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What will this year’s Scottish Parliament elections mean for the Labour Party? by Kyra Gaunt

There are a variety of elections taking place around the UK in May 2016. As part of our series examining the big political issues at these elections Kyra Gaunt examines the likely impact of the Scottish parliament elections on the Labour Party.

How do the Scottish Parliament elections work?

On Thursday 5th May, the Scottish Parliament elections will take place. A total of 129 MSPs will be elected under the Additional Member System, with each voter having two votes – one for a constituency MSP, and one for an additional member on the regional list. This system is a form of Proportional Representation, which tends to result in a more varied and representative result than the First Past the Post system used for Westminster elections.

Young people also have more of a say in the Scottish elections, as 16 and 17 year olds can vote. The voting age was lowered from 18 to 16 for 2014’s Scottish independence referendum, but this is the first year that under-18s will be able to vote in a parliamentary election.

What are the big issues in this election?

Much of the debate in the election campaign has revolved around newly devolved tax powers. Labour have criticised the SNP’s refusal to raise income tax for high earners, claiming that it undermines their positioning as Scotland’s true left-wing party. The Greens have also criticised the SNP’s tax approach, arguing that taxing the rich would help to prevent some of the cuts to public services that the SNP have planned.

Inevitably, the question of independence is also still looming large on the political agenda. Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Tories have all accused the SNP of being keen to force a second referendum upon the Scottish people – particularly if Scotland are pulled out of the EU against their will if the rest of the UK votes to leave in June’s EU referendum. However, the SNP are unlikely to hold another referendum unless public opinion shifts significantly to favour a Yes vote, which polls do not indicate will happen anytime soon.

What are the election results expected to be?

There is little doubt that the SNP will win this election with ease and that Labour will see a reduction in their seats. Some commentators have claimed that the SNP could even win every single one of the 73 constituency seats available in the Scottish Parliament, which seems quite feasible given their success in the General Election. Much of Labour’s hope will rely on gaining MSPs through the regional list vote – something that in previous years they would have seen as a relatively lowly target, to say the least.

Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has been credited with giving a friendlier face to the party and increasing their popularity in a country where they usually see little success. The Tories have also sought to present themselves as the only true unionist party after Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said it was “not inconceivable” that she could support Scottish independence if the UK were to withdraw from the EU. Some polls have even estimated that for the first time ever since the Scottish Parliament was established (and for the first time overall in Scotland since 1959), the Tories could gain more seats than Labour. While this is perhaps over-ambitious, it does seem likely that the Tories will see an improvement in their results this year.

What would this mean for the Labour Party?

With Labour expected to face a significant reduction in seat numbers in the Scottish Parliament elections – much like their Scottish MPs were in 2015’s General Election – it would be easy to assume that this is a negative reflection on Jeremy Corbyn. However, this outlook fails to take into account the Scottish political landscape as a whole, as well as the low approval ratings of Scottish Labour’s recent party leaders.

It is no secret that those on the right of the Labour party are not major supporters of Corbyn’s leadership. Many of his critics will be keen to use disappointing Labour results in Scotland as a way to show that Scottish voters are also unimpressed by Corbyn. But this approach fails to recognise that any of the other candidates who stood in September’s Labour leadership election would arguably produce an even more negative result. One of the major issues leading to the loss of the core Labour vote in Scotland was the way in which the party shared a platform with the Conservatives during the independence referendum, and the kind of campaign they fought. It is difficult to imagine that a Labour leader further away from the left could win back the traditional voters the party has lost to the SNP and smaller parties like the Greens.

A disappointing result for Scottish Labour in the upcoming election seems inevitable as the party struggles to re-establish its identity in relation to the SNP, and to its own party at a Westminster level. While Labour may manage to retain more of their seats in the Scottish election than some estimates suggest, they are undoubtedly facing tough times ahead.

About Kyra

Kyra is a Film and Media graduate based in Edinburgh. She has worked with various festivals in Edinburgh, and currently works in marketing.

Kyra Gaunt
Kyra Gaunt