A primer for the Scottish Elections.

Lucky people in Scotland and Wales are heading to the polls next month to elect their devolved parliaments. We would be heading to the polls too had our Executive not collapsed in 2017, so we get that treat next year. However, I thought it would be useful to set out some of the things to look out for and keep in mind when watching the campaign and election results.


Voters will elect 129 members to the Scottish Parliament, but unlike Northern Ireland 16 and 17 year olds are eligible to vote.

What system do they use?

Additional member system (AMS)- A similar system is used in New Zealand to elect their parliament. In a nutshell voters get two votes, one to elect a constituency representative and another to vote for a party on the regional list.

73 MSPs are elected on a constituency basis-This is based on first past the post; quite simply the candidate who gets the most votes wins the seat.

56 MSPs are elected on a regional list. However, on this one people vote for a party, then each party receives a share of the seats according to the share of the vote that they receive. Although there are some caveats to this 

How does the second vote work?

After all the constituency votes are counted, additional MSPs are allocated to each of eight Scottish parliamentary regions to make the overall result fairer to all parties.

For example, in 2016 the Conservative Party were given two additional (or list) MSPs in the North East Scotland region as they failed to return any constituency MSPs. This gives Conservative Party voters fairer representation in proportion to their political support in the North East of Scotland.

Scotland has eight regions with 7 seats up for grabs in each.

The regions are, Central Scotland, Glasgow, Highlands and Islands, Lothian, Mid-Scotland and Fife, North east Scotland, South Scotland & West Scotland

This system is a nice one because if you really like your SNP MSP in your constituency but would like the Conservatives to be the opposition. You can vote for your MSP from the SNP and party vote Conservative on the list. The downside is, that in places like New Zealand there is the issue of “out on Saturday and back on Sunday” with some MPs losing their constituency seats but being able to still stay in parliament via the list.

State of Play

As we go into this election the SNP dominate at constituency level. In 2016, they won 59 of the 73 seats available. They won just 4 on the regional lists. Over time it has taken voters to become more savvy about the system. The SNP polled nearly 5% lower on the regional list vote than they did in the constituency vote. In reverse, parties such as the Greens focus on the list seats and don’t bother with the constituencies.

Unlike the system in Northern Ireland, the Scottish Parliament operates on a simple majority system. That means 65 is the magic number for a majority. That means if no party gets that number they have to do deals with another party to govern. The current SNP administration has done deals with the Greens and in the past the Conservatives to govern as a minority. Previously there have been arrangements between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The SNP will lead the next government. The race at the moment is will it be a majority government or a minority government? They need to pick up two more seats from the last election make a majority. If they fall short again, they will have to look to the Greens or maybe even the new Alba party if they make it in.

The SNP are already the longest running government in Scottish history and have sustained their popularity for the longest period in the devolved era at these elections. The Scottish Conservatives since indyref have become the main opposition to the SNP. But whilst they have enjoyed success, they are expected to do no better than 20-28 seats. However, twice in a row they will have secured a position as the main opposition to the SNP, which without Ruth Davidson as leader is a solid achievement.

Scottish Labour are still in a real mess. A revolving door of leaders since 2011 and little stability is proving hard for them, considering they were the most dominant party in Scotland for decades it is quite the fall from grace.



Nicola Sturgeon, painted portrait _DDC0027” by Abode of Chaos is licensed under CC BY