Scottish parliament election 2021: when is it, who are the key candidates and what are the latest polls?

A second term for Nicola Sturgeon could see a cast-iron mandate for a new referendum as Scottish voters go to the polls on Thursday, May 6.

People will vote for 129 MSPs to sit in the Scottish Parliament, Holyrood, including 73 representing constituencies and 56 representing eight regions of the country – seven for each region.

The eight regions are Central Scotland, Glasgow, Highlands and Islands, Lothian, Mid-Scotland and Fife, North east Scotland, South Scotland and West Scotland.

This means that people in Scotland are each represented by eight MSPs – one representing their constituency and the other seven representing their region.

Opinion polls suggest Thursday’s election is on a knife edge[1], following the SNP seeing a drop in their approval rating throughout 2021 in both the single seats and regional seats, with Labour[2] and the Conservatives seeing a small rise.  

Nicola Sturgeon is targeting a majority – 65 seats – so she can ramp up her demands that Boris Johnson drops his opposition to a second independence referendum. If she falls short of this mark, it will be easier for the Prime Minister to reject her call.

When is the election?

Voters will go to the polls on Thursday, May 6, in Scotland. Local polling stations [3]are open from 7am to 10pm.

What is the Scottish Parliament responsible for?

Devolved issues include health, education, transport, planning, local government, the justice system, rural affairs, income tax on earnings, property purchase taxes and some areas of the welfare system.

Policy areas such as immigration, foreign affairs, defence and the constitution are reserved to the UK Government.

Who can vote?

Anyone who is 16 and over and, for the first time, convicted prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less. Foreign nationals who are legally living in Scotland can also cast a ballot.

A record number of people have applied to vote by post due to the coronavirus pandemic. More than a million voters have registered to do this, nearly a quarter of the electorate.

How are MSPs elected?

Constituency MSPs are elected using a first-past-the-post system identical to Westminster general elections.

However, the regional list seats are allocated to parties using a complicated form of proportional representation called the Additional Member System that deducts constituency wins in that region.

This is meant to correct the scenario where a party comes a close second in each constituency but pick up no seats.

The system is meant to prevent any one party getting an overall majority but the SNP achieved this in the 2011 contest under former leader, Alex Salmond, a result that prompted David Cameron to offer an independence referendum.

MSPs can stand in both a constituency and on the regional list so if they miss out on a constituency victory, they have a back-up means of being elected.

Who are the key Scottish election party leaders?

Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP

The First Minister of Scotland for the last six years, Nicola Sturgeon took over the top job in November 2014 after being elected SNP leader unopposed following Alex Salmond’s resignation. 

With her party on course to win a landslide victory on May 6 and a fourth term in power, she is now on the cusp of winning an overall majority in Holyrood. 

Still enjoying positive personal ratings in Scottish opinion polls – especially compared to Mr Johnson – Ms Sturgeon has been placed front and centre of her party’s election campaign and plans to use her victory to demand a second independence referendum, which she wants to stage by the end of 2023.

But she has faced heavy criticism from opposition parties for planning to stage another divisive referendum while the country still recovers from Covid, and for failing to provide up-to-date research on the economic impacts of Scottish independence. 

Read more on the SNP’s 2021 election manifesto[4]

Anas Sarwar is standing against Nicola Sturgeon in her Glasgow Southside constituency

Credit: Andrew Milligan /PA

Anas Sarwar, leader of Scottish Labour 

Elected as Scottish Labour leader in February 2021, Anas Sarwar’s uphill mission is clear: to bring the waning party back to relevance, then to transform it into a credible opposition, and then to a credible alternative.

In a bid to achieve this, Mr Sarwar has taken the eye-catching decision to stand directly against Ms Sturgeon in her Glasgow Southside constituency – a seat that she comfortably won in 2016 with a majority of 9,593.

While Mr Sarwar is almost certain to be elected to Holyrood anyway because of his position on the Glasgow regional list, the result is likely to be an interesting one as it is the first time in British political history that two major party leaders have stood directly against one another.

Douglas Ross has centred his campaign on opposing a second independence referendum

Credit: PA/Jane Barlow 

Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives

Like Mr Sarwar, Douglas Ross is relatively new to the job, having been elected as Scottish Tory leader [5]in August 2020 following Jackson Carlaw’s resignation after just six months in the role.

A fierce opponent of Scottish independence and another referendum, Mr Ross has centred his campaign on opposing another independence vote and focusing instead on rebuilding from the pandemic. 

During the election campaign, Mr Ross has faced criticism for previous comments made about gypsy travellers and same-sex marriage.

Mr Ross again came under fire during a Channel 4 debate after it was revealed he said that he would have voted against same-sex marriage in 2014 if he had been an MSP.

Polling suggests that Alex Salmond’s return to politics may end in failure

Credit: Jeff J Mitchell /Getty Images

Alex Salmond, leader of the Alba Party

Alex Salmond, once a major political force in Scotland but now bordering on electoral irrelevance, made a sensational return to politics when he announced in March that he had become leader of the pro-independence Alba Party to rival the SNP[6].

Previously leader of the SNP for over 20 years, Mr Salmond served two terms from 1990 to 2000 and from 2004 to 2014. He was First Minister of Scotland between 2007 and 2014 before resigning after leading his former party’s failed attempt to leave the United Kingdom.

In August 2018, Mr Salmond resigned from the SNP in the face of allegations of sexual misconduct in 2013 while he was First Minister. In a statement he said that he wanted to avoid internal division within the party and intended to apply to rejoin the SNP once he had an opportunity to clear his name.

Later, Mr Salmond was acquitted of 13 alleged sexual offences, including one attempted rape against women either working for the Scottish Government or within the SNP between June 2008 and November 2014.

Since then, Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond have exchanged very public blows, with the current First Minister categorically ruling out working with her former mentor who she described as a “conspiracy theorist”.

But polling has so far largely suggested that Mr Salmond’s return to politics is likely to end in a humiliating failure. 

Read more on who Alex Salmond’s Alba Party are[7].

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie is aiming to retain his seat as an MSP for North East Fife

Credit: Jane Barlow /PA

Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats

Having served as leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats since 2011, Mr Rennie is vying to retain his seat as an MSP for North East Fife in the upcoming election.

An experienced parliamentarian, Mr Rennie, 53, has served as the constituency MSP for North East Fife since 2016, when he won the seat back from the SNP. Prior to that, he was an MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife from 2011, and as MP for Dunfermline and West Fife between 2006 and 2010.

During his time as an MP, he championed improvements to cancer services at local hospitals and changing the law to protect female learner drivers from sex offenders. Under his leadership, the party stands firmly opposed to Scottish independence and would not support a second referendum.

Mr Rennie has said another independence referendum would “drag the country down” as the UK seeks to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, and has instead focused his campaign on mental health, education, climate change and jobs for young people. 

Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, is a supporter of Scottish independence

Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Reuters

Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, co-leaders of the Scottish Greens

Patrick Harvie has served as co-leader of the Scottish Greens since 2008 and as MSP for the Glasgow region since 2003.

A supporter of Scottish independence, Mr Harvie’s party could end up being key to returning Ms Sturgeon to power after stating their willingness to enter a coalition with the SNP. 

When Mr Harvie was elected to Holyrood he became the parliament’s first openly bisexual member, and quickly gained attention for campaigning against the extension of the M74 motorway in Glasgow and opposing the identity cards bill.

The 48-year-old has also worked extensively on issues such as homelessness, debt, building standards, civil liberties and equality. 

Lorna Slater will be contesting the Edinburgh Northern and Leith constituency seat where she is standing against SNP incumbent Ben Macpherson. She will also be second on the party’s Lothian regional list.

What are the main issues?

The election campaign has been dominated by Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum, which she wants to stage by the end of 2023 while Scotland is still recovering from the pandemic.

Ms Sturgeon has said she needs the powers of an independent country to shape Scotland’s recovery from coronavirus. However, the Unionist parties have argued that leaving Scotland’s dominant trading partner would create crisis upon crisis.

They have urged her to drop her plans and spend the next five years focusing solely on ensuring that the economy, health service and education system recovers from the pandemic.

When will we know the results?

Due to Covid restrictions the results will not be out until the afternoon or evening of Saturday, May 8 – two days after voters go to the polls. Here is a timetable:

Thursday, May 6

Polls are open between 7am and 10pm, but there will be no overnight count and no exit poll.

Friday, May 7

Counting starts at 9am. Some of the returning officers plan to conduct the counts and declarations for all the constituencies in their respective regions on this day.

However, the largest in Glasgow – the ‘home’ count for both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Sarwar – is only conducting the count for four of its eight constituencies.

It is difficult to predict how long this will take as it is not known to what extent hygiene and social distancing precautions might slow it down. However, it is expected that counting will cease by 6pm.

Saturday, May 8

Some areas will conduct their regional list counts and announce how many of these seats have been allocated to each party. Glasgow will count their other four constituencies and the regional list.

For constituency declarations, only the successful candidate will appear on stage with the Returning Officer. No candidates will appear on stage for the regional declaration.

The results for all constituencies and regions should have been declared by the afternoon or evening.

Read more: What time are the local election results out?[8]

What happened in the 2016 election?

Ms Sturgeon’s SNP emerged as the largest party with 63 seats, but she lost six seats and the majority she inherited from Mr Salmond. She continued as First Minister, but only leading a minority government.

Under Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories more than doubled the number of seats, from 15 to 31, overtaking Labour to become the main opposition party. Labour lost 13 seats ending up with 24, the pro-independence Greens went up from two to six and the Liberal Democrats remained on five.

What will happen this time?

The SNP is on course to win a landslide victory and a fourth term in office. The only question is whether Ms Sturgeon will get an overall majority, significantly strengthening her hand in her demands that the Prime Minister gives her the power to stage a second independence referendum.

The SNP last time won 59 out of 73 constituency seats and it is thought they will get at least the same number again. The first-past-the-post system favours them as the half of Scots who back independence tend to congregate behind the SNP, while the half who oppose it divide their votes between the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats.

However, the SNP only won four regional list seats in 2016 due to their strong showing in the constituencies and they need to do better this time to win a majority.

Two other pro-independence parties are standing only on the regional list – the Greens and Mr Salmond’s Alba Party. Polls predict the Greens will make large gains, with some SNP supporters voting tactically for them, but the Alba Party may struggle to make a breakthrough.

But it appears highly likely the Parliament will again have a pro-independence majority of MSPs thanks to the Greens, even if Ms Sturgeon falls short of getting an absolute SNP majority.

She may choose to continue as a minority government in this instance or go into coalition with the Greens. Ms Sturgeon has said a pro-independence majority would be a democratic mandate for another referendum.

However, despite senior SNP figures repeatedly stating that a new referendum could take place in 2021, Ms Sturgeon did not mention any snap election[10] in her plan for her first 100 days following re-election. This is believed to be down to the fall in support for independence following the hard border[11] being introduced during the pandemic and the concern over issues which may ensue should independence take place. 

The other major point of interest is whether the Tories manage to maintain second place and their position as Holyrood’s main opposition party, or whether Labour puts them back into third again.

Mr Sarwar is seen as having made a very good start as Scottish Labour leader and the Tories fear the civil war in Downing Street and Mr Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland will dent their vote.

However, their message to Unionist voters to back them to stop a second independence referendum is clearer and more striking than the Labour one that Scotland should ‘move on’.

Read more: London mayoral election 2021 polls and candidates in the running against Sadiq Khan[12]


  1. ^ Thursday’s election is on a knife edge (
  2. ^ Labour (
  3. ^ Local polling stations (
  4. ^ SNP’s 2021 election manifesto (
  5. ^ Scottish Tory leader (
  6. ^ rival the SNP (
  7. ^ who Alex Salmond’s Alba Party are (
  8. ^ What time are the local election results out? (
  9. ^ Scottish election polling (
  10. ^ Ms Sturgeon did not mention any snap election (
  11. ^ fall in support for independence following the hard border (
  12. ^ London mayoral election 2021 polls and candidates in the running against Sadiq Khan (

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