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Scottish Parliamentary Elections: A Breakdown

Updated: Dec 23, 2020


On the 6th of May 2021 Scots will head to the polls once more to vote in the 6th ever election to the Scottish Parliament. This election comes at a crucial time as calls for a second independence referendum have grown because of Brexit and the handling of Covid-19.


There are 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs). The election uses an additional member system (AMS) to elect its MSPs. This system means voters have two votes. The first vote is used to elect the constituency MSP. Scotland is split up into 73 constituencies and each constituency elects one MSP to represent them. These MSPs are elected by ‘first past the post’ in exactly the same way as Members of Parliament in the U.K general election are. The second vote is used to elect 56 additional members. Scotland is divided into 8 regional constituencies and each constituency has 7 regional MSPs. Here people vote for a party in their region and then seats are allocated to make the overall result more proportional.




Figure 1: Constituency and regional results by political party


The last election in 2016 was particularly important as it was the first election in Scotland since the country had voted to remain a part of the UK. The independence-seeking Scottish National Party (SNP) didn’t see much of a shift in their support, however they were unable to retain their majority in the Scottish Parliament. The largest shift in Scotland’s political landscape came with the rise of the Scottish Conservatives making them the second-largest party for the first time since the parliament’s creation in 1999. This marked a worrying trend for Scottish Labour as they had begun to lose their base in Scotland.


Not only was this a politically significant election, but it was also a momentous election for youth participation. The 2016 election was the first time 16 and 17-year olds were able to vote in a Scottish parliamentary election. This along with increased political participation in the general election and independence referendum made this the highest turnout in a Scottish parliamentary election since 1999, with an extra 290,000 Scots casting their ballots. Turnout in the constituency vote, at 55.6% was higher than at the last Scottish Parliament election (50.4%), but lower than the Scottish turnout in the UK General Election of a year ago (71.1%). Turnout in the regional vote was slightly higher than in the constituency vote (55.8%). On the constituency vote, turnout varied by region in Scotland, from 47.2% in Glasgow to 59.7% in West Scotland.


Now once again Scots are heading to the polls this has given the country a chance to pick a path for Scotland for the next five years. With calls for a second independence referendum intensified by differing responses to Covid-19 and the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, this up-and-coming election is set to be just as, if not more significant for Scottish politics.



Figure 2: Holyrood voting intention


Indications from current polls show an advance of where the 2016 election left off. The SNPs look likely to strengthen their position as both YouGov and Ipsos Mori have seen support for the SNP reach more than double the next closest party. The Labour party are not showing signs of a resurgence in Scotland and look unlikely to challenge the Conservatives for second place. The Liberal Democrats and the Green Party may be able to capitalise on the proportional system and strengthen their standings in Scotland.


It is important to remember that these are polls, and the future of Scotland is yet to be decided. Though participation has been at a record high, over 40% of scots consistently don’t vote in their parliamentary election. Empowering these votes and the votes of the young will allow them to have a voice in Scotland’s future. If you live in Scotland and are over the age of 16 this could be your chance to have your say in who sets Scottish agenda in the next five years.


Sam Ward (Policy and News Analysis Associate)


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