PARLIAMENT is going into recess, meaning the starting pistol has been fired on the Holyrood election campaign.

Polls will open on May 6, with independence and the pandemic top the agenda.

The SNP are hoping to secure a thumping majority to bolster their demands for indyref2, while the pro-independence Greens are aiming to return a record-breaking number of MSPs.

Labour and the Tories look set to battle it out for second place as they bid to prevent an SNP majority, with the LibDems hoping to build on their tally too.

There are 129 seats in the Holyrood Parliament, with 65 required for a majority. This is how things stand ahead of the election.

READ MORE: This is every MSP that's standing down at the Holyrood 2021 election

As campaigning gets under way, we asked three top polling experts – James Kelly, Mark McGeoghegan and Mark Diffley – for their thoughts on the upcoming ballot.


The National: Nicola Sturgeon

What’s changed since 2016?

JK: The SNP have been on a rollercoaster ride since 2016, with the low point being the unexpected 21 losses in the 2017 Westminster General Election, which was followed by an extremely ropey period in which they could easily have lost top spot in the polls to either the Tories or Labour. The high points were the 2019 European election and Westminster election, which in turn were followed by stratospheric polling numbers. But now the SNP seem to be back roughly to where they started, with current polls suggesting a very similar result to 2016. As we know, though, polls at this stage in the campaign can be wildly deceptive.

MM: Brexit has convinced a lot of No-voting Remainers to at least reconsider independence and the SNP benefit from that. They also benefit from the perception that Nicola Sturgeon and her government have handled the pandemic well.

MD: The party has remained ahead in the polls on both the constituency and regional elements throughout the period. Current polling gives the SNP a chance of winning an overall majority, repeating the 2011 result. After a difficult 2017 General Election, the party retook many of the seats lost at the 2019 election. More widely, Brexit has provided impetus to the call for a second independence referendum and government and First Ministerial handling of the pandemic response has resonated well with voters.

Main selling point

JK: A cynic might wonder if the SNP leadership want their main selling-point to be identity politics, given the signals they've been sending in recent weeks with the sacking of Joanna Cherry and the new working definition of transphobia. That would be electorally foolish, because the percentage of the population that will be impressed is extremely limited, and may be outnumbered by a greater percentage who will be alienated. It must be hoped that instead we'll see a much stronger focus on independence.

MM: Strictly speaking, independence is the SNP’s unique selling point (despite the Greens also being pro-independence). They completely dominate among Yes voters, to the point that voting Yes and voting SNP are almost synonymous. Nicola Sturgeon is also, comfortably, Scotland’s most popular politician – and a recent Opinium poll found that her leadership is as important to SNP voters as its policy on independence. Both resonate with their voters, and the SNP will hope that holds until May.

MD: Continued opposition to Brexit among voters, First Minister’s satisfaction ratings.

Best-case scenario

JK: The sky is the limit for the best-case scenario, because we saw in 2011 that the blend of a popular SNP leader with opposition leaders who aren't cutting through can cause a huge pro-SNP swing very quickly.

MM: If Nicola Sturgeon’s reputation survives over the next few weeks, and the SNP run a strong and successful campaign, they can win a majority. Early polling projecting 70+ seats is unrealistic, but if they can win those 2019 Labour voters now considering independence, 67 or 68 seats are within reach.

MD: Overall majority, strengthening mandate for second independence referendum.

The National: SNP rosettes


JK: It's almost impossible to imagine the SNP not emerging from this election as the largest single party. However, they could certainly fall short of a majority once again, and the pro-independence majority is not invulnerable either. It's unlikely that a unionist grand coalition could be formed to freeze the SNP out of office - however, it's not totally impossible provided Labour emerge as the second largest party. So that would be the absolute worst-case scenario.

MM: It wasn’t that long ago that the SNP won just 36.9% of the vote in the 2017 UK General Election. If voters turn against the First Minister, it’s not inconceivable that they could end up with a similar result. In the worst-case, I can see them losing 9 or 10 seats and ending up on around 53 – enough to produce a narrow Unionist parliamentary majority.

MD: No pro-independence majority but with SNP as largest party.


JK: I think they'll do just about well enough to ensure the continuation of a pro-indy majority at Holyrood, but there's no guarantee of that.

MM: My guess is that the SNP will win between 63 and 67 seats – potentially a majority, but a knife-edge majority.

MD: Largest party, pro-independence majority with Scottish Greens.


The National: Douglas Ross: ‘Gracelessly pugilistic’

What’s changed since 2016?

JK: They've lost their trump card of Ruth Davidson, although not all the gains she made as leader have been reversed – as can be seen from the fact they had one Westminster seat at the time of the 2016 Holyrood election, and they now have six. However, Douglas Ross' personal poll ratings are pretty dismal for a leader who should still be in his honeymoon period, and personal ratings are often more predictive of election results than standard voting intention numbers at this stage of a campaign.

MM: The Conservatives have gone from a Remain-supporting party in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, to solidly Brexiteer. In 2017, that won them their highest share of the vote in a national election since 1979, including the votes of many previously SNP-voting Leavers, particularly in north-east Scotland.

MD: Support has been largely between 20% and 25% in polls since 2016. Current polling suggests they will win around 28 seats, possibly a little less than their current position. The party has a new leader, Douglas Ross, its third since the last election.

Main selling point

JK: Militant opposition to indyref2. That will undoubtedly work with their core vote, although there are some signs that key swing voters are growing weary of it.

MM: Uncompromising Unionism is the Scottish Conservative’s big selling point, and it matters to their voters. It’s more than enough to beat Labour to second place, given most left-leaning Scots are now independence and SNP/Green-supporting. But, it’s also their greatest impediment to entering government in a nation with three major Unionist parties.

MD: Opposition to a second independence referendum, criticism of SNP domestic performance

Best-case scenario

JK: It's conceivable that with a good campaign they could make modest gains.

MM: The Tories’ best-case scenario really is roughly maintaining their seat total from 2016. Even if they manage to replicate something like their 2017 General Election result – their best result in a national election since 1979 – they will gain constituency seats while losing regional list seats. It’s unlikely they can do better than one or two net gains.

MD: Second place, denying the SNP an overall majority.


JK: If the public take against Douglas Ross there could be carnage, because they're starting from a relatively high base. They could potentially lose a dozen seats or more, and be overtaken by Labour.

MM: If the Tories slip behind Scottish Labour, back into third place, they could quickly lose a large number of seats. If the SNP vote holds up, and Labour achieve a result closer to their 2017 result under Jeremy Corbyn, the Tories could fall back below 20 seats. In that scenario, it’s also likely that the SNP win a majority and a strong mandate for the referendum the Tories oppose.

MD: Losing second place to Labour, SNP gaining overall majority.


JK: Either no change or modest losses.

MM: The Tories are facing an uphill battle to replicate their 2016 result and look likely to lose a few seats. I would guess that they’ll win between 25 and 30 seats.

MD: Party finishing with around same number of seats as now, retaining second place.


The National:

What’s changed since 2016?

JK: Having slipped to third place in 2016, they seemed to be right back in the game a year later with the advent of Corbyn-mania, but those days are now a distant memory, and current polling suggests they could struggle to recover lost ground.

MM: The fundamental challenge facing Labour today is practically identical to 2016 – how to win back, or replace, the voters lost to the SNP after the 2014 referendum. The Scottish left is now broadly pro-independence, and Labour are stuck between being too soft on independence for most Unionist voters, and too Unionist for most independence-supporting, former Labour voters. If anything, this challenge has intensified as support for independence has grown.

MD: Support in the polls fell as low as 13% during 2019, though the party has recovered to around 20% now, suggesting they will win around 22 seats. So about where they are now. The party has had three permanent leaders since 2016.

Main selling point

JK: Not a scooby. Anyone?

MM: Being pro-Union, but not right-wing or Brexit-supporting like the Conservatives. This positioning works for the shrinking cohort of left-leaning Unionist voters but also restricts Labour’s ability to win back former voters who have drifted to the SNP – especially in an election that will be largely defined by the issue of independence.

MD: New leader, unity between UK and Scottish parties, wide programme of reform.

Best-case scenario

JK: There have been some polls in recent months suggesting they could return to second place this time, so that's a possibility, but it now looks a long shot.

MM: Scottish Labour can realistically supplant the Tories as Scotland’s largest opposition party if their campaign goes well, winning just over 30 seats in the process and positioning Anas Sarwar as Scotland’s leading opposition figure going into any potential independence referendum.

MD: Winning second place back from the Tories.


JK: There have been polls suggesting that the roof could completely fall in on them, and that they could suffer their worst result in history. They could practically end up looking like a fringe party.

MM: If their 2019 voters vote in line with their polling coming into 2021, Scottish Labour could lose all of their constituency seats and multiple list seats, coming in closer to 15 seats.

MD: Remaining in third place, SNP getting overall majority.


JK: Either no change or only minimal gains or losses.

MM: I expect they’ll achieve roughly the same number of seats as 2016, between 20 and 25.

MD: Slight uptick in vote share and seats form 2016, not enough to get second place.


The National:

What’s changed since 2016?

JK: It's harder to judge what's changed for the Greens than for the other parties, because their involvement in non-Holyrood elections is fairly limited. It's unclear from polling whether they're more or less popular than they were five years ago.

MM: The environment has been moving up the list of top issues for Scottish voters, and the Green Party’s role in this Parliament negotiating to support the government on key votes gives them a list of policy achievements to point to in the coming election.

MD: Polling for the Greens on the regional ballot has been anywhere between 4% and 12% in the period since 2016. It currently stands at 8%, suggesting the party may win additional seats, possibly up to 8.

Main selling point

JK: You'd think it would be tackling the climate emergency, but as with the SNP, they seem keen on making identity politics their niche. Unlike the SNP, though, they don't need 45% of the vote to have a successful election, so the approach may not be as harmful for them.

MM: Their environmental policies and green brand are the Greens’ main selling point, for obvious reasons, and they increasingly resonate with larger and larger groups of voters as it moves up the policy agenda.

MD: Climate/environmental action and commitment to independence referendum.

Best-case scenario

JK: Some polls, mostly ones I'm dubious about due to methodological issues, are suggesting they could make a historic breakthrough and end up with 10-12 seats.

MM: If the Greens can achieve results close to the upper limit of their recent polling, they could win as many as 15 seats – and potentially their first constituency seat in Glasgow Kelvin, where Patrick Harvie came second in 2016.

MD: Two or three new seats and form a pro-independence majority government with the SNP.


JK: They could be squeezed out by the push for an SNP majority government as they were in 2011, leaving them with perhaps two or three seats.

MM: The Greens historically overperform in polling and often see their vote decline as election day approaches. A swing of just a couple of points against them could see them lose three or four seats, winning just two or three.

MD: Lose one or two seats.


JK: No change or minor gains.

MM: I think they’ll improve on their 2016 showing, but not by much, and win between five and 10 seats.

MD: Uptick from 2016 with one or two additional seats.


The National: Willie Rennie

What’s changed since 2016?

JK: Not a huge amount. They haven't made much of a comeback, but they've successfully entrenched themselves in certain pockets of strength.

MM: The LibDems positioned themselves as the party of Remain following the EU referendum but had to share this with the SNP in Scotland. They achieved a post-coalition high in voter support in 2019, despite losing their leader’s Scottish seat, on the back of this Remain positioning. But with Brexit implemented, it’s difficult to see where they go next.

MD: Support for the LibDems has reached double figures in the odd poll since 2016 but generally has been around the 8% mark where it sits now. This suggests the party will retain its current representation of five seats in Holyrood.

Main selling point

JK: Willie Rennie's electrifying leadership. Few voters are resistant to it.

MM: The LibDems focus on decentralisation and political reform, beyond the independence-Unionism spectrum, is their clearest offering now that reversing Brexit is off the table. It’s doubtful that this is cutting through to the general public, and they’re squeezed out of the constitutional debate by Labour and the Conservatives.

MD: Opposition to Brexit, prioritising economic recovery over a second referendum.

Best-case scenario

JK: One or two net gains.

MM: If they can recover to their level of support in the 2019 General Election, and siphon off more Labour and Tory voters on the regional list, they make gains and win just over 10 seats.

MD: Capturing a couple of additional seats where they ran others close in 2016.


JK: Perhaps the net loss of one seat – it's hard to see it being any worse than that.

MM: The SNP will be hoping to win Edinburgh Western, and – in the LibDem’s worst-case scenario – Willie Rennie’s seat of North East Fife. Even in that case, though, the LibDems would have to poll historically badly to not be compensated by list seats. It’s hard to see them winning fewer than four seats.

MD: Losing one or two seats where current majorities are small.


JK: Not much change.

MM: I doubt their message will cut through meaningfully, but they have a very hard floor. I expect them to win five or six seats.

MD: Five seats, as now.