There are now fewer than 100 days until Scots go to the polls in the last of three significant political events in 20 months.
The fifth election to the new Scottish Parliament since it was established in 1999 will not have the same drama as the 2014 independence referendum, or provide the same momentous change as the 2015 general election in Scotland.
But it would be wrong to dismiss the May ballot as irrelevant because of the SNP’s near-certain victory; as the vote draws closer there are many uncertainties about the result, and plenty at stake:
1)Will the SNP win a second overall majority?
In 2011 the SNP won the first ever overall majority at a Holyrood election, with 45 per cent of the vote for constituency members and 44 per cent support on the regional list. So, polls showing an increase in SNP support, such as our November survey showing support at 50 per cent and 46 per cent, would suggest a second overall majority is likely, with the SNP winning 72 seats (+3 from 2011) according to the ‘Scotland Votes’ seat predictor.
This would have the obvious effect of making the SNP’s legislative programme easier to implement. But its significance would be deeper – the latest signal of the SNP’s iron grip on Scottish politics – which is in all likelihood set to be completed after next year’s council elections, and further evidence of Labour’s continual decline in its former heartland.
2)Will the Tories come second?
This is not quite as unthinkable as it sounds. Labour’s problems in Scotland began well before the independence referendum and support for the party has fallen so sharply that even a modest recovery in Scottish Conservative fortunes may result in Ruth Davidson’s party becoming the official opposition at Holyrood. It’s true that no poll has yet put the Tories in second place but our most recent poll showed the gap in constituency vote support at just two percentage points and the Tories clearly sense an opportunity to add to Labour’s woes.
3)How many seats will the smaller parties win?
While we may not return to the days of the ‘Rainbow Parliament’ of 2003, which saw candidates from the Scottish Socialists and Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party elected alongside Greens and Independents, there are some signs that the regional vote may result in more MSPs from outside the major four parties than at present. Current polling suggests that the sole beneficiaries of this will be the Scottish Green Party who may well challenge the Scottish Liberal Democrats to be the fourth largest party at Holyrood. It looks less likely that either UKIP from the right or RISE from the left will make a breakthrough but this could change during the campaign.
4)What will be the key issues in the campaign?
The campaign is likely to be dominated by three issues; the future of Scotland’s key public services, especially schools and hospitals, the constitution and the use of the additional powers brought about by the Scotland Act, particularly on income tax.
The opposition parties are unlikely to make inroads if they choose to campaign on the core devolved public services issues. Despite a series of uncomfortable headlines for the Scottish government around school attainment levels and the performance of the NHS, the SNP is significantly ahead of Labour on all the key policy areas, including a lead of 49 per cent to 16 per cent on the NHS and 48 per cent to 18 per cent on education.
Battle lines are beginning to be drawn on the use of new tax-raising powers which come in this year. While the Scottish Liberal Democrats are the only party so far to have explicitly support an immediate rise in income tax, there is now a public expectation that all parties in Scotland will need to have specific tax plans, making this election significantly different from those in the past.
The stance taken on “indyref2” in the SNP manifesto is likely to be one of the most keenly anticipated moments of the whole campaign. The party will be keen not to commit to a second vote which, if it loses, will likely settle the constitutional issue for the foreseeable future, but will want to retain the option in order to keep its thousands of new members motivated and to make the most of any opinion shifts towards a Yes vote.
5)Will there be a second independence referendum soon?
In truth the chances of a second referendum actually happening in the next few years look remote given the current public mood. Although some polls have shown movement in favour of the nationalist cause since September 2014, the SNP will want to wait until opinion is strongly in favour and over a relatively long period before backing ‘indyref2’.
What may change all that is the outcome of the forthcoming EU referendum. The First Minister has stated that it is “highly likely” that a Brexit in that referendum, in the face of a majority of Scots wanting to remain in the EU, would be sufficient grounds to call for indyref2. Whether it’s sufficient to win a second independence referendum is debateable so this remains a risky strategy.