact the polls. 

The election of Keir Starmer has given Labour a little bit of a fillip north of the Border, but Scottish Labour remains a bastion of Corbynism led by low-key Corbyn-supporter, Richard Leonard.  In spite of a recent YouGov polls showing that 53% of the Scottish population have no opinion on him after 3 years of office, a recent attempt by the moderates within Scottish Labour to oust Leonard fared poorly as it failed to secure the support of Scotland’s unions. Expect to see a more left-wing line up of MSP candidates in the regional lists from where Labour would expect to see most of the MSPs elected. These lists have yet to be selected meaning the likelihood is that Leonard’s Office will have a big say in their appointment, which may be bad news for those who recently resigned and those of a more moderate political disposition. Failure to see Scottish Labour progress will be very damaging for UK Leader Keir Starmer in what will be the first significant electoral test of his leadership. He may try to blame Scottish Labour but now risks being stuck with a Scottish Parliament full of MSPs who will owe their allegiance to Leonard and not Starmer.   

The Lib Dems will continue to campaign. They at least have stability in their Scottish Leadership under the likeable Willie Rennie. However, Sir Ed Davey is yet to set the world alight and it will be difficult to increase the Lib Dem vote outside of existing Lib Dem strongholds, especially without a strong platform to stand on. 

So what about the SNP? You have to admire Nicola. She is a strong communicator and her daily Coronavirus briefing is reported extensively by the Scottish press and is a very strong direct contact for the SNP with the electorate. Indeed their mistakes over examinations were quickly forgotten once exams became a UK wide issue and most Scots seem to think that they are doing better than the rest of the UK, when the statistics may not necessarily reflect that viewpoint. The SNP will make the election about Independence and the perceived incompetence of the Conservatives in Westminster. It is a strong message, which glosses over the SNP’s record in Government which is not beyond criticism, and has the aim of seeing the SNP secure over 50% of the national vote and over 50% of the number of MSPs. If this is achieved then it will become more difficult for the UK government to argue against allowing Scotland another Referendum.  

In conclusion, unless the Unionists parties can make the elections about Scotland’s underfunded local government, its weak economy, Scottish health failures or educational achievement then expect the election to focus on ‘identity politics’, in which case there will be a real danger that the result will be a major step towards Scotland leaving the Union.