The National:

Result in 2016: SNP 7 seats (4 constituency, 3 list), Conservatives 6 seats (4 constituency, 2 list), Labour 3 seats (1 constituency, 2 list)

IN the debate that’s been raging about strategies for maximising pro-independence representation on the regional list vote, a frequently heard aside is “but of course, it’s a wee bit different in the south”. That’s because South Scotland was one of only two of the country’s eight electoral regions that returned SNP list MSPs in the last Scottish Parliament election.

Indeed, of the four list seats that the SNP won across the whole of Scotland in 2016, three were from the south. So not only were SNP list votes in the region not wasted, they actually produced fairly healthy dividends.

But one of the big problems with this debate has been the tendency to treat certain aspects of the 2016 result as if they’re permanently frozen in time. The fact that the SNP failed to win list seats in six electoral regions last time does not necessarily mean that they willl fail again in all six this time. By the same token, the fact that the SNP did take list seats in the south five years ago is no guarantee that there will be a repeat performance on Thursday.

Much will depend on how well SNP candidates fare in the region’s constituency contests. The more constituency seats the party wins, the more the d’Hondt formula will penalise them on the list, potentially leaving them with fewer list seats or no list seats at all.

Of the nine constituencies in the south, five are currently held by Unionist parties and four are targets for SNP gains. In all of those four, the swing required is modest. So in the best-case scenario, the SNP would win eight out of nine constituencies, meaning they’d be unlikely to win any list seats in the region.

Supporters of the Green and Alba parties would argue that this means SNP list votes will be wasted, and that Yes supporters should move across to other pro-independence parties to ensure they at least have some representation among the list MSPs.

The problem is that a few recent opinion polls have suggested that the SNP’s national lead on the constituency ballot may have now dropped back to 2016-type levels. That means it’s entirely conceivable that the results in the south’s constituencies will be similar to last time. It also brings into play the scary possibility that the results will actually be worse.

The fact that only a small swing is needed for multiple SNP constituency gains will be gloriously irrelevant if the real swing on the ground is in the opposite direction.

The SNP would of course argue that this makes an indisputable strategic argument for all independence supporters to go for “both votes SNP” in the south. But it’s not as simple as that either because even in the worst-case scenario, the SNP will take at least some constituency seats in the region.

This means they’ll start with a disadvantage in the list seat allocation that the Greens and Alba won’t suffer from. If, for example, a nightmare unfolds and the Tories gain Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale, that would still leave the SNP with three constituency seats in the south, meaning that the d’Hondt formula will divide their list vote by four before the first list seat is awarded.

By contrast, the list vote for the Greens and Alba will be fully intact, because those two parties won’t have any constituency seats.

IN theory, a pro-independence voter might get more bang for their buck by voting Alba or Green on the list, even if the SNP take list seats in the south. But that crucially depends on whether or not the smaller parties reach the de facto threshold for winning at least one list seat, which is typically around 5% or 6% of the vote.

If you could be totally sure that they will hit that target there would be a strong tactical case for voting Alba or Green – and if you could be totally sure that they won’t hit the target, there would be an equally strong tactical case for “both votes SNP”. The reality is that this is an uncertain world and there’s no way of knowing how other people are voting until long after you cast your own vote.

For what it’s worth, the Greens took 4.7% of the list vote in the region in 2016, so a relatively small increase would be enough to win them a southern seat for the first time since 2003. Laura Moodie is top of their list and would thus be the beneficiary.

As in other regions, Alba are fielding four candidates, including Corri Wilson, the former MP for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, and Laurie Flynn, who founded the party at the start of the year before handing over to Alex Salmond, and was once a senior producer on Granada Television’s World In Action.

The top three list candidates for the SNP have more at stake than their counterparts in most other regions because none of them can afford to be overly confident about their chances in the constituencies they’re contesting. All of them will be viewing the list as a very credible possible route back to Holyrood.

Emma Harper will be relying on the list unless she manages the swing of a little over 2% needed to oust the Tories’ Finlay Carson in Galloway and West Dumfries, while Joan McAlpine will require a safety-net unless she secures a 1.7% swing from another Tory incumbent, Oliver Mundell, in Dumfriesshire.

Paul Wheelhouse has very little chance of overhauling the Tory MSP Rachael Hamilton in Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, so the list will be his only realistic hope of retaining his seat. You have to go all the way down to fourth place on the SNP list to find a candidate who is actually a clear favourite to be elected on the constituency ballot – that’s Màiri McAllan, the probable next MSP for Clydesdale.

Meanwhile, there are also two high-profile candidates on the Unionist side of the fence who have all their hopes pinned on the South Scotland list. Having left the Conservatives, Michelle Ballantyne must have thought she’d rescued an outside chance of retaining her seat by accepting an offer to become the leader of the Scottish branch of Reform UK, the rebranded version of the Brexit Party.

However, her new party has failed to register in the Holyrood polls and she’ll probably fall short by quite some distance. The former Labour and Respect MP George Galloway is trying his luck for yet another party, the hardline anti-independence outfit All for Unity. Just one poll in the campaign so far has put them on course for a single seat, so Galloway’s chances are slim but certainly not non-existent.

Among the many fringe parties standing in the south is the socially conservative Scottish Family Party, which among other priorities wants to prevent gay people from accessing NHS-funded fertility treatment.

Predictably, it’s opposed to an independence referendum in the next five years, but makes a half-hearted attempt to avoid alienating independence supporters by claiming to be “neutral” and to merely be “respecting” the 2014 referendum result. How that brand of “neutrality” differs in practice from the Tory and Labour policy is somewhat unclear.