After months of intense preparation on my part, Thursday finally saw Scotland going to the polls for our local council elections. This year, we were electing 1226 councillors across 355 wards in our 32 councils. Hopefully, folk found the live reporting of ward results on Ballot Box Scotland Twitter yesterday enjoyably and useful. That wasn’t just me though – can you imagine me trying to tweet results for 355 wards by myself? I had a team of nine lovely volunteers lending me a helping hand, without whom I’d have been lost, so I’m enormously grateful to them.
Now begins a much longer slog of pulling together all the data, analysing it, and building what I hope to be the most in-depth and informative dataset ever published for a Scottish election. Before we get to that though, the first thing to do is cast an eye over the national picture. Buckle in, because this is (unsurprisingly) a slightly longer read than usual.
First Preference Votes
Elections are in part a game of expectations, and it’s not just raw seat or vote numbers that matter, it’s whether they exceed or fall short of what a party hoped for. With that in mind if I was to summarise this election, I’d say the Greens are ecstatic, the Lib Dems very happy, Labour quite content, the SNP are putting a brave face on frustration, and then the Conservatives are going to be feeling extremely glum. I’ll go into more detail about each party below though, rather than do so here.
Councils with Vote Lead
That this election was much weaker for the Conservatives is partly evidenced by a sharp dip in the number of councils they were the most popular party in. Angus, Perth & Kinross, Stirling, South Ayrshire and Edinburgh all went into the SNP’s column. Similarly, Independents lost their collective advantage in both Highland and Argyll & Bute, again to the SNP. Labour meanwhile held onto their sole lead in vote terms, in East Lothian.
Councils with Seat Lead
We can also look at this in terms of seats. As STV obviously involves transfers, parties can and do take leads in seats even where they don’t exist in first preference votes (which would be the “ideal” to be proportional to, that’s why it’s, y’know, the first preference). That’s partly what delivered Labour’s seat lead in West Dunbartonshire and in Inverclyde. They also lost such leads in Midlothian and what was a tie with the SNP in North Ayrshire.
The Conservatives too ceded seat leads to the SNP in Stirling and East Renfrewshire, even though they were the ones with a narrow vote lead in the latter. For Independents, it was Highland and, jointly with the SNP, Angus that they’d had seat leads in 2017 they no longer do. I’m actually a bit relieved there are no ties, as I’ve never been good at patterning maps for them!
SNP - Votes
This is certainly growth for the SNP compared to 2017, but remember they were at 44% (at the end of March) then 41% (just before polling day) in local election polls. I’d said at the time I thought that was a substantial overestimate and their share would look more like their Holyrood list vote. Well, their current average there is 33.2%, so I’m feeling rather vindicated.
However you spin it, this is a bit of a damp-squib election for the SNP for the third time running. They just cannot seem to make their parliamentary support carry over to local level. Some of that may simply be down to who turns out for local elections, as the general expectation would be that the SNP’s voters are drawn disproportionality from low-turnout groups, for example voters living in more deprived areas and younger folk.
Some of it might be situational for each election. 2012 had the collapse of the Lib Dems but was pre Labour collapse and so that likely bolstered Labour, and might have also been a reaction against the SNP’s Holyrood majority the year before. 2017 was a bad year for the SNP overall, as seen at Westminster the next month. And perhaps this year, they’re struggling slightly under the weight of having been in government for 15 years. All that said, everything is relative – you can bet any party at UK level would give their right arm to be over 12% clear of their nearest competition!
SNP - Seats
Continuing the underperformance theme, this is what I would class as a fine result for the SNP. I’d set the threshold for a good result at 460 seats, and 460 seats this is not. If we accept they’d underperformed previously, they need to do better than this. Interestingly, failure to reach that figure feels self-inflicted. I reckon under-nomination cost them a total of 9 seats summed up across the Borders (1), Dumfries & Galloway (2), Highland and Moray (both 3).
Moray in particular was a dire misstep for the SNP, though a source tells me they simply could not find the candidates. I’d said when Buckie ended up uncontested that, since it was one of their strongest wards in the area, it would make it harder for them to win the popular vote at least. Sure enough, they lost the Moray popular vote by 0.3% as a result. It wasn’t all bad in rural Scotland though, as they recovered lost ground in Angus and Perth & Kinross in particular, whilst also doing quite well in Argyll & Bute.
The big cities had similarly conflicting stories. They made slight gains in seats in both Aberdeen and Dundee, which in the latter case allowed them to claim majority control. However, they ended up net-neutral in Edinburgh, and were knocked by a strong Labour challenge and surging Greens in Glasgow. They’ll have been relieved not to have actually been beaten in the latter, as that would have been an even more stark headline for them.
Where the SNP perhaps did best this election was actually non-city urban Scotland. They picked up a decent number of seats in the likes of Fife and North Lanarkshire, plus smaller but still important gains in all of the Renfrewshires (plain, East and Inverclyde) and Lothian (East, Mid and West), alongside Clackmannanshire.
Labour - Votes
Although much has been made lately of Labour’s recovery, on the day it was a relatively mild one compared to 2017. It is however a more significant advance on last year’s result of 17.9% of the Holyrood list vote, and they certainly won’t be sneezing at it. As I noted on my Scotland Tonight appearance (not trying to big myself up, just saying), Labour are fine with a relatively narrow lead over the Conservatives at the moment – it just needs to be a lead.
That gives them the opportunity to argue the case that they are now the best pro-Union option to attempt to beat the SNP. They are now armed with a credible argument to attract more voters back from the Conservatives, who may still be wavering despite eventually plumping for the blues this election. Labour also stand in slightly fewer wards than the SNP and Conservatives, though more than the Lib Dems and Greens, so at a push I’d say we can maybe go towards 23% for what could be a reading of truly national support.
Labour - Seats
Seat gains are similarly modest, but I’d said in my pre-election profile that making gains at all and coming second would be a good result for them, and so it is. A particular, and completely unforeseen, success was taking majority control of West Dunbartonshire. Coupled with coming just a hair behind the SNP in Glasgow, often seen as the biggest prize, they’ve pulled off two impressive results that have left the SNP reeling in those areas.
As if to emphasise this is the beginnings of a recovery rather than a resurgence, in the Lanarkshires Labour are barely any better off in seats than they were in 2017, despite having briefly regained MPs in both parts back then too. It’s possible that there was more of a pushback against the SNP in councils they controlled. However, Labour also made perhaps unexpected gains in Aberdeen, where as recently as a few months ago it looked like they were being heavily punished for their own time in administration.
One final note is the mixed bag that was more rural Scotland. They did well to gain some ground in Angus, Argyll & Bute, Moray and Perth & Kinross, but went into reverse in both Highland and Dumfries and Galloway with their lowest seat hauls yet in both councils.
Conservative - Votes
As expected, this was a pretty dire election for the Conservatives. Their vote took a big knock, dipping below 20% for the first time in any non-EU election since 2016. Given the only gaps in their spread were some islands wards, that’s an almost spot-on reading of support.
That said, bear in mind two things. Firstly, that a lot of Independents are quite attractive to Conservative voters in rural areas, which may deflate the party’s vote. On the other hand, counterbalancing that is the fact Conservative voters tend to turn out.
Conservative - Seats
No surprise that shedding a chunk of their support cost them a big pile of their councillors. Losses were particularly severe in the four councils that had backed Independence in 2014. If they thought things were poor in North Lanarkshire (from 10 to 5) and Dundee (from 3 to 1), Glasgow (from 8 to 2) would have been particularly sore, including as it did the loss of Pollokshields ward, which had been their only seat in 2007 and 2012. It also pushed them to fourth in the largest city.
But most painful for them may be that their two West Dunbartonshire councillors were swept away by the wave that elected a majority Labour administration. That makes it their only mainland council they are back to having no presence on. They also lost a large amount of support in Edinburgh, where a poor showing at Holyrood last year set the stage for calamity this time, and in Fife, where they lost half of their seats.
Unsurprisingly, they also took hits in the rural Tayside councils of Angus and Perth & Kinross, where the SNP were bouncing back. However, a combination of making up for their own under-nomination in 2017 and benefitting from the SNP’s own under-nomination this year saw them gain seats in Moray and Aberdeenshire that cushioned some of the blow. One other odd bright spot is that they narrowly pushed Labour into third in seat terms in North Ayrshire.
Whereas Anas Sarwar has been bolstered, Douglas Ross is now in a very precarious position. This is a big blow to his party, and attempts to blame it purely on wider issues with the Prime Minister are likely to be met with reminders he abandoned his own position against Johnson. We’ll see the impacts playing out over the coming days and weeks, as public recriminations are already very much underway.
Lib Dem - Votes
A good boost for the Lib Dem vote this election, and roughly in line with their local polling. However, remember they only stood in about three-quarters of wards in the country. Given a lot of their absences will have been in particularly weak areas for the party, filling those might not have amounted to that much, but they could have added a 1% or so, potentially pushing at 10% for a realistic “national” figure.
Lib Dem - Seats
After a decade in which they’ve had little to cheer, the Lib Dems will no doubt be delighted with what is a very solid increase in seats. I’d expected big losses in Aberdeenshire, but they shrugged those off – assisted, as in 2017, by some under-nominations or disappearing Independents, in wards like East Garioch and Fraserburgh & District where their vote share wouldn’t have been enough on its own. However, they also made genuine inroads in places I’d expected like Dundee and especially Highland.
Their gains also went much further than I’d expected in Edinburgh, where they actually came second in vote share. That’s a strong recovery for a party that’s otherwise often underperformed, clearly benefitting from Conservative collapse in the capital. It was a similar tale across the Firth of Forth in Fife, where they nearly doubled their seats.
They even pulled off a few surprise holds and gains, for example holding a seat in Paisley Southwest (Renfrewshire) despite the departure of a long-serving incumbent, and picking one up in Hamilton South (South Lanarkshire). It wasn’t all rosy however, as they did indeed drop out of Inverclyde, and went backwards in Argyll and Bute.
Green - Votes
As with Holyrood last year, the Greens emerged with the largest positive swing of any party, amongst what were generally not large swings. In relative terms however, this represents growth of almost half again on their 2017 result. As with the Lib Dems, since the Greens had a lot of absences (around a third of wards), we can probably add another 1-2% to this to get a “national” figure.
That’d top the Greens out at 7-8%, so a fair bit above what the two local polls from Survation suggested (3%, then 5%), and within the realms of their Holyrood result last year. However, it’d be a little lower than their current polling average for that parliament. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise though. Like the SNP, the Green voter base includes some of those least likely to turn out, in this case young people.
Green - Seats
This is a stunning result for the Greens, relative to expectations. In my preview piece, I’d noted how STV isn’t particularly proportional and how that catches the Greens out. We’ve seen that this year, with shares like 5.9% in East Dunbartonshire, 5.1% in Aberdeen, 8.1% in Midlothian and 5.7% in Dundee not landing them seats. I’d therefore reckoned with that in mind, 25 councillors would be a good result.
They blew right past that, picking up another 10 on top to end up with 35. That included seats that I thought were more likely prospects for 2027, like East Kilbride East (South Lanarkshire) and Musselburgh (East Lothian), but also wards not on my radar at all like Stepps, Chryston and Muirhead (North Lanarkshire) and even at least one not on the party’s radar in Newlands/Auldburn (Glasgow). They also won a hefty first preference lead in Glasgow’s Hillhead ward, putting a Green spot on the typical “ward by lead party” map.
That was part of a general sweep across the two biggest cities, hitting double figures for the first time with bang on 10 in both. What’s fascinating is that Hillhead was typical of Green success in Glasgow, with huge increases in wards they held and most of those they gained – Langside actually had a jaw-dropping 16% swing. Edinburgh meanwhile was more muted, with generally smaller swings and some dicier elections. This continues a trend seen at Holyrood too of Glasgow closing in on Edinburgh’s status as Scotland’s Green stronghold.
This did however come with losing one of their seats in each of Highland, Edinburgh and Orkney, though they still made net gains on each of those councils. They also failed to break through into Aberdeen, where I’d had George Street/Harbour as one of their top-three breakthrough chances in the entire country. Overall however, expect the Greens to be beaming from ear-to-ear for at least the rest of this month.
Independents - Votes
Alongside overestimating the SNP and underestimating the Greens, the clearest issue with the pre-election polls was they just could not capture Independent voting intention. Obviously the 1% from the first was completely wide of the mark, but even the 4% in the second just wasn’t high enough. With an eye to the fact Independents were less present on the ballot, I’d said something like 7-8% was reasonable. And lo, that’s what happened.
I don’t think this represents any kind of turn against Independents as a concept, but instead simply reflects that fewer of them were standing. Then, of those that were, incumbents were less likely to be amongst them. That naturally leads to voters turning to party options.
Independents - Seats
Naturally, that dip in vote meant a dip in seats. I’d pegged dropping below 150 as a possibility and, again, marvel at my predictive power! It’s worth remembering though that there are three vacancies in islands wards to be filled due to undercontested elections. Those will almost certainly add 3 more Independent councillors to this tally.
The major casualties this time were to be found in Highland, where Independents will not form the largest group the first time, placing just one seat behind the SNP, and Moray, where only 2 were elected compared to 8 last time. They also had substantial decreases in Argyll & Bute and North Ayrshire.
Independent ranks did grow in the likes of Dumfries & Galloway and Falkirk, so it wasn’t as if they were dropping out everywhere. They also mostly maintained their overall numbers in Aberdeenshire despite half of the incumbents not re-standing. Though weakened in their strongest mainland council, Independents are still likely to play a key role in determining who runs a number of councils.
Alba - Votes
I’m going to be blunt: it’s hard to see how Alba aren’t finished. Their Holyrood debut last year was frankly abysmal. 1.7% may have been fine for some plucky young upstarts coming from nowhere, but for a former First Minister with almost four decades at the forefront of public life? Grim. The one lifeline they had after that was that they could squeak a few of the councillors they’d gained as defections back across the line on a personal basis
They failed utterly to do so. After an 8.1% in a particular non-incumbent ward in Glasgow, by my reckoning, 7% in Uibhist a Deas, Èirisgeigh agus Beinn na Faoghla (Eilean Siar) was their best share for a sitting councillor, but it wasn’t enough. Nor was 5.8% in Fraserburgh and District (Aberdeenshire), 3.1% in Lochee (Dundee), and a truly mortifying 2.6% for Chris McEleney in Inverclyde West, the closest thing they have to a public figure outside of Salmond and their two MPs.
Amusingly, I was accused of “editorialising” on Twitter when I described McEleney’s defeat as mortifying. But on BBS I’ve spent the past year and a bit since Alba’s launch watching people insist they are going to burst onto the scene, just you wait. Well, the nation has waited, and hee-haw has happened. If Alba make it to the next election, it’ll be as a Solidarity-esque ego vehicle for a widely disliked former leader, standing a few no-hope candidates in by-elections and a scattering of wards. If this is editorialising, so be it.
Scottish Family Party - Votes
Newcomers to the scene, I did promise to report on parties that stood in more than 20 wards. With a final tally of 84, the SFP did indeed do so. They had an extremely marginal impact on things however. Considering they only stood in a quarter of wards, and this is about two-thirds of their Holyrood share last year, they can probably say they’ve done better overall this time.
In terms of seats and votes, one final brief note about the three “Other” councillors mentioned in the chart right at the top. The first of these is the West Dunbartonshire Community Party, in that council’s Leven ward. Mostly it’s Jim Bollan, a stalwart of the area. Notably, this is the first time in the STV era he’s come below quota, winning 16.4%. Overall, the party contested the two Vale of Leven wards and won 4.9% of the total West Dunbartonshire vote.
Next is the Rubbish Party in East Ayrshire’s Irvine Valley ward. Sally Cogley was re-elected with a healthy 18.5% first preference share. Finally, after a great by-election in 2017, and a failure to stand at one last year, the British Unionist Party picked up a seat in North Lanarkshire’s Fortissat ward, with a similarly weighty 18.8%.
Notable by their absence are the Orkney Manifesto Group, who’d won two seats in 2017. I don’t know what happened, but it seems very much like the project wound up. One of their councillors retired and the other was re-elected as an Independent.
Starting later this afternoon (you don’t want to know what time of morning I am still awake drafting this piece at…), I’ll be publishing maps and charts of the overall results in each council area. Those will go out both on Twitter and on dedicated results pages that I just need to make go live. Then, from Monday, I intend on slowly adding the much more detailed data to the site.
In theory I’ll be starting with Glasgow, just because it’s where I live and I’m very curious about it, but otherwise I’ll go primarily in alphabetical order, but that may be skipped if I need to ask any councils to provide missing information.
One final, final note – this election has proven once and for all, I think, the value of a Scotland-focussed polling and election project. When two sources down south, both with more academic credentials than I, came out with projections suggesting a net gain of 80+ seats for Labour and a central case of SNP losses, I was flabbergasted. I said (well, somewhat cryptically) that those were well wide of the mark, and I was proven entirely correct.
The simple reality of Scottish politics is that it cannot be understood by squeezing it through the lens of UK-level Westminster polling. That’s especially true given we use PR for our local elections (and for Holyrood). If that’s the approach taken, and it certainly seemed to be, you’re doomed to get it wrong. I may write more on this later this month, as I’ve got a piece stewing in my brain about what we’ve learned from the mis-fires of local polling. That’s for down the line though!
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