This year's Holyrood election has been waged in an environment like no other, with parties operating in a campaigning environment constrained by Covid restrictions.
Against this backdrop, polls have indicated that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP appear set to be the big winner from today’s vote. But will they secure an overall majority? How will the Conservatives and Labour fare under their new leaders?
Here are the key seats each party will be looking at closely and which will help each judge whether their campaign has been a success or failure.
SNP - Target Defence
Perthshire South and Kinross-shire
Open seat (SNP majority – 1,422)
The incumbent SNP MSP and Scottish Government cabinet fixture Roseanna Cunningham is retiring. Long-time local activist Jim Fairlie will be aiming to keep the seat in the nationalists’ column, though Conservative MSP Liz Smith will be sensing an opening on the back of a nearly 10 per cent gain in her share of the votes in the same seat in 2016.
SNP - Target Gains
Dumbarton and Eastwood
Jackie Baillie, Dumbarton (Lab, majority – 109); Jackson Carlaw, Eastwood (Con, majority – 1,611)
Assuming the SNP hold on to their existing seats, if these two seats flip for the SNP, they would be able to secure an overall majority at Holyrood. Taking Dumbarton would be the culmination of years of effort and second place finishes for the nationalists stretching back to the parliament’s inaugural election in 1999. In Eastwood, Jackson Carlaw appears to be vulnerable after being bounced from the Scottish Conservative leadership last summer.
Scottish Conservatives - Target Defence
Open seat (Conservative majority – 610)
The race to succeed former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson in this key seat has been one of the most watched contests of the campaign. Local councillor Scott Douglas is looking to hold the seat for the Tories in the face of a strong challenge mounted by the SNP’s former Westminster leader, and possible future leadership contender, Angus Robertson.
Scottish Conservatives - Target Gain
Richard Lochhead (Majority – 2,875)
Current party leader Douglas Ross holds the equivalent Westminster seat and local councillor Tim Eagle will hope to flip it blue at Holyrood. SNP incumbent Richard Lochhead will look to improve on his performance in the 2016 election, where his vote share dropped by nearly 12 per cent from 2011.
Scottish Labour - Target Defence
Jackie Baillie (Majority – 109)
Baillie has held this seat since the very first Holyrood election in 1999 but it is now the most marginal in Scotland. Holding it may signal success in new leader Anas Sarwar’s attempts to stanch the flow of support away from the party.
Scottish Labour - Target Gain
Clare Haughey (Majority – 3,743)
Result expected: Friday
Current Glasgow regional MSP James Kelly will be looking to reclaim the seat he lost to Haughey in 2016. Doing so against the well regarded Haughey will be a challenging task. If he doesn’t, he may be out of Holyrood altogether, given his fifth-place ranking on the party’s Glasgow list.
Scottish Liberal Democrats -Target Defence
Alex Cole-Hamilton (Majority – 2,960)
The party will be looking to keep its Edinburgh toehold in a traditionally liberal area. SNP candidate Sarah Masson stood in the equivalent Westminster seat in the 2019 General Election, coming in second to the Lib Dem Christine Jardine.
Scottish Liberal Democrats - Target Gain
Caithness, Sutherland and Ross
Open seat (SNP majority – 3,913)
Gail Ross won this seat for the SNP from 2016 but is standing down, citing the challenges in balancing family and political commitments. The Lib Dems will be looking to build on their 2016 showing where they finished second but increased their vote share by over 8 per cent.
The Greens and Alba
Scottish Green co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater have enjoyed a solid campaign. Running candidates in 12 constituencies and every region, the party could be poised for a breakthrough and provide the crucial representation needed for a pro-independence majority at Holyrood.
There is a question mark over the impact Alex Salmond’s Alba party could have on this election. Could they take seats off the SNP, as some independence campaigners fear, or will they pose a threat to the unionist parties, as the former First Minister claims? The answer could well be both.
Alba has been polling anywhere from 1 to 7 per cent since its launch at the end of March. To be in with a shot of gaining any representation in Holyrood, the party needs around 6 per cent of the vote in an individual electoral region – a huge ask for a party that is only weeks old.
The likeliest regions Alba could pick up a seat are North East Scotland – where Salmond is the lead candidate – and the Highlands and Islands. The party would need to bring in around 20,000 votes in the North East to send Salmond back to Holyrood. But with zero MSPs elected through this regional list in 2016, it wouldn’t come at the expense of the SNP – but rather the Tories or Lib Dems. It could also scupper the Green’s hopes of picking up any representation in the North East. If Alba is successful in the Highlands and Islands, however, it could result in the SNP losing one of their few regional MSPs.
In 2016, political commentators had all but handed East Lothian to the SNP, with former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray going into the election defending a wafer-thin majority of 151. As it happened, Gray increased his majority to 1,127 – a rare success story in an otherwise glum night for Scottish Labour.
Fast forward five years, and Scottish Labour is polling relatively the same on the constituency ballot. But with Iain Gray now retiring, the party will be facing slippage from his personal vote. As a result, the constituency is extremely high on the SNP’s target gain list.
East Lothian will be a particularly interesting battle because of the electoral region it sits in – South Scotland, where the SNP picked up three regional seats in 2016. If the nationalists win here but perform worse on the regional ballot than they did five years ago, it theoretically could result in a net loss of SNP MSPs in South Scotland – including cabinet member Paul Wheelhouse, who is sitting in a very dangerous third place on his party’s list.