Scottish local council elections: an analysis

Now that the 2017 local council elections are over and declared, some thoughts on how they went for the various parties, and what it means for the upcoming general election…

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Firstly, the (under-analysed) Scottish Greens. While outwardly pleased to made some gains, winning seats in certain wards for the first time and increasing their vote-share on 2013, there must be a degree of disappointment. The Greens overtook the Liberal Democrats to become Scotland’s fourth largest party in 2016. As recently as the beginning of March they were polling 8% (ahead of the Lib Dems on 6%). And local elections are traditionally where the Greens perform best. Yet while the Lib Dem vote largely held up, the Green flood never really materialised. Wherefore?

Since the beginning of March, two things have happened which have affected how the electorate has approached this vote. One event, completely beyond the Green’s control, was Theresa May’s calling a general election for the 8th of June, transferring voters’ focus away from local issues onto national (UK-level) politics – the Scottish Greens have never won a seat at Westminster, and first-past-the-post suppresses their vote. The other event was a disaster of the Greens own making.

On the 13th March, when Nicola Sturgeon announced her bid for a second independence referendum, the Greens made the calamitous decision to fall sycophantically in line with the SNP. True, the announcement in and of itself put the constitutional question front and centre in voters’ minds in the run-up to the vote. But the Greens made matters worse by not even pretending to deliberate on it.Just as Labour alienated its pro-independence voters by ignoring them, the 40% of 2016 Green voters who voted No in 2014 felt abandoned. Had the Greens at least tried to extract some sliver of radical reform out of the Scottish government they could present to their base as a victory, had they consulted members or even feigned to pause for thought, had they at the very least gone through the motions and abstained rather than overtly vote in favour, they

Just as Labour alienated its pro-independence voters by ignoring them, the 40% of 2016 Green voters who voted No in 2014 felt abandoned. Had the Greens at least tried to extract some sliver of radical reform out of the Scottish government that they could have presented to their base as a victory, had they consulted members or even feigned to pause for thought, had they at the very least gone through the motions and abstained rather than overtly vote in favour, they might have cushioned the blow. Patrick Harvey’s handling of this year’s budget negotiations showed he has a deft side. His handling of the indyref2 question betrayed his naïve one.

As far as this year’s general election goes, one can confidently predict no seats. The Greens’ votes are too thinly spread for a first-past-the-post election (all six of their Scottish Parliament seats were won on the regional list) – and for that reason voters regard a Green vote as little more than a pretentious way to spoil their ballot paper.

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The main beneficiaries from the exodus of Unionists from the Green Party appear to be the Lib Dems. They should be pleased to have outperformed the polls (11% first-preference vote share on the night as opposed to just 6% in the most recent poll). And there are some good portents for upcoming general election.

They came first in combined first-preference votes in the Edinburgh wards of Almond and Drum Brae/Gyle (winning resoundingly in Almond), a close second in Corstorphine/Murrayfield, and third in Inverleith, so are in with a good shout of following up Alex Cole-Hamilton’s 2016 Scottish Parliament constituency win in Edinburgh Western with a GE2017 recapture of the Westminster seat of Edinburgh West.

They were comfortably ahead in combined first-preference votes in the Fife wards of Howe of Fife and Tay CoastTay Bridgehead; CuparSt Andrews and East Neuk and Landward (coming second in first-preference votes) – which points to the Lib Dems retaking the Westminster equivalent of Willie Rennie’s North East Fife seat. And disgraced as Alistair Carmichael may be, one wouldn’t bet against him retaining his seat in Orkney and Shetland. So the Scottish Liberal Democrats should emerge on June the 9th with at least two, probably three seats. A great improvement on 2015, but still a far cry from the 11 they bagged in 2010.

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The Labour party had a drubbing, losing overall control of all its councils and slipping behind the Tories in numbers of councillors. SLAB have been the victims of a double collapse. They independently crumbled following the 2014 independence referendum, as national politics polarised along a constitutional fissure and Scottish Labour’s pro-indy supporters abandoned it for the SNP. The Labour Party later ran into an island-wide crisis after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader led to a bitter civil war within the party.

Today, the centre-left across Europe is a solution in search of a problem. Its traditional coalition of the metropolitan elite and working class is drifting ever further apart, and the problem in Scotland is exacerbated by the constitutional question. If Labour is to again find relevance in Scotland, it must tough it out – ignore Ruth Davidson’s jibes about going soft on the union – and welcome independence supports back into the tent; not just pay lip-service to them, but give them a proper a platform and acknowledge their voices. For as long as the party continues to denounce anyone in Labour who dares speak up in favour of separation as an SNP shill, the party will not be able to move on from the constitutional question and build an electoral alliance around the kind of issues which drive politics in the majority of normal democracies.

With a general election just weeks away, it is astonishing to see the Labour party – not long ago the unassailable hegemon of Scottish politics – pouring resources into just three seats. Tory tactical voting should ensure that Ian Murray wins re-election in Edinburgh South (Daniel Johnson also won the Edinburgh Southern Scottish Parliament constituency for Labour in 2016). East Lothian, where Iain Gray holds the Holyrood seat, sees Labour remain the largest party on the council, though with a strong challenge from the Conservatives, and a general election commanding higher voter turnout (and thus more SNP voters), Labour have a real battle on their hands.Labour’s final target – Jim Murphy’s old seat of

Labour’s final target – Jim Murphy’s old seat of East Renfrewshire – is even more of an ask. The affluent constituency, the safest Tory seat in Scotland until Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997, looks set to turn blue two decades later. The equivalent Holyrood seat, Eastwood, was won by the Tories for the first time since the opening of the Scottish Parliament (in the person of Jackson Carlaw), and with Labour haemorrhaging votes to the Tories in these local elections (Labour didn’t come first in combined first-preference votes in a single council ward in East Renfrewshire), I predict the Conservatives will unseat Kirsten Oswald of the SNP by a convincing margin. Nevertheless, with just a few hundred votes separating the Tories, the SNP and Labour in Eastwood in the 2016 Holyrood election, East Renfrewshire is the one to watch on election night, and should serve as a bellwether for how the three main parties doing.

Labour should not expect to win more than one seat in June, and should be delighted with two. Unthinkable just a few years ago, Labour seem all but certain to become the fourth largest party in Scotland in terms of Westminster seats. The party which introduced devolution with hubristic visions of a permanent Labour fiefdom now look destined to finish behind the Scottish National Party, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats.

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By traditional standards, the SNP unquestionably “won” this set of elections. They saw 431 councillors elected to the Conservatives’ 276 and Labour’s 262. But compared with the dizzying heights of 2015 and 2016, it is evident that political gravity is kicking in for the nationalists. With a vote share of 40%, they are set to remain Scotland’s biggest group at Westminster by a country mile. But retaining all 56 of their seats would take a miracle. As stated above, the Lib Dems are a shoo-in for North East Fife, and likely victors in Edinburgh West, in addition to retaining Orkney and Shetland. There is no reason the Tories shouldn’t win at least six constituencies – of the seven they won in the Holyrood election of 2016, only Edinburgh Central has no roughly equivalent Westminster seat. And Labour should win at least one, possibly two seats. So the SNP will be lucky to get into the 50s.

Nevertheless, their triumph in Glasgow, ending 37 years of Labour control, was hugely symbolic – though as much of Labour’s decline as the SNP’s rise. True, up until the Single Transferable Vote was reluctantly introduced by a Labour-led administration in 2007 as the price of coalition with the Lib-Dems, local council elections used first-past-the-post which makes outright majorities far more likely. But the fall of Labour’s last great bastion pays testimony to the yawning gulf between the Scottish electorate and the party that could once afford to take them for granted.

Equally symbolic however is the SNP’s loss of overall control of Dundee “Yes City” Council. Sure, with 14 seats to Labour’s 9 (and the Tories’ 3), they are still comfortably the largest party. But just as Glasgow is evocative of a now well-established disconnect between Scotland and the once-dominant Labour party, so Dundee betrays a nascent but quickly growing disconnect between Scotland and the all-conquering SNP. After a decade in government, the longevity of the SNP has been sustained in part by the lack of an alternative: the opposition parties have hitherto failed to convince the public they are a government in waiting. But with the de-toxified Tories now rampant, could that be about to change?

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The Tories have triumphed in these elections. Certainly, the SNP are well ahead of them in both councillors elected and vote share. But the gap is certainly now smaller than the 46.5%/22% of the last Holyrood election. The Tories surged everywhere. In Edinburgh and Aberdeen, they gained 7 and 8 more councillors respectively, pushing the ruling Labour party into third place. They went from no seats to 5 in Midlothian, taking seats from both the SNP and Labour (as well as the Greens).

They are the largest party on Aberdeenshire Council, and with the largest combined first-preference tallies in West GariochWesthill and DistrictHuntley, Strathbogie and Howe of Alford and Banchory and Mid Deeside, and with a strong showing in Upper Deeside and Donside, the Conservatives are almost certain to replicate Alexander Burnett’s 2016 election to the Holyrood seat of Aberdeenshire West with a June victory in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. As discussed above, they are the favourites for East Renfrewshire (though it will be an intense three-way battle between Lab-SNP-Con).And in the South Scotland region, where they won four constituencies in Holyrood in 2016, there are rich pickings aplenty. Both seats in the borders –

And in the South Scotland region, where they won four constituencies in Holyrood in 2016, there are rich pickings aplenty. Both seats in the borders – Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale, which David Mundell already holds, and Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk – should go blue. In addition to the Scottish Borders Council, the Tories are also now the largest party in both South Ayrshire council and Dumfries & Galloway Council, so are in with a shout of Dumfries and GallowayAyr, Carrick & Cumnock and Central Ayrshire. Prediction? At least six, possibly as many as eight seats for the Scottish Conservatives.

As far as the Scottish Tories are concerned however, the real question is: are they a Scottish government in waiting? Could they replace the SNP in 2021 and form the next Scottish government?

Their strategy of banging on about the union seems to be working. But it would be wrong to assume that everyone that is voting Tory is doing so for that reason. People are increasingly disillusioned with – and increasingly bored with – the SNP. They will happy rally behind any credible alternative if they think it might bring about change. Ruth Davidson’s personal attributes, combined with Theresa May’s shift away from Old Etonians and neoliberalism towards a British Christian democracy, have lowered class barriers to voting Tory. In the US, working class voters wouldn’t think twice about voting Republican, and perhaps this is a watershed for the Conservatives that will change the British political landscape forever.

In order to succeed, the Tories would have to do more than bang on about Ruth Davidson and the Union, and actually win an election on a Conservative manifesto in Scotland – no easy task in the Cuba of the North. But say they did…

Despite the miracle of 2011, outright majorities in the Scottish parliament are mathematically rare. And assuming the Conservatives emerged from the 2021 election as the biggest party, but without a majority, it is difficult to see how they could form a stable government. The SNP and Labour would almost certainly rule out any co-operation, and vote against every budget no matter what. The Lib Dems will be loth to enter a coalition with them, and have a lot to lose by appearing too cosy with them. And the Greens, though pragmatic in their handling of this year’s budget negotiations, are surely too far away from the Tories ideologically for any sort of agreement to work. So even if (as is perfectly possible) the Tories emerge in 2021 as the biggest party in Holyrood – whatever grumblings they may make about “mandates” and the “right to form a government” – the likelihood of a Conservative government lasting more than one or two budgets (if it can get established at all) seems low.

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Now that that’s over, roll on June 8th…

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