The final countdown!

The most important election of the devolved era is entering it final few days of campaigning with a number of key issues in the balance.

It is true that, at times, it has felt like the quality of the campaign has not matched the importance of the outcome and what is at stake, at least partly because of the ongoing restrictions caused by the pandemic. Deprived of the usual door knocking, street stalls and public meetings, voter engagement has largely been via set-piece media interviews and debates or through digital interaction.

There is also of course, for some at least, a lack of excitement given the near certainty that the SNP will be the biggest party at Holyrood after all votes are counted next weekend.

In truth, public opinion as far as party support is concerned has been largely baked for some time. Each of the 46 polls conducted since the beginning of 2020 has given the SNP a minimum of 45% in the constituency part of the ballot, meaning that it would win at least 60 seats alone from this part of the vote and make it the largest party before any regional votes are tallied.

So, as far as the SNP is concerned, the key is whether it reaches the magic 65 seats which would enable the party to govern with an overall majority and strengthen its mandate for a second independence referendum during the next parliamentary term.

And the probability of that outcome happening is still in the balance. A couple of polls last week suggested that the SNP may fall a little short of the 65-seat target, but the party will have been buoyed by the weekend polls predicting it will narrowly surpass that total.

All eyes will be on the regional list polling in the last few days of the campaign. This is where we have seen some polling shifts of late, with support for the SNP falling from the low to mid 40’s before the campaign started to as low as 35% in more recent polls.

Part of the explanation for this is the emergence of the new Alba Party under the leadership of former First Minister Alex Salmond. While most polls suggest that the Alba Party will not make the  ‘super majority’ breakthrough that Salmond predicted and hoped for, it is clear that the party has taken votes from the SNP and has a chance of returning a small number of MSPs.

And while the emergence of Alba may have reopened the debate about tactical voting, the irony is that this may help the Scottish Greens more than it helps Salmond’s party, with recent polls suggesting that the Greens may increase representation in Holyrood with up to five additional seats, potentially leading the party into a formal coalition with the SNP if an overall majority is not achieved.

The other key issue that is too close to call is whether the Conservatives or Labour finish in second place. At the beginning of the campaign the Tories held the advantage in this regard but Labour, energised by the strong performance of new leader Anas Sarwar, has seen an improvement in recent polls to suggest that the race for second is too close to call.

The two most recent polls published at the weekend show Labour outpolling the Conservatives on the constituency ballot; however, the Tories hold the advantage on the regional ballot which means that it would have more representation in Holyrood than Labour given that both parties rely on the regional list for the vast majority of its seats.

This article was published in The National Extra on 3 May 2021

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