After an extremely difficult decade with just a couple of fleeting bright spots, Labour will be hoping this year sows the seeds of regrowth. Polling has been positive for the party and although last year’s Holyrood result continued a losing trend, it was widely felt to represent a stabilising of the ship. Having spent the past six years in third place, they now have an opportunity to pull back into second.
Just like at the Scottish Parliament, Labour’s current position in local government can be summed up as “saved by a system they never wanted.” Bringing in the partly-proportional STV voting system for local elections was the Lib Dems’ price for entering a second coalition in 2003, and was bitterly opposed by some sections of Labour – including, notably, then-future leader Richard Leonard.
Back in the First Past the Post days, Labour had a stranglehold on local government in much of urban Scotland. To look at a local election map of the Central Belt was to look at a seat of red, punctuated by the occasional yellow, blue or orange island where some other party had managed to squeeze in. STV chucked hundreds of their councillors out of office when they could no longer win such (absurdly unrepresentative) sweeps. Yet in SNP-dominated Scotland, STV has been a lifeline for Labour who might otherwise have found themselves the ones clinging desperately to red islands in a sea of yellow.
Although we often think of Scotland as a whole having moved from being dominated by Labour to being dominated by the SNP, the reality is much more nuanced. What gave Labour their dominance was depth of support – their vote shares across the Central Belt were astronomical, to the extent that even into 2012 you can find council wards where they won around 75% of the vote. Since most of the population resides in the Central Belt, folk end up transposing that onto Scotland as whole, but in fact Labour were barely present in areas like the Borders, Aberdeenshire and rural Perthshire.
That difference in character of dominance is evidenced here, with Labour’s tally of fully contested councils peaking at 24 (75%) in 2007 and ticking satisfyingly (visually, no comment on the politics of it) down by one each year. That’s culminated in a low of 21 full slates, just shy of two-thirds of councils. They’ve always been less present than the SNP and Conservatives. Nonetheless, it’s still only really the islands that have been absent from the spread entirely, though compared to 2017 they’ve added a presence (and an already elected councillor) to a single Shetland ward.
Similar to the SNP and Conservatives, Labour have been fairly consistent in their total number of contested wards. Though this is their lowest number yet, at 85% of the total it’s not a mile off their peak, which was 88%. Folk making the mistake of misreading that old Central Belt dominance into Scotland-wide presence can be shocked at the lack of Labour candidates in places like Aberdeenshire, and the low support they get, but that’s longstanding rather than a sign of decline.
Other changes relative to 2017 are standing three fewer wards in Aberdeenshire, four in Highland, one in Fife (the first time they’ve not had a full slate there), plus North Ayrshire dropped a ward in boundary changes. However, they are up one ward in all of Argyll and Bute, Scottish Borders and Shetland, and three in Moray.
Candidates and Councillors
Candidates Nominated and Councillors Elected
Two slightly different lines here – the one charting total number of candidates shows a pretty steady, linear decrease at every election, culminating in coming third in terms of candidates for the first time this year. The one showing number of elected councillors shows a bump in 2012 before a big slump, amounting to about a third of their seats, in 2017. That’s a useful reminder that although the 2011 Scottish Parliament election was clearly not a great day for Labour, the sense of defeat was exaggerated by how many constituencies changed hands.
Their actual vote share didn’t change that much (a churn of votes from collapsing Lib Dems to Labour likely offset Labour to SNP losses) and it wasn’t until after the referendum that Labour truly collapsed. Slipping into third at Holyrood in 2016 set the stage for the same in the locals, though Labour didn’t do quite as badly as they were braced for. Especially in the west Central Belt, in places like Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and Inverclyde, Labour emerged with larger councillor groups than I think was widely expected.
Although Labour lost a huge number of councillors at the last elections, those mostly came from losing seats in wards they already had multiples in, rather than going unrepresented entirely. They still had a fair fall by that measure, ending up 21 wards (6%) behind their initial 2007 outcome, but not calamitous.
If Labour were to fall much further however, they’d start losing more sole seats as well. Indeed, as I noted in the Wards Worth Watching entry for the city, I myself came close to knocking them out of a Glasgow ward for the first time since STV came in! On the flip side, a recovery for Labour naturally then ends up being regaining some lost doubles rather than winning too many new wards – only doubles, as their one treble candidacy looks like a nomination paper mix up in a three-member Clackmannanshire ward, as they’ve only got one in the neighbouring four-member.
Share of Votes and Seats
If you’ve read the SNP and/or Conservative profiles, you’ll see there’s a much bigger difference between the national vote and vote in contested wards for Labour. That’s a natural consequence of standing in fewer wards. Note that whilst I’ve included this measure as it’s of interest, it isn’t the same thing as saying “this is the true share for a party”, as the areas they didn’t stand would be weaker areas.
That said in 2007 Labour did actually win more votes than the SNP, so having stood in more wards would have increased that lead, even if only slightly. In 2012 I reckon they’d still have come behind the SNP, as they’d have had to win 15% of the vote in the wards they didn’t contest but the SNP did in order to catch up – very unlikely in places like Angus, the Borders and Moray.
Note that in the opposite case to the Conservatives, Labour have actually tended to have a very slightly higher share of seats than votes. That’s in spite of the urban areas Labour do best in having fewer councillors for their population size. Even with STV, Labour were just really strong across most of the Central Belt. That still held true to a degree in 2017 for places like Falkirk, where Labour won more seats but fewer votes than the Conservatives, or Dundee and Inverclyde, where they had far more of an advantage in seats than vote share justified.
Note: Obviously, your personal perception of a good or bad result will depend on how much you like a given party. For the purposes of this piece, good and bad relate to how an impartial observer might view the result, taking into account other elections and the general situation facing that party. They are not a commentary on whether such results would be good or bad for the country.
If the weight of expectations on the SNP means they have to make substantial gains, given how rough the last few years have been for Labour I’d have said emerging with anything more than 250 seats would pass as a good, stabilising result. Given how well they did overall in last week’s exclusive BBS poll however, I’m inclined to reassess that slightly. Dropping seats at all in that context would be a bigger disappointment for them now, and so a good result now probably requires at least some growth, as well as reclaiming second place.
Other markers of a good election would be winning the most votes in at least one council. In 2017 they only managed that in East Lothian, though they were only a hair behind the SNP in neighbouring Midlothian. They also wouldn’t need big swings to take leads in the likes of the Lanarkshires or West Dunbartonshire, though those are more of a stretch if the SNP are also having a good year.
If we accept a small loss of seats would be disappointing but not disastrous given the decade they’ve had, I’m saying falling below that 250 mark makes for a genuinely bad election. In addition, Labour have now very clearly been positioned by polling to overtake the Conservatives. If that fails to materialise after the excitement, they’ll be left feeling pretty bruised.
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