Scotland’s largest political party comes into this election all but certain to win the most votes and councillors – but carries the baggage of two previous misfires. Since becoming Scotland’s dominant party in 2011, so far they’ve failed to translate their high levels of parliamentary support into local votes. After Holyrood elections in which the SNP have either won or come within touching distance of a majority and won over 40% of the list vote, the 2012 and 2017 local elections saw them take around a third of votes and seats.
This nonetheless represents a substantial success compared to the pre-STV era. Back when FPTP was the voting system of choice, the SNP often struggled to make an impact. Though they’d established themselves firmly as the second party of local government by the time devolution arrived, their representation was patchy.
The final FPTP election in 2003 perhaps illustrates this, with plenty of SNP councillors across those areas of the former Tayside, north eastern Aberdeenshire and Moray where they’d long held Westminster seats, but comparatively few anywhere else. Though not enough to take control of overall councils, you could also find concentrations of SNP councillors in West Lothian, western Renfrewshire, bits of West Dunbartonshire (lots of wests here), Glenrothes in Fife, and especially around Cumbernauld in North Lanarkshire.
One of the defining features of the SNP is that by the start of this century, they’d really begun to grow into the “National” part of their name. Labour’s era of dominance was typified by depth – they had astonishing support in the urban Central Belt, but weak to no support in most of rural Scotland. The SNP’s era is instead typified by breadth – they’re pretty much everywhere.
We see that here in the fact that they are the only party to have ever contested every council at one election, and have typically only had any notable absences from the two Northern Isles councils. They are also the only party ever to fully contest 30 councils, thanks to a full slate in Na h-Eileanan an Iar in 2012. However, in a shock turn of events, this year is the first time since STV was introduced the SNP have not contested every single mainland ward.
Although it’s just a few wards, they are absent from one in Highland and two in the Borders. I’d be fascinated to know what went wrong there, but that’s the kind of information parties often keep to themselves. For context, in 2017 those three wards had almost 10,000 votes cast in them, compared to around 6000 in Orkney. That’ll cost them more in terms of seats and vote share (albeit still not much) than the fact this is their second absence in a row from those islands.
There’s an obvious similarity between this chart and the previous one – since the SNP have generally fully contested the mainland councils, they also contest almost every ward. They came closest to an absolute full slate in 2012, standing at least one candidate in 98% of wards. This year, thanks to the above noted absences, is their second lowest contest rate in the STV era.
Although it’s easy to see a drop of 3 wards versus 2017 and assume that’s simply the three mentioned previously, that’s not quite the case. Boundary changes reduced the number of wards in North Ayrshire but increased them in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, which is why there is one ward extra overall. That reduction in North Ayrshire is cancelled out by the fact they are contesting a second ward in Shetland.
Candidates and Councillors
Candidates Nominated and Councillors Elected
This chart gives a neat visualisation of the relative difficulty the SNP have had with local government since their shock Holyrood majority in 2011. They clearly anticipated a similar breakthrough at local level in 2012, standing 40% more candidates than in 2007. However, their haul of councillors only increased by 17%. That was still enough to give them a wider lead in seats and cement their status as largest party, but it was something of a damp squib.
2017 continued in a similar vein as lacklustre gains across the Central Belt merely offset losses across the North East. Although the SNP ended up with a net increase in councillors, given boundary changes between 2012 and 2017, that was estimated to be a slight loss in notional terms. They’ll be hoping that this time around, finally, they can open up the same kind of leads as they have at Holyrood.
Their chances of doing so however may be blunted by a substantial decrease in their number of candidates. In some places this amounts to an acceptance of electoral reality – dropping from 56 to 50 candidates in Glasgow, for example. They’d never have won two thirds of the seats in the city, and frankly they won’t win 50 either. In other places however, they’ve left themselves no room for growth. In Highland they won 22 councillors in 2017, and this time are standing 23 candidates. In Moray, they won 9 last time, and are standing 9 this time. These are places they must surely have expected to do better, given relatively poor 2017 results.
They are also weak in the Borders, where they won 9 last time and are standing 9 this time, and Dumfries and Galloway, where they’re standing 12 – one per ward. If the SNP were to do as well at the locals as at Holyrood, they’d need more candidates in all of these councils. I don’t know whether this speaks to being overly cautious or a difficulty in finding candidates for rural areas, but either way, this could have serious consequences for their seat tally.
That earlier point about the SNP being a party of breadth is extremely apparent in this chart. Even at the first STV election in 2007, they were already represented in 85% of wards. Come 2017, they’d further increased that to 93%. That compares with Labour’s peak of 69% in 2012, and the Conservatives’ 64% in 2017.
Share of Votes and Seats
Given the SNP’s near-complete slate at every election, the distinction in this chart between their total national vote and vote in wards contested is extremely marginal. Note how although there was an increase between 2007 and 2012 (of 4.4% of the national vote), it paled in comparison to their growth from 2007 to 2011 at Holyrood (13% of the regional vote).
For whatever reason, since Holyrood and Local elections have been unlinked, the SNP’s vote at the two has also been unlinked, when previously it had been relatively close. Back in 1999, their local vote had been 1.4% higher than their Holyrood list vote. In 2003, it was 2.2% higher. It fell behind for the first time in 2007, coming up short a still pretty modest 3.1% – perhaps because the SNP were now competing locally in some places with parties they’d already been competing with at Holyrood for years. All of these are much lower than the unpaired elections since. Their “gap” between 2011 and 2012 was 11.7%, and then 9.4% between 2016 and 2017.
The assumption most of my local election coverage has worked on this year is that 2017 was a uniquely bad year for the SNP, which is unlikely to be repeated. 2012 as a pre-referendum election was also rather different. An exclusive local poll for BBS which put them at 44% of first preference votes would seem to back that assumption up. However I think that’s too far in the other direction and would make this a uniquely good year. I reckon it’s highly exaggerated – though we’ll see come May – and that approaching 40% from the other end may be a more realistic assessment.
This chart is the same seat numbers as in the candidates and councillors chart, just shown as a share of the total. This again emphasises the SNP’s relative underperformance at local elections versus parliamentary. Whereas at Holyrood they’ve been around the 50% mark at all three elections since 2011, they’ve been at around 35% of councillors through the same period. This isn’t entirely local election underperformance, as the architecture of local representation plays a part too.
At parliamentary level, urban and rural areas have roughly equivalent ratios of voters to representatives. Councils don’t, and that doesn’t have any democratic issues at that level, as each council is self-contained. It does however mean that Independent-heavy rural and island councils help to slightly deflate not just the SNP but every party’s seat share nationally. A more SNP-specific factor is then that since their recent gains have been in the urban Central Belt, they are particularly impacted.
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.
A truly good result for the SNP has to be more than just gaining a handful of seats – they need to make a further significant advance. Across my Wards Worth Watching pieces, I picked out a total of 55 gains that struck me as possible. If they can take roughly half of those in net terms, up to around 460 councillors, that strikes me as respectable progress. Note that some of those gains are no longer possible due to nomination decisions, but that’s a self-inflicted problem for the SNP.
Beyond overall seat numbers, they may particularly want to recover some lost ground in the North East and Perthshire, historic strongholds they suffered in last election. Similarly, taking a clear vote lead in more councils will be a key marker of success – at minimum, I’d say they should be taking leads in Edinburgh, Stirling and Angus to call it a good day. However by failing to stand a second candidate in Moray’s Buckie ward, resulting in an uncontested election, they’ve put a massive dent in their prospects of a popular vote lead in that council.
Obviously, a loss of seats would qualify as a bad election. For some other parties, based on current context, a small loss of seats wouldn’t actually be that bad. Ironically enough, despite having the biggest haul of seats to start with, I reckon it would for the SNP. That’s the power of the weight of expectation – they’ve already done unexpectedly poorly at the past two elections. A third election of doing the same is likely to prove highly frustrating in private, even if they’d still publicly present an overall victory as a great success.
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