It’s been a long time coming, but nominations for May’s local elections closed on Wednesday. If you follow Ballot Box Scotland on Twitter, you’ll have seen the vast amount of data I was pumping out from those. This piece will look at it all in a little bit more detail than is possible there – as well as take more of a look at the thorny issue of uncontested wards.
Note that for each of the five Holyrood parties, I’ll be running another series of “Party Profiles” shortly that will look at how these figures compare to previous elections. I’ll be relatively light on that kind of detail here to avoid repeating myself. The charts below are also limited to the seven parties contesting at least 20 wards, simply to keep them reasonably legible, though I may still pick out some smaller parties in the analysis.
Councils Contested (out of 32)
All of the parties that make it onto the chart are standing in a clear majority of councils. Compared to 2017, that’s one fewer for the Conservatives, static for the SNP, an increase of one for Labour, two for the Greens, and four for the Lib Dems. Of the newcomers, Alba are only short four councils of being present everywhere, whilst the Scottish Family Party are absent in 10, or the internet’s favourite funny number of 69%.
Three-quarters of councils see the presence of some other minor party in some form. A total of 18 such parties are in the running, including the Rubbish and West Dunbartonshire Community Parties which won seats in 2017. It does not include the Orkney Manifesto Group which appears to have wound up as an experiment, albeit one of their councillors is re-standing as an Independent.
Councils Fully Contested (out of 32)
Of course, simply being present in a given council area doesn’t mean everyone there can vote for you. As STV operates with relatively small ward sizes, parties often go without full coverage either if they are themselves small or if it’s an area of relative weakness for them. I know I’m always honking the “STV – not quite as good as advocates claim” horn, but this is a negative feature of any system driven solely by divisions of the whole. The more divisions you have, the more candidates parties have to find, and the more likely there is to be inequality between voters in who they can elect to the same body. That electoral nitpick aside, how many full slates does each party have?
In a shock turn of events, only the Conservatives continue to present a full slate on the 29 mainland councils. The SNP have done so at every election since STV until now, but they’ve come up short a candidate in one Highland and two Borders wards. That’s a remarkable little moment for the country’s dominant party, which in 2012 had been the only party as-yet to put up a full slate in 30 councils. Labour have never had the same breadth of presence, but they also go very slightly backwards on this front compared to 2017, lacking a full Fife contingent for the first time.
The Lib Dems and Greens are also putting forward more complete teams, up by one and two respectively since 2017. That’s a record high for the Greens, but quite far below the 17 the Lib Dems peaked at. Finally, the two newcomer parties are fully contesting one council apiece – Alba in Dundee, and the Family Party in Stirling.
Wards Contested (out of 355)
Looking at that in terms of wards, the SNP squeak narrowly ahead of the Conservatives in terms of wards contested. That gives both parties a “second-” of the STV era situation; most for the Conservatives, least for the SNP. It’s similarly the second-highest figure for the Lib Dems through this period. Labour meanwhile are on their lowest yet, and the Greens round things out with a record slate. All five Holyrood parties are thus contesting at least two-thirds of wards for the first time.
Although those two newcomer parties had a solid spread of contested councils, when it comes to wards we see the candidacies are more scattered. Alba are contesting just under a third of wards, and the Family Party just shy of a quarter. Just over half of wards have at least one Independent to vote for too.
Another quarter have one of the micro-party candidates, including 19 Libertarians, 16 TUSC, 11 UKIP, and 8 SSP. That’s the lowest number yet from the SSP, though it beats the 0 they put up for last year’s Holyrood election. There are also two West Dunbartonshire Community candidates and one from Rubbish, those local parties that actually have seats.
Something that’s important to remember is the share of wards isn’t the same as the share of voters. Urban councils generally have larger electorates per councillor than their rural counterparts. The islands wards have the lowest electorates, yet make up a big chunk of the missing wards for most parties. On the other hand, the Holyrood 5 are standing in practically every ward in the four city councils – there’s only one missing Lib Dem ward.
Wards aren’t the whole story, as of course STV offers the opportunity to elect multiple candidates from a single party – that’s part of how it delivers proportionality.
This is where the SNP have a clearer lead over their competition, standing a third as many candidates again as the Conservatives and Labour. Nonetheless, that’s lower than the past two elections. The Conservatives are on a record high and Labour a record low, with the latter slipping to third in candidates for the first time – albeit narrowly. Only a few wards have multiple Lib Dems, but this is still the most they’ve stood since the first outing in 2007.
There are plenty of Independents in the mix too, providing the fourth largest bloc overall. For the Greens, Alba and Family party, there’s a one-to-one ratio between wards and candidates. The Greens have some reasonably strong wards by this point, but they aren’t quite yet at the level where it’d be wise to stand two candidates anywhere.
In total, there are 2548 candidates contesting Scotland’s 355 wards – or not contesting, in some cases, as we’ll get onto shortly…
Last of all in terms of candidates, let’s look at the number of wards where the key players are going head-to-head. As even the major parties aren’t standing everywhere, and have different gaps, plenty of wards won’t give a fully “accurate” reading of party support. Even your most dedicated supporter can’t vote for you if you’re not on their ballot. So how many wards can we get that local reading from?
In terms of the Holyrood 5, it’s almost half of wards. Bear in mind the cities effect, so most actual voters will be able to choose between the major parties. Since Alba are also contesting very widely, I’ve also included them in the mix. They are against the full Holyrood 5 in about a fifth of wards. Again, given they have substantial slates in Dundee and Glasgow, that may represent a bit more than a fifth of voters.
It’s important to remember that the figures we do get out from these wards in May will only be reflective of, well, these wards. It won’t be an accurate “national” reading of support, as we can’t infer too much about how the parties might have done in wards they didn’t stand in, and thus how that’d have contributed to the national picture.
Quick Reference Table
For ease of reference, you can check the table below to see roughly what’s available across the country. This only shows whether a given party is present or not, and only for the Holyrood 5 and Alba. Independents and Others are counted as whole blocs. It doesn’t tell you how many candidates a party is standing, or who they are, either – as one person doing this in my spare time, I don’t have time to compile data for 2545 candidates across 355 councils at this point. When in doubt, please check your local council!
Uncontested and Undercontested Wards
We’re not done with nomination analysis quite yet! When nominations were trickling out on Wednesday, we very quickly found that some candidates had already been elected. That’s because eight wards across Scotland ended up uncontested – there weren’t enough candidates to require an election. Most of these were wards where as many candidates stood as there were seats, but we also saw for the first time “undercontested” wards – where there were still seats left over even after all uncontested candidates were accounted for. Those will prompt by-elections shortly after the full election.
Obviously, it’s rather problematic to have councillors put in place without anyone casting a single vote. But how much of a problem is it overall?
Well, for the STV era, it’s the worst it’s ever been. The first two STV elections had no uncontested wards, before three emerged in 2017 – that’s 0.9% of the total number. This year it’s a total of eight wards (2.3%), five of which are uncontested and three undercontested. That’s still a lot, lot better than the 61 (5%) that went uncontested in the final FPTP election in 2003. Of course, those were single member wards, so the comparison isn’t perfect. Let’s look at how many councillors were impacted.
Uncontested and Undercontested Councillors
So compared to the 5% of councillors elected without a single vote in 2003, only 0.7% (9) were elected that way in 2017. This year it’s 1.5% (18). There are a further 0.2% (3) that could be elected uncontested at the ensuing by-elections for undercontested wards, though you’d assume given the publicity that’s unlikely.
The uncontested and undercontested wards this year are:
- Inverclyde East (Inverclyde) – 1x Conservative, 1x Labour, 1x SNP.
- Buckie (Moray) – 1x SNP, 1x Conservative, 1x Lib Dem.
- Caol and Mallaig (Highland) – 1x Lib Dem, 1x Conservative, 1x Green.
- Shetland North (Shetland), 2x Independent, 1x Labour.
- Sgìre an Rubha (CNES), 2x Independents.
- North Isles (Shetland), 2x Independent, 1x vacancy.
- Barraigh agus Bhatarsaigh (CNES), 1x Independent, 1x vacancy.
- Sgìr Ùige agus Carlabhagh (CNES), 1x Conservative, 1x vacancy.
Whilst Inverclyde East has councillors it’d have almost certainly elected anyway, effectively going uncontested as the Lib Dems evaporated locally, some of these are more surprising. A Lib Dem in Moray is extremely funny – they’d never have managed that at a contested election. It’s likely the SNP reckoned they couldn’t get two if an Independent stood, and the ward had an Independent councillor. Who didn’t stand. Hence, no contest.
A Green in Highland is less far fetched – they already have one – but in Caol and Mallaig it’s a shock. Nobody would have expected the SNP not to contest that ward. Finally, the Labour candidate in Shetland may well have been elected, but we’ll never know – either way, he’s the first such councillor there this side of the millennium.
Anyway, it may not be as bad as the FPTP era, but it’s still not great. So what’s going on? I reckon it’s a combination of a few things – and I was quoted on some of this in the Press and Journal this morning. One of those is just the voting system – as noted earlier smaller electoral districts require parties to find more candidates. That’s why FPTP had a lot more uncontested wards than STV, as it was smaller still.
Obviously, another part of the problem is difficulty in finding candidates. It’s important to remember not all parties have members willing to stand for election in every ward, and in rural areas especially that puts parties in a catch 22 situation. Voters are unhappy if they don’t have a major party candidate, but they are also often unhappy if the candidate isn’t local. Different parties in different places will take, well, different decisions about whether to stand in those circumstances.
In addition, parties aren’t mind readers, nor are they renowned for their espionage. They don’t know what’s going on with other parties or Independents beyond what they have said publicly. So a party might opt not to stand somewhere it doesn’t think it can win. These factors combined can lead to uncontested wards.
Going deeper, why might people not want to stand for election, either for parties or as Independents, in the first place? Unfortunately, local government is massively undervalued in the UK. When it comes to tightening spending, local government is first in line – and that’s true down south as much as it is in Scotland. It receives limited media attention. Power is massively centralised in our parliamentary levels of governance, with councils especially lacking financial power. And as I’m always pointing out, local government in Scotland is just too damn big. It’s not meaningfully local – we have 32 councils in Scotland for our 5.5 million population, whereas Denmark has 98 for a similar size.
Then there’s the fact that abuse towards elected representatives is getting worse and worse. And that being a councillor is, for all it claims otherwise, almost always practically full-time work. And that despite all of that, it only pays around £18k a year – that’s not a generous salary, and you can get jobs paying that which don’t involve so much public grief.
I’m honestly not trying to spook the folk who’ve put themselves forward, and I hope they find it rewarding being a councillor – it’s not endless misery! But there are very serious issues with local democracy in Scotland that desperately need addressed. For so many people it’s not local, it’s not rewarding, and it’s not worth their while.
Here we, here we...
That’s a bit of a bum note to end on, perhaps, so I’ll outline some of what BBS will be doing over the next month. Firstly, I’ll be quickly pulling together a hub page for the elections. I had a detailed one for Holyrood, but there’s a lot more that goes on with councils, so I won’t be going quite that far. I will at least however pull all of the stuff around nominations, Wards Worth Watching (I’ll quickly add some notes to these for any changed circumstances based on nominations), and any other local election relevant pieces into the one page.
As folk who contributed to my fundraiser will know, I had intended on commissioning a series of articles about local issues. However, I didn’t quite get all the way there with funding, the poll cost more (£3600) than anticipated, and I was over-ambitious perhaps in what I could plan. I’ve therefore cut that from coverage, but the poll is due out very soon! I’ll also still be looking for some paid (as a token, rather than reflective of effort) volunteers to help report on results on count day, which I’ll put more information up about soon.
And with this mammoth piece out the way, the starting gun has well and truly been fired on the race. Keep checking back with BBS for all the latest, and a massive thank you to everyone who continues to support the project.
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.