Scottish Parliament

Breaking the Mould? Small parties in the 2021 Scottish parliament elections

Published: 27 April 2021

Alistair Clark explores the relevance of small parties in the upcoming election, arguing that while small parties tend to have fluctuating fortunes, they have become a permanent presence in Scottish politics. For more on small parties, see Alistair's contribution to our recent ebook.

Interest in small parties standing for the 2021 Scottish parliament election has been given an additional push by the surprise announcement that Alex Salmond would stand for the new Alba Party, and the anti-Independence All for Unity party led by George Galloway. But the growth of small parties in these elections had clearly been underway independent of that given the significant numbers of them are standing for election. What prospects are they likely to have in these vital elections?

As I detail in a recent chapter, small parties have met with both success and failure in Scottish politics. In the run up to most Scottish parliament elections, there have been new party launches which, amidst great fanfare, promise to break the mould of Scottish politics. These efforts usually achieve little. In 2016, the launch of RISE: Scotland’s Left Alliance was greeted with acclaim. They achieved less than 1% of the vote and no seats.

The most notably successful period in terms of representation was arguably the ‘Rainbow Parliament’ of 2003-2007 which had seven Green and six Scottish Socialist Party MSPs. The Greens have had a presence in all five parliaments, while the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party, and notable Independents have also had representation at various points.

Small Parties in 2021

There are 21 small parties standing in these elections. These range from Alex Salmond’s Alba Party and George Galloway’s All for Unity party, to Independent Greens, the Communist Party of Britain, the Scottish Women’s Equality Party, UKIP and Reform UK (the former Brexit Party) among others. Several advocate abolition of the Scottish parliament. Mostly, these parties will contest regional lists, to avoid losing deposits in constituencies.

Nine of these parties, predominantly organisations like Alba and Reform UK, will contest all 8 regional lists. The remaining 12 will concentrate their scarce resources on anywhere between 1-5 regions. Nonetheless, some small party candidates will also contest constituencies, most notably three Greens in Glasgow. There are also 12 Independents standing in individual regions. The most notable of these candidates is Andy Wightman, former Green MSP, on the Highlands and Islands list.

Small parties standing for election are generally a good thing. They can raise issues that larger parties might rather not be discussed, while also providing new avenues for participation and representation if they are successful. The Greens, for example, have ensured that environmental concerns are heard at Holyrood.

One potential downside to the number of smaller parties contesting these Scottish parliament elections is that regional list ballot papers will be long. There are, for example, 23 parties or independent candidates contesting the Glasgow list, while Edinburgh has 19 and the Highlands and Islands region has 18. Many of these parties’ names’ begin with the word Scottish. Hopefully this will not be a source of voter confusion; minor parties and ballot paper length were linked to increased levels of spoiled ballots in the 2007 Scottish parliament election.

Prospects?

There have been various routes to success for smaller parties. The first is a relatively favourable electoral system, which allows a degree of proportionality. The additional member system in Scotland does this, by allowing voters to split their tickets between constituency and regional list votes. Secondly, having a prominent lead candidate, such as Alex Salmond or George Galloway, can help gain attention to the party.   

Thirdly, some degree of organisation and resourcing is necessary to contest elections successfully. Fourth, tapping into a distinctive underlying political cleavage is important, as the Greens have done with the environmental and social justice areas. Comparative evidence suggests however that party splits are not often successful, as the attempt to form Change UK by breakaway Labour and Conservative MPs during the Brexit process demonstrates.

What then are the prospects for smaller parties in these elections? A Savanta ComRes poll on 21st April put Alba on as low as 1%, down from 3% two weeks earlier, while a Survation Poll on 26th April put Alba on 3%. This level of performance will not win any regional seats, which require around 6-7% of the vote on each individual list.

The Greens are polling strongly however, with Survation putting them on 10% on 26th April. Although Savanta Com Res had the Greens on 7% on 22nd April, they have generally had the party on 9-10% and ahead of the Liberal Democrats. If this performance is maintained, it looks like that it will be the Greens, potentially in their best performance to date, who continue to provide pro-independence support to the SNP, not Alba.

The Longer Term?          

If they are serious about becoming an electoral challenger, achieving longer-term organisational growth and capacity should be a key aim for smaller parties. This might involve challenging for local government seats to grow party representation, as the Greens have successfully done in Scotland. There is a degree of chicken and egg about this, of course. Success can lead to party organisational growth, but without that is unlikely to be achieved in the short term.

Alba, even if they win no Scottish parliament seats, will still have two MPs in Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey. While this may prove helpful to Alba’s fortunes, there is no guarantee that it will do so, and both may ultimately end up sitting as independents in the Commons.     

Smaller parties, then, continue to add colour to the Scottish electoral scene. While they seldom break the mould, and instead have fluctuating fortunes, in one shape or form they have become a permanent presence in Scottish politics.

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About the Author

Dr. Alistair Clark is Reader in Politics at Newcastle University. His research has focused on small parties, political parties and party systems in Scotland and elsewhere. He has written widely about electoral reform in Scottish local government, and is currently researching aspects of electoral integrity and conduct. He tweets at @ClarkAlistairJ