The newly elected Scottish parliament

The SNP has secured a fourth consecutive win in the Holyrood election, only narrowly missing out on an outright majority, but with the Scottish Greens commanding a pro-independence majority (72 of 129 MSPs). Covid precautions meant the count was held over two days but now the shape of the new parliament is clear, here are the headlines, summarised by SAL public relations partner Graeme Downie director of Orbit Communications.

  • With turnout hitting a record high of 63% – 10 percentage points higher than the average for a Holyrood election, democracy was a clear winner.
  • The SNP is the biggest party at Holyrood with 64 MSPs (up one) – just one short of an overall majority.
  • The result is remarkably similar to the 2016 vote, with the Scottish Greens making the biggest gains. The Conservatives have 31 MSPs (unchanged), Labour 22 (down two), Greens eight (up two) and the Lib Dems four (down one).
  • Nicola Sturgeon said she planned to “get on with the job” of keeping people safe and Covid recovery – but the pro-independence majority of SNP and Greens meant another referendum was the “will of the Scottish people” and there was no “democratic justification” for Boris Johnson to block it.
  • The SNP took 62 of the 73 first past-the-post constituency seats. Three seats changed hands with the SNP taking two (Ayr and Edinburgh Central) from the Tories and one (East Lothian) from Labour. But their hopes of an outright majority were dashed when the Tories held Galloway & West Dumfries and Aberdeenshire West with increased majorities.
  • In the regional lists the Greens gained one seat from Labour in Central Scotland and one from the Lib Dems in North East. The Tories gained one from Labour in Highlands and Islands.
  • The SNP success in the constituency vote – by winning Ayr and East Lothian – meant they had fewer list MSPs in South of Scotland, with Labour and the Tories both gaining one there.
  • Scottish Green co-leader Lorna Slater became an MSP on the Lothian list while her fellow co-leader Patrick Harvie was re-elected on the Glasgow list

Labour and the Conservatives will be reasonably pleased with their performance. While the former lost seats it was not as bad as those faced by the Labour party south of the border and leader Anas Sarwar, only in post a matter of weeks, can claim to have “stemmed the tide” and begun to lead a Labour recovery. 

His immediate response to the election results has followed this pattern by offering to work with the Scottish Government on Covid recovery whilst maintaining opposition to a second independence referendum. Likewise, the Tories pushing a clear anti-independence message have maintained the number of MSPs achieved at the high-water mark of 2016 under popular leader Ruth Davidson.

What about the private rented sector?
With a new Housing Bill a priority for the SNP, and with both the Greens and Scottish Labour in favour of quite radical moves to reform the PRS, it is likely we will see additional measures in legislation aimed at supporting private renters or adding additional regulations or restrictions for private landlords.  With the maths of the new Parliament, it is hard to see how the SNP will be able to resist those efforts.  For instance, steps to make it easier to introduce Rent Pressure Zones or limit grounds for ending a private tenancy will both likely be implemented over the coming term.

A ‘phoney war’
 Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to hold a referendum in the first half of the Scottish Parliamentary term, so by Autumn 2023. However, the constitution is a matter reserved to the UK Government and currently that government has continued to resist any moves to hold such a vote and there is speculation that the matter could end up in the courts.
On BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Nicola Sturgeon said she did not want the issue of a second independence referendum to end up in the Supreme Court. She said it was up to the Scottish people to decide the answer to independence after the coronavirus crisis is over. Ms Sturgeon accused the UK government of a “lack of respect for Scottish democracy” by denying a referendum.
She has further said that the holding a referendum is a “matter of when – not if”.
Michael Gove MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office has said there must be an acknowledgement from all party leaders that recovery from the pandemic has to come first before talk of the constitution. When asked on the BBC Andrew Marr show if he would take the Scottish Government to court if they hold another referendum, Michael Gove said he would not do so. He said pandemic recovery was more important than talking about a second referendum.
Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, has claimed the Conservatives won enough seats in the Scottish Parliament election to stop an SNP majority and another independence referendum. He accused Nicola Sturgeon of “already stoking division” and said the SNP must listen to the “clear message” for parties to come together in the national interest for recovery. Mr Ross remarked upon the Conservatives earning its highest ever vote share, praised the party’s performance in constituencies and has called on the Lord Advocate to stop Nicola Sturgeon from bringing forward legislation in the Scottish Parliament to hold a second independence referendum.
Anas Sarwar said that Scottish Labour were building a credible alternative has put forward an “open offer” to work with any political party on individual issues such as the NHS recovery, closing the attainment gap, and ending the climate emergency.
Relationship with the Greens 
The SNP’s immediate challenges are to talk to the Greens about any potential deal, to appoint a new Cabinet and to re-energise a government which – even those within the party hierarchy acknowledge – is flagging after 14 years in power.
The relationship with the Greens will be key, not only because it will rely on its MSPs to support it on key issues, but also because a united front will be important as it faces down an increasingly hostile Boris Johnson over IndyRef 2.
Do not anticipate the SNP going into any formal coalition agreement with the Greens but expect it to, as in the previous parliamentary term, back its budgets after extracting concessions.
A new cabinet
With four cabinet secretaries – Jeane Freeman, Roseanna Cunningham, Mike Russell, and Aileen Campbell – having stepped down the understanding is that the cabinet will be reduced from 12 to eight members to reflect the loss of experience to draw upon. Newly-elected Angus Robertson (pictured) is expected to take up a role – with constitution secretary suggested in some media circles.
A move for John Swinney to a combined finance and economy portfolio has been tipped. Meanwhile, a party source has suggested Kate Forbes would need to adopt a “service delivery role” such as education or health to be a future candidate for First Minister. The SNP has also committed to the creation of a Cabinet Secretary for Net-Zero, Energy & Transport and ministerial roles focused on the just transition and youth unemployment.
First 100 days 
The SNP has unveiled its plan of action for the first 100 days of the next Scottish Government:

Health and social care

  • Delivering a pay rise for NHS workers
  • Publishing an NHS Recovery Plan and opening the first 3 fast-track cancer diagnostic centres
  • Remove dental charges for care experienced young people as the first step to removing charges for all
  • Laying the groundwork for vital longer-term reforms, including the first steps to establish a National Care Service

The economy

  • Urgent additional support to business sectors which have been hard hit by the pandemic
  • Launch the £10 million ‘Scotland Loves Local’ programme to support local businesses and back Scotland Loves Local loyalty card schemes.
  • Roll out the £25m tourism fund including new campaign to boost Scottish tourism and vouchers for days out and short breaks for carers, people with disabilities and families on low incomes.
  • A new Council for Economic Transformation to shape the new 10-year National Strategy for Economic Transformation.
  • An extra £25m to help small businesses benefit from digital technology.

Children and families

  • Deliver a £20m summer programme of help for pupils
  • Fund councils to increase teacher numbers by 1,000 and classroom assistants by 500 – as part of our commitment to 3,500 additional teachers and classroom assistants over the Parliamentary term
  • Introduce free school lunches for Primary 4 children as the first step to delivering Free School Breakfasts and Lunches for all primary school pupils
  • Start to deliver free bikes to children who cannot afford them by establishing pilot projects and commit to rolling the scheme out fully within 12 months.

Young people

  • Deliver around 5,000 more short, industry-focussed courses to help young people train for jobs in key industries
  • Establish a new Summer Student Support Hardship Fund of £20 million for students unable to find work in the months they do not receive student support and begin a review of the future of summer student support.
  • Roll-out new school coordinators across the country to support young people access education, work, or training.

If there is to be another referendum on Scottish independence, do not expect it to happen any time soon.
As noted, there has been speculation that the row could end up with the courts being asked to rule on whether the Scottish Government has the power to hold a referendum without the UK Government’s agreement
Ms Sturgeon has however also pledged to hold such a referendum only once the economy and society have recovered from the impacts of Covid-19 and has committed to work with the UK Government on achieving this. Expect the UK Government to focus increased funding on Scotland over the next few years.
Ms Sturgeon is also aware that, with the polls at 50/50 for and against independence, she is taking a massive gamble. There is a need to throw red meat to activists to keep them onside, while undertaking the considerable work still needed on putting forward a coherent economic case for independence and waiting for an appropriate time to call such a vote.
Whatever happens, the next parliamentary term is set to be dominated by the constitutional question. It may be some time before we actually get a final answer to this.
As Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker said: “Everything has changed but nothing has changed.”

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