While the SNP look set to be in pole position again, the race to become the biggest opposition party in the chamber is still wide open. Anas Sarwar's Scottish Labour have been in second place in several polls but others have given the Tories, led by Douglas Ross (who remains an MP as well as standing for Holyrood), the advantage. The launch of the Alba party creates yet another dimension. Ultimately this means every one of the 73 individual constituency and 56 list seats up for election is important.
The campaign is already looking and feeling quite different to normal. Party campaigners are not able to knock on doors, for example, and there will be no large gatherings for set-piece events such as in-person TV debates or large manifesto launches. More people than ever before have already chosen to vote by post rather than going to a polling place.
So, when we will know the outcome? In previous elections, votes were counted as soon as the polls closed at 22:00, with the results being announced overnight. The pandemic means that the votes in this election will not start to be counted until the morning after, with some not until the Saturday, meaning a result is not expected until the weekend of 8/9 May.
So how do we make the most of ‘lobbying’ in a non-lobbying environment?
Although traditional routes like Holyrood events – the building closed to non-pass holders last March and has not re-opened, most MSPs especially with constituency links will be happy to meet by Zoom or even visit if outside or socially distanced locations can be agreed.
Scottish Ministers remain in post regardless of the election but cannot be lobbied or make any announcements that could be construed as party political since this would breach purdah rules. Westminster respects this rule informally as well.
What NOT to do is post a letter on the Friday/Saturday after the election saying ‘well done’ to a new or returning MSP – they won’t even be sworn in until the following week and will be lucky to get an office and member of staff by the end of May. But late May is a good time to contact local MSPs (remember you have seven on the list for your region as well) and by then the new committee structure should be in place.
Things will take longer if there are coalition negotiations, but Nicola Sturgeon looks certain to be back as First Minister. Assuming the SNP remains the largest party – the most likely outcome – there will be a clutch of new Ministers as a result of retirals this year.
The more targeted you can make your approach in an email header, the quicker you will get a response. But do not expect a hasty one, especially with new MSPs as both they and their staffers will be new to the Holyrood protocols.
MSPs control more than 85% of the Scottish budget (including income tax, health, education, planning etc) so ignore their influence at your peril. Even a humble backbencher can short-circuit the route to a Minister if properly persuaded.
Devin Scobie is Public Affairs Director at www.perceptivecommunicators.co.uk