Result in 2016: SNP 7 seats (6 constituency, 1 list), Conservatives 3 seats (0 constituency, 3 list), LibDems 2 seats (2 constituency, 0 list), Labour 2 seats (0 constituency, 2 list), Greens 1 seat (0 constituency, 1 list)

IT’S easily forgotten that the eight electoral regions in which the Scottish Parliament’s list MSPs are chosen were originally based on the old Scottish constituencies for first-past-the-post elections to the European Parliament – although ironically those had become defunct within just a few weeks of the inaugural Scottish Parliament election due to a move to proportional representation.

Perhaps surprisingly, the one Euro-constituency in which the SNP were always totally dominant was the Highlands & Islands, and not the North East – Winnie Ewing held the seat from its establishment in 1979 until she became an MSP 20 years later. That unbroken run of success has since continued in the Holyrood list ballot – the SNP have topped the popular vote in the region on each and every occasion since 1999, although their lead over Labour and the LibDems was pretty tight in the first two elections, which confirms that they’d been benefiting from a big personal vote for Ewing in previous years.

Something else that has changed since Holyrood’s earliest days is that the LibDems used to take the lion’s share of the region’s constituency seats, in spite of only being in third place on the list vote. In 1999 they took five constituencies, the SNP took only two and Labour one. Oddly, then, the proportional representation system that the LibDems had campaigned so long to bring into being ended up benefiting other parties by balancing out the LibDems’ own over-representation – although it couldn’t do that job properly because there weren’t enough list seats available to fully correct the skew.

Even with the LibDems being awarded no list seats at all, they ended up with one more seat in the region than both the SNP and Labour. So the party that should have been in third place if the popular vote had been decisive actually came out on top, and the party that should have been in first place had to settle for joint second.

Part of the reason that was able to happen was the LibDems’ in-built advantage of being the traditional party of choice in the two very small (in population terms) constituencies of Orkney and Shetland. Even after they’d lost all of their other Highland seats to the SNP over the course of the 2007 and 2011 elections, they still retained control of the Northern Isles.

That means, to this day, they’ve still never won a list seat in the Highlands & Islands – they’ve always either reached or exceeded their appropriate share of seats in the constituencies alone. That’s unlikely to change this year unless there’s an almighty upset in either the Orkney or Shetland constituency votes, and it means that if the LibDems succeed in taking their top target constituency of Caithness, Sutherland & Ross, that will be a very “real” gain – they’ll effectively have a bonus seat that won’t be cancelled out when the list seats are allocated.

So if the SNP are to maximise their own number of seats, holding on to Caithness, Sutherland & Ross will be at a premium. The only other major factor in determining seat numbers is likely to be the list vote, though – even if other constituencies change hands, there’s a good chance that the list seat allocation will simply even that out.

That could turn out to be a considerable relief because there must be some concern about the possibility of the Conservatives gaining the constituency of Moray, which they’ve won twice at Westminster level since the last Holyrood election under the standard of their new Scottish leader Douglas Ross. That said, the fact that Ross won’t be standing in Moray himself is perhaps a clue that the SNP can afford to be quietly confident about their prospects of resisting the Tory challenge.

In 2016, the SNP lost two of their nine seats in the region, and that in itself was sufficient to leave them two seats short of an overall majority at Holyrood. It happened simply because their list vote declined by almost eight percentage points since 2011 – they didn’t lose any constituency seats. However, recovering to their showing of a decade ago may prove to be difficult because on this occasion they’re in direct competition for the pro-independence vote with no fewer than three credible alternative forces. The Greens demonstrated in 2016 that they’re capable of taking a seat in the region, with the successful candidate being John Finnie, who is both a defector from the SNP and the father of serving SNP MSP Ruth Maguire. He won’t be defending his seat in May.

Alex Salmond’s new Alba party may be in contention for a seat if they can build on the 3% national vote share in the first opinion poll to include them. If so, first in line to become an MSP will be Salmond’s close ally Kirk Torrance. A longer shot is Craig Berry, who defected to Alba after previously being an influential force within the SNP as founder of the Common Weal group.

But the real wildcard in this election is the independent candidacy of the outgoing Lothian MSP Andy Wightman, who left the Greens a few months ago following a disagreement over the trans issue. If he had actually stood again in Lothian, it seems highly plausible that he would have had enough of a personal vote to be elected, but it remains to be seen whether his profile is high enough in the Highlands & Islands.

The nightmare scenario is that he might take enough votes away from the Greens to cost them their sole seat, but not enough to actually be elected himself. If Wightman and the Greens do knock each other out in that way, there’s no guarantee that the lost seat will go to another pro-independence party – there’s always a chance that a Unionist party may gratefully collect a little bonus.

The Conservative, Labour and LibDem lists are all headed by well-known names – Douglas Ross, Rhoda Grant and Alan Reid respectively. Ross and Grant can both expect to be returned to Holyrood, but Reid’s hopes look very slim and may depend, paradoxically, on one of the LibDem constituency MSPs losing their seat.

One to watch on the SNP list is Tom Wills, who fronted the party’s impressive campaign in the 2019 Shetland by-election. He’s unlikely to be elected as constituency MSP for Shetland, where he’s once again standing, but at fifth place on the list he has at least a fighting chance of becoming an MSP.

And of course there are plenty of other choices for voters beyond the ranks of the better-known parties and candidates. One eye-catching option that may leap out from the ballot paper is the “Abolish the Scottish Parliament Party”, especially as its name will be accompanied with a slogan specifying the amount of money that would allegedly be saved on an annual basis if Holyrood no longer existed.

That message will presumably resonate most with Tory voters, and may therefore pose something of a problem for Douglas Ross’s party – even if it only shaves 0.5% off the Tory list vote, that could in certain circumstances make all the difference between winning a seat and not winning a seat.