Although the election itself will not be held until early May, we already have a good idea of the field. All the usual suspects will be there with one or two surprise runners to add a bit of excitement to the race. As the elections for the Scottish Parliament use a modified form of Proportional Representation - based on the German system - this means that no one party is likely to win an overall majority. Also the smaller parties are more likely to win a few seats than at Westminster. All of which adds to the interest and uncertainty of the election and makes predictions even more foolhardy. Not that that has ever stopped anyone.
While we will not know exactly who will stand where until April, we do know that the election will be dominated by the four main parties in Scotland. Here is how they currently stand. The SNP, who are the current incumbents, have held up surprisingly well in opinion polls. Despite the inevitable opprobrium that attaches to all governments and the fact that as a minority government the SNP has been unable to implement most of its key proposals, the SNP are on course to do as well or even better than four years ago. Which when you consider that all the mainstream media - TV, newspapers etc - are all agin them, is quite an achievement.
What somewhat tarnishes this achievement is that Labour appear to be doing even better. For the last year or so they have consistently been in the lead in voting intentions. So this is very much an election for Labour to lose. What seems to have helped Labour in Scotland is losing power at Westminster. As the Tories are still a very toxic brand in Scotland, Labour has presented itself as the party best able to protect Scotland from the worst excesses of the Tory/LibDem Coalition in London. This may prove more difficult as the election draws nearer. By then Labour will have to spell exactly how it will protect Scotland and what cuts it will make in public services. At some point they will have to stop just blaming the SNP.
The LIbDems and the Conservatives are in a potentially very dodgy situation up here. The Tories nave been pretty much persona non grata in Scotland since the early 1980s. They only survive due the use of PR in Scottish elections - ironic, given that they are still vociferously opposed to any form of PR. Their vote rarely rises above 17/18%, so it probably represents their core support. In which case they may not lose much if any votes in the election. Still no evidence of a Cameron bounce for them up here though.
Things are very different for the LibDems. Unlike the Tories the LibDems have for decades had a very positive image and profile in Scotland. They have benefitted from a succession of well liked leaders, going back to Jo Grimond and more recently Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy. They have also positioned themselves on the left of the political spectrum and were successful Coalition partners for Labour in the first two Scottish governments. However all that has changed, perhaps utterly, with their decision to enter into Coalition with the Tories at Westminster. Much of their support, as I know from my own personal experience, came from potential Labour or SNP voters, eager to stop a Tory from winning. They are unlikely to benefit from any anti Tory vote now. Some of their candidates are well known and liked, so there is unlikely to be a complete meltdown of their previous vote. However it will be difficult for them to make a convincing case for voting LibDem, given the shambles of their broken promises at Westminster.
As for the smaller parties, it is shaping up to be quite a mini race of its own. The Greens have done relatively well in Scottish elections and have managed to get at least one MSP elected in each of the three previous elections. They currently have two MSPs, though one is retiring. Though their MSPs are well liked and highly regarded the Greens as a party have still failed to make much of an impression on the electorate. Though they do have a positive vision for Scotland, too often the media only highlights what they are against. And that seems to be a lot of fairly popular things - cars, roads, bridges, airplanes etc. At this stage it looks like the Greens will do well to stick at two MSPs.
Much of the excitement from the election and most of the blood and guts is likely to come from the left wing parties. Not sure at the moment how many of them will stand, but it seems that at three socialist/left wing parties will stand. In 2003 combining as one party they managed to get six MSPs elected. However with the self-immolation of their star turn, Tommy Sheridan, each little party has gone its separate way and they currently have no MSPs in Parliament. What will add to the fun and games is the likelihood that two star turns will be competing against each other in Glasgow. George Galloway, having lost his Westminster seat in London, has turned up once again in Glasgow, as the standard bearer for the Respect party. While a well kent face, he is possible up against another well kent face, and arguably a prettier one, in Gail Sheridan, wife of Tommy. Promises to be a humdinger of a fight. One that is sure to generate lots of media coverage - almost certainly for the wrong reasons. Whatever the case the prospects for all of these minor left wing parties does not look good.
Unlike the race amongst the parties, the leadership race seems a pretty much a one horse affair. Alex Salmond, current First Minister and leader of the SNP, is so far ahead of his competitors that in boxing terms it would be called a mismatch. For a decade or more Alex Salmond had been the outstanding politician in Scotland. Eloquent, witty and charming he is a formidable campaigner. Though Labour are well ahead in the polls, no-one should underestimate Salmond’s ability to expose Labour’s claims. If we take in the other key positions as well, then John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon would also appear a more attractive and competent pair than anything Labour can offer.
None of the other main parties has anyone of Salmond’s stature or experience. Ian Gray, Labour’s leader is as leaden and uninspiring as his name suggests. Annabelle Goldie of the Tories is regarded as a well liked great aunt, but has made no advances on increasing the Tory vote. Tavish Scott, leader of the LibDems, has so far made little impression on the wider electorate. Though their biggest problem is likely to be the albatross of their participation in the nasty Coalition in London.
As mentioned above, both George Galloway and Gail Sheridan are likely to bring a bit of glamour to the hustings if not much else. In previous elections at least one well-known person has been elected as an independent MSP. Margo MacDonald, one of our most loved and formidable politicians has stood and been elected as an independent. Alas she is to stand down, on health grounds this time. It is unlikely that anyone of similar stature will replace her.
This is a brief overview of the likely runners in May. In a short while we should begin to get some details about what they would like to do if they ever did win power. After all this is not just a game.