To read some of the more lurid political commentary you’d think the outcome of the Holyrood election was already clear – Alex Salmond’s charismatic display in the televised leader’s debate has consigned the Gray-led Labour Party to defeat, Annabel Goldie’s ‘nation’s favourite auntie’ act sees the Tories set fair for a decent night, the Lib-Dems face wipe-out and the Greens may well pick up something close to the seven seats they won in 2003.

But while these are nice simple narratives for the media, and the personalisation of politics around party leaders helps fill a void left by the absence of political difference (at least between Labour, Lib-Dems and SNP), do they reflect the reality of this election?

The Scottish system is neither presidential (unfortunately for Alex Salmond) nor the first-past-the-post system that most of the political class are used to. As I know to my cost, as someone who was unexpectedly elected as a Green MSP in 2003, the quirks of Scotland’s PR system can create some very unexpected outcomes.

Perhaps the biggest quirk is the ‘constituency bonus’ effect. Take, for example, West of Scotland Region in 2007. Labour and the SNP got a similar share of the vote (34% on the list for Labour compared to 28% for the SNP), yet Labour finished with eight constituency seats to the SNP’s one constituency and four list seats.

This is because, with many more constituency (73) than list (56) seats available, if you dominate the constituency results in a region (as Labour has repeatedly done in West Central Scotland) there simply aren’t enough list seats to go round to balance the results. So Labour’s series of constituency wins with fairly small shares of the vote in the West Region (David Whitton won with 31% in Clydebank, Trish Goodman won with 36% in Renfrewshire West, as did Ken Macintosh in Eastwood, and Jackie Baillie won with 38% in Dumbarton) translated into 50% of the total seats (eight out of 16).

So for Labour the task is clear – hold the constituencies they have and win back the ones they’ve lost with narrow margins since 1999 (places like Glasgow Southside, Cunninghame North, Kilmarnock, Falkirk West, Edinburgh Eastern and Southern, Almond Valley) and they start to build an unassailable lead in Parliament – no matter how well ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’ works for the SNP on the list.

Therefore it is the ground game that matters for Labour – the door knocking and canvassing that will persuade Labour voters who stayed at home in 2007 to come out in 2011. The air war is important for morale, but winning the constituencies is what will deliver victory.

Equally, this is why the clear SNP momentum may not be enough to deliver victory. The SNP surge in 2007 failed to winkle hard-working local Labour MSPs like Sarah Boyack, Malcolm Chisholm, Lewis McDonald and Jackie Ballie out of their constituencies, despite the SNP beating Labour on the list in these seats. The same was also true of Lib-Dem MSPs like JF Munro, Jamie Stone, Jeremy Purvis, Mike Rumbles and Nicol Stephen, who also succeeded locally despite being out-polled by the SNP on the list – but more of that later.

And what of the Conservatives? They are doing alright aren’t they? Well, for the Conservatives (outside the South of Scotland) the other big quirk of the Scottish PR system – the all or nothing effect of the list – comes into play. Put simply, get above 6% on the list in a region and you will get an MSP (and with over 12% you should get two). Fall much below 6%, and certainly if you fall below 5%, and you face wipe-out.

In a region like Glasgow the Tories, with 6.6% last time, have very little cushion. In Lothian, with 13%, a drop of a couple of percentage points would see a 50% reduction in the number of Tory MSPs. So for the Tories even slight slippage could hit several regional tipping points and result in a major reduction in MSPs.

Which brings us to the Greens – perhaps the best demonstration of the all or nothing nature of the list – from one MSP in 1999, to seven in 2003, back down to two in 2007 (and Patrick Harvie, with 5.1% in Glasgow sneaking in on the narrowest of margins, largely thanks to Nicola Sturgeon winning Govan and a divided socialist vote), it has been a rollercoaster ride.

In 2003 Second Vote Green was a masterstroke, capturing the public mood to do something interesting with their secondary vote in what appeared to be an entirely predictable election. By 2007 the other parties had woken up to the need for a list strategy, emphasising that the list vote was as, if not more important than the constituency vote. The SNP demonstrated how well this could be done with their own masterful use of ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’. In 2011 the Green attempt to re-use Second Vote Green may flounder in the face of other parties’ clued-up approach to the list. But the penalties for falling short are huge – on 4% nationally, if Labour (and Galloway) do well in Glasgow, the Greens may go back to one seat. With 5% nationally, Eleanor Scott returns, taking the Green total to three MSPs. On 6% virtually every region could have a Green MSP…

And then there’s the Lib-Dems. ‘Lib-Dem campaign dead in the water’ pronounces the latest Green press release (even though it is about Scottish Water). However, the Lib-Dem tactic has always been to win pockets of support and, once elected, build such a strong sense of voter identification that it is hard to see people like Margaret Smith, Mike Rumbles, Iain Smith and even Tavish Scott himself losing. People like Alex Cole-Hamilton are also working their constituencies so hard they could still buck the trend. Again, for the Lib-Dems, the ground game is all.

So is the election done and dusted? No way. Forget the air war, the presidential debates, the media frenzy. In a relatively low turnout election it is all about who is doing the work on the ground to win the constituencies or breach the magic 6% hurdle.

Mark Ballard

About Mark Ballard

Mark Ballard is a former National Council Convenor, Election and Campaigns Convenor and Branch Co-Convenor of the Scottish Green Party. He was Green MSP for Lothian from 2003-2007.