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17 February 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:25am

Will Scottish Labour beat the Conservatives in this May’s election?

Scottish Labour could yet finish third on votes but second on seats, thanks to a technicality. 

By Ben Walker

In the past 14 years, Scotland’s Labour Party has been through six elected leaders and is currently choosing a seventh to replace Richard Leonard. Regardless of whether this is a cause or a symptom of the party’s woes, there is no doubt that it has fallen out of favour with voters. As majority support for Scottish independence endures, many commentators are depicting this May’s Holyrood election as one in which the party is fighting for survival. 

And yet Scottish Labour has been experiencing something just shy of a polling recovery. In late April last year, the party was floundering at 14 per cent on regional voting intentions, putting it more than 10 percentage points behind the Conservatives. Today, Labour stands at 18 per cent, an increase of four points in less than a year. Instead of being behind the Tories, the two parties are now neck and neck. 

What do the polls say?
Voting intention for the Scottish parliamentary election – both constituency (first-past-the-post) and list/regional (additional member system).

These figures are hardly dramatic, particularly given the huge lead the SNP retains over all its rivals. But they are not irrelevant, either.

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Could the new Scottish Labour leadership build on this momentum? While it is impossible to know how well the contenders would truly perform in office, a recent Savanta ComRes survey suggested Anas Sarwar was significantly more popular among Scottish voters than Leonard. (He also scores better than the other main challenger, Monica Lennon.)

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Findings from Savanta ComRes, 04 – 09 Feb

Should Scottish Labour finish ahead of the Conservatives in May it would be more than just a good first step: the narrative of beating the Tories in Scotland would have UK-wide resonance and dispel the sense of a party whose time in Scotland had definitively passed.

And the Holyrood electoral system may also work in Labour’s favour: beating the Tories might not require the party to actually get more votes.

Scotland elects its Holyrood MPs in two ways: there are constituency MSPs – representatives elected to speak for certain areas under a first-past-the-post system – and, in order to ensure an element of proportional representation, these are topped up with regional MSPs according to how many votes each party receives. 

Whichever part of Scotland voters live in, they are guaranteed to be represented by a minimum of eight MSPs. One of these will have been elected under first-past-the-post, and will speak for their local constituency. The other seven will have been elected under the proportional element, and speak for the wider region, including their own constituency.

The important point to note is that the system attempts to mitigate against one-party dominance. If one particular party wins a disproportionate number of first-past-the-post constituencies – imagine, for example, the SNP winning every Glasgow seat with just 30-40 per cent of the vote – then the regional “top-up” system will weigh them accordingly and discriminate in favour of under-represented parties.

[see also: Why support for Scottish independence is more fragile than it appears]

In other words: if a party wins a constituency seat, it has a lower chance of winning regional seats than it might, perhaps, “deserve” when its regional vote share is taken in isolation. But if it does not win a constituency seat, then it has a greater chance of winning those regional seats. 

Why does this matter? Current numbers from the Britain Elects-New Statesman forecast model suggest that the Conservatives have a better chance than Labour of winning constituency seats. In the three months that remain of the election campaign, that may change – particularly as more data becomes available about Jackie Baillie’s Dumbarton seat (a seat we believe Labour may still be in contention for). But if the Conservatives do win at least one constituency, they will find their vote weighed down somewhat in the wider region, while under-represented parties get first allocation. 

At present, in the south of Scotland region, the Scottish Tories are forecast to hold the constituency of Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire (yes, that’s one seat). The probability of this happening is currently 95.6 per cent. 

Such a win would have a peculiar effect on the allocation of regional seats in the south of Scotland. Labour and the Conservatives would be tied on list seats, with three each – even though Labour are, currently, polling eight points lower than the Tories in the region. If we add in forecast results from other first-past-the-post constituencies in the south of Scotland, the final tally of MSPs in the region would be four for the Tories, three for Labour, and nine for the SNP.

If we experiment with the model it appears it would be more electorally profitable for the Conservatives not to win a constituency seat at all. Should the Tories fail to win a constituency in the south of Scotland, the current forecast for the region still leaves them with four MSPs thanks to the proportional “top-up”. The key difference is that, owing to the order of allocation, Labour would be left with two MSPs rather than three.

This is significant. Across Scotland as a whole, our model currently predicts Labour will win one more seat than the Tories even though it is forecast to win fewer votes. Added to this, better vote distribution for Labour means it is already more likely to win a higher number of top-up seats. While Conservative votes cluster in the south of Scotland and Aberdeenshire and Banffshire, Labour votes are, relatively speaking, more evenly spread.

It might seem odd to spin such a result as a “victory” when the SNP would still achieve a landslide win. But it would suggest a change in momentum, and in politics that matters.

“There are no prizes for second place” is a winner’s refrain, and Scottish Labour does not have the luxury of believing it. Second prize, for now, is what matters. That is a measure of how far the party has fallen, and how far it has to climb.

[see also: What will boundary changes mean for Labour and the Conservatives?]