Ian Swanson: So much at stake, but the winners are obvious

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. File picture: Jane Barlow

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. File picture: Jane Barlow

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NICOLA Sturgeon insists the SNP is not taking a single vote for granted in the forthcoming Scottish Parliament elections and must earn the right to a third term in government.

But it would be an astonishing political upset if the party did not emerge from May’s poll with another overall majority.

The voting system for the Scottish Parliament may have been designed to prevent any single party dominating. But after the SNP’s stunning success last time and its sustained popularity since, it is now simply expected that it will end up with more seats than all the other parties put together.

The unprecedented achievement of 2011 has become the unquestioned assumption of 2016.

And if the Nationalists do as well as the polls predict and win all the constituency seats, it will squeeze the opposition parties hard.

Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and the Greens will all be left competing for the list seats – some of which could still go to the SNP as well.

That means a maximum of 56 seats to be shared between four parties – not forgetting the socialists, minor parties and independents also standing.

Since Labour currently has 38 seats, the Tories 15, the Lib Dems five and there are three independents, it is clear that under these circumstances there are going to be significant losses among the opposition parties.

Labour has a capable, imaginative and dedicated leader in Kezia Dugdale, but she faces an almost impossible task in trying to restore the fortunes of a party which appears to have lost the trust of the voters.

After its decades-long dominance of Scottish politics, Labour has fallen out of favour with the public and has been supplanted by the SNP, which has skilfully taken over Labour’s territory, making a comeback extremely difficult.

Nevertheless it seems a little optimistic on the Conservatives’ part to think they could overtake Labour and become Scotland’s main opposition party.

Leader Ruth Davidson is an astute and impressive performer, and is working hard to reshape her party.

Her declared ambition is to get more Tory MSPs elected than ever before – which means at least 19 – while insiders say the unspoken aim is to win more seats than Labour.

But both targets would require a major advance by the party, which has seen little progress since the advent of devolution, despite its previous leaders – the late David McLetchie and then Annabel Goldie – being able and popular.

Liberal Democrats hope their poor performance last time – reduced from 16 MSPs to just five – means they have hit rock bottom and the only way is up.

Leader Willie Rennie has helped the party punch above its weight. But with little sign of a recovery in the polls and the fierce competition for list seats, there is no guarantee things will get better.

The Greens are perhaps the ones with the highest hopes for the May election. They cite poll projections giving them as many as nine seats – they have only two just now and their previous high point was seven in 2003. Their pro-independence stance means they are an obvious home for the list votes of SNP supporters. But in such a tight battle, the risk is they could be squeezed.

The election is the big political event of the year and the winner already seems clear, but there will still be much at stake when voters go to the polls on May 5.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com