By this time 12 weeks from now the count for Scotland’s local elections will be well underway, if machine-counting efficiency hasn’t already completed it. The 1226 councillors who’ll be in charge of the nation’s essential local services will be bouncing straight into the hard graft, whilst still knackered from the campaign. And intense negotiations to form governing administrations, under a system where single-party majorities are rare, will have already begun.
As the campaign ramps up and the results roll in, it’s important to bear in mind that local elections are a very different beast to their parliamentary counterparts. All levels of our politics are of course linked, so you can still trace familiar patterns throughout them – the relative placing of parties, and where they perform best and worst.
But if you watched the elections of 2011 and 2016, then what followed in the locals in 2012 and 2017, you may have been struck by some of the differences, especially the comparatively poor performances for the SNP. So, what could be causing these? And what can we expect this May?
2017 Was a Wild Year
The most obvious point of comparison is with the last election – and 2017 was a truly wild year. Admittedly, it feels less dramatic saying that given I don’t think we’ve had a quiet year in Scotland or the wider UK since about 2013, but it’s true. In a decade defined by the SNP’s electoral dominance, 2017 was their hardest year.
Having almost completely swept Scotland’s Westminster seats in 2015 and comfortably held government, although not a majority, at Holyrood in 2016, the SNP went into 2017 with high hopes. In particular, it seemed like the slightly less proportional voting system could see them with a majority in Glasgow, which would have been the jewel in their crown, deeply symbolic of having taken the mantle of Scotland’s “natural party of governance” from Labour.
In fact, they ended up practically static versus 2012 – gaining a handful of seats versus 2012 in absolute terms, but losing a handful when accounting for boundary changes. Advances in Glasgow and other Central Belt councils were counterbalanced by deep cuts to councillors in historic strongholds like Perth and Kinross, Aberdeenshire, Angus and Moray. The Conservative revival was at its peak, surging to such unexpected levels that the party missed out on councillors in all of those areas it would have won had it stood more candidates.
Even where the SNP did advance, they couldn’t squeeze STV hard enough for any majorities. In those urban councils where the SNP overturned longstanding Labour leads or majorities, they didn’t reach Labour’s high water mark. In part that was down again to Conservative breakthroughs, but in Glasgow in particular, Labour just did a lot better than they had at Holyrood. Perhaps the snap General Election which was called in the middle of the campaign, where those same dynamics would sweep 21 SNP MPs out of the Commons, focused voters minds?
Regardless of what went wrong for them in 2017, the SNP will be hoping this is finally the year where they crack local elections the way they have parliamentary. It appears they’ve recovered from 2017’s wobble, whilst the Conservatives had already fallen from that year’s peak even before recent Westminster woes threatened to tank their vote share.
Labour and the Lib Dems too have continued to decline since 2017, but they may find relief as the obvious beneficiaries of any Conservative misery. And though the Greens struggle more with STV than AMS, they look to be in a strong position to continue with their slow and steady upwards climb. Of course, the national political parties aren’t the only contenders…
Independents Make for Mess
Another thing that distinguishes local elections from parliamentary is how well Independents do. In large parts of the country, especially rural Scotland, Independent councillors are extremely strong. It’s much easier to get elected without party machinery at a local level, for one thing, and lacking one can actually be an advantage with some voters. Independents often attract support from voters who otherwise sit on completely opposite ends of the political spectrum just due to the – often exaggeratedly – positive connotations of lacking party affiliation.
Since there are only so many votes to go around, any that go towards Independents naturally mean fewer for parties, affecting their share of both votes and seats. Somewhere in the region of 10-12% of the vote has gone to Independents at every election since STV was introduced in 2007. They win even more seats than that share suggests, especially due to dominating the islands, due to the smaller electorates involved.
You Need How Many Candidates?!
Who stands in the first place is another major factor in overall results. If you want to get in front of every voter for the Scottish Parliament, you can do that with a minimum of 8 candidates, one for each of the 8 regional lists. It’s a bit harder at Westminster, where you’d need 59 candidates, one for each constituency. But for Council elections? There’s a mighty 355 different wards across Scotland this year. Finding that many candidates is a much bigger ask, especially given residency requirements.
No party has ever contested every ward in Scotland, though the SNP and Conservatives came reasonably close in 2017. Even then, they were still almost entirely absent from the island councils. Labour had a lot more gaps in rural areas, whilst both the Lib Dems and Greens had a broader range of absences, albeit still standing in well over half of wards.
This naturally deflates each party’s vote share, because there end up being plenty of people who’d otherwise vote for them who haven’t even been given the option. The chart above shows 2017 first preference shares, alongside the total number of wards each of the five main parties contested. Even before a single vote is cast, how many wards a party has found a candidate for will give us a sense of what to expect from their results.
It Matters Who Votes
Finally, it’s a basic fact of elections, and one that I’ve remarked on plenty of times, that turnout isn’t even across different groups of people. In general terms, older or wealthier voters are more likely to turn out than younger or poorer voters. Given that different groups also tend to vote for different parties, who actually turns out to vote can have a huge effect on the final outcome.
That differential has a greater impact the lower turnout is, because the drop-off is naturally highest amongst those already least likely to turn out. That means those low turnout groups make up a larger part of the voter base for a parliamentary election than they do for local elections, which have the lowest turnout. By contrast, the high turnout groups then become a larger share of the base in those lower turnout elections.
In Scotland, we typically expect the Conservatives to do better amongst the high turnout groups, whilst the SNP do better amongst the lower turnout cohort – people simply not voting was a huge part of their Westminster decline in 2017. Similarly we’d expect Labour and the Greens to excel amongst young voters, though Labour are a slightly complex case in Scotland due to the constitutional question.
Generally then, as the lowest turnout elections, local elections tilt slightly more towards the Conservatives than the parliamentary level votes do. Emphasis here is on “slightly” – but in a voting system where small handfuls of votes can make all the difference, slightly is often enough to tip a seat. That said, with record Holyrood turnout last year, perhaps councils might fare similarly?
On Your Marks, Get Set... Go!
Now you’ve got the general sense of what’s coming up, Ballot Box Scotland’s coverage will be getting underway in earnest. Over the next 12 weeks, I’ll be taking a much more local look at each council, starting on Monday with the first entry in the Wards Worth Watching series. These will give you both a potted political history of the area in question, and highlight some particularly interesting wards within it.
As with Holyrood last year, I’ll also be pulling together profiles on the five main parties, reflecting on their results since STV was introduced in 2007. And although I can’t promise to have the full details in one easily accessible place given how many candidates there will be, I will have some headline analysis of what parties are standing and where.
But that’s not all! Thanks to immensely generous support from all of you lovely people, I’m thrilled to say there will be a Ballot Box Scotland commissioned poll out during the election campaign. In addition to all the usual parliamentary and constitutional questions, it’ll ask about the local elections too, for a clearer sense of where things lie.
As that poll has proven slightly more expensive than anticipated and I didn’t quite make the fundraiser goal, I’ve scaled back plans for local situation reports from all 32 councils. Instead, I’ll be commissioning reports for a dozen of the most interesting council areas, spread around the country. Look out for those ahead of polling day.
I’m extremely excited to get the ball rolling on all of this, and I hope you’ll all enjoy my output as much as I enjoy creating it. And to all those out knocking doors and delivering leaflets, I hope you have as much fun as I did when I was a candidate in 2017. I may be much happier now as someone who observes elections rather than participates in them, but I really did have a wonderful time out talking to voters back then, so make the most of it whilst you can!
If you find this or other Ballot Box Scotland output useful and/or interesting, and you can afford to do so, please consider donating to support my work. I love doing this, but it’s a one-man project and takes a lot of time and effort. All donations, no matter how small, are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful.