Graphic based on Mail on Sunday pollThe Holyrood electoral system was explicitly designed to make one-party majority virtually impossible, some say to “dish the Nats”. Sure enough, eight years of stable but unambitious coalition have been followed by three years of stable minority administration.

The polls suggest Parliament has settled into a relatively constant formation, with two large parties competing for first place, two medium sized parties competing for third place, then Greens and sometimes others. The most obvious coalition shapes are a large party plus a medium party, given the unlikelihood of the grand coalition.

To narrow that down still further, the Tory brand has never been properly decontaminated in Scotland, despite the odd sensible young buck on their Holyrood benches, and neither Labour nor the SNP could formally go into coalition with them here. You can’t point and shout at London cuts implemented by your Deputy First Minister’s Ministers at Westminster.

This also means the Tories’ partners down south are also off the table come May next year, at least as far as Ministerial office goes. To my mind, this leaves a limited range of options for the next Scottish Government. They are, starting with the most likely (based on current polling):

  1. Labour minority. They’ve seen how it’s worked for the SNP, and they quite like the idea of not having to share office, even if they’d share power with Parliament.
  2. Labour supported by another party more informally. The Confidence and Supply model might allow them to be propped up by the Lib Dems, or potentially by Green MSPs.
  3. SNP minority supported through Confidence and Supply. It’s hard to see them coming out ahead of Labour in May, semi-irrelevant though that is for making a majority.
  4. Either an SNP or a Labour formal coalition with the Greens. Again, looking at the numbers, it’s even less likely for the SNP and Green votes to make 65, so that alone puts Labour as the most likely partner. On the pro-side for either large party, we’re not contaminated by Westminster. However, the actual policy differences would be stark, starker than the (non-constitutional) differences between the two largest parties themselves.

Today’s poll in the Mail on Sunday is just another straw in the wind, but it is clearly blowing against the SNP and also the Lib Dems. I haven’t seen a non-SNP-commissioned poll which had them close to Labour at the top, and it’s been a while since the Lib Dems were as close to the Tories as they used to be. This one is also current, conducted this week, unlike the last one to get attention, which was from early August.

Voting intention

Labour: 39%/36%/55 (+9)
SNP: 29%/26%/35 (-12)
Tory: 16%/15%/18 (+1)
Lib Dem: 11%/12%/16 (0)
Green: na/6%/4 (+2)
Other: 5%/5%/0

(note, I used Weber Shandwick’s predictor, and am not sure if it reflects the new boundaries. Either way, the result was one more Green MSP than John Curtice estimated for the Mail on Sunday)

Again, the SNP couldn’t form a two-party majority with anyone except Labour, and SNP plus Green plus either Lib Dem or Tory isn’t a majority either. Conversely, Labour would only ever need any one of the three largest parties to win any given vote, and given how well Bruce Crawford’s dealt with the need to find Labour or two others, that would look pretty tempting.

This would be a radically changed Holyrood after May. A massive swath of the SNP back benches would be out after one term, and the fight for first and second place would be very clear. Salmond would surely be gone as leader, too, despite the desperate counter-polling, which would almost certainly lead to a mouthwatering contest.

Labour’s substantial lead over the SNP in voting intention would put them 20 seats ahead, yet the Lib Dems’ constituency strengths mean they wouldn’t fall much behind the Tories. The gap for third would still be very clear, though, at least in votes. As Malc suggests, if you back the Coalition, why vote Lib Dem instead of Tory? The Green Group would double in size but no longer hold the balance of power. One wee thought – an extra one percent on the Green list vote from the Lib Dems, and we’re up three more to seven. It’s going to be a hard-fought eight months.

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