LE22: The Mysterious Case of the Evaporating Independents


Earlier this month, I wrote a series of profile pieces for each of the five major parties, looking back at how they’d performed across local elections in the STV era. I didn’t however give the same treatment to Independent candidates, who in 2017 collectively formed a bloc not just larger than either the Lib Dems or the Greens, but in fact about twice their combined tally of councillors.

That was a deliberate omission, not because Independents aren’t important, but because they are, well, Independent. It’s a lot harder to read meaningful things about the general state of politics from the sum of support for Independents than it is with parties. You can just as easily have die-hard old Communists (the last of whom, that we know of, stood down in 2017) standing under their own banner as you can folk who wouldn’t have been out of place in Pinochet’s cabinet. You really can’t lump them together.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake not to talk about them at all. The focus here will be a bit different though. Instead of tallying up how many wards and councils they are present in – again, not so useful for Independents – there’s a particularly fascinating question to be asked this year: where on earth have they all gone? It’s been remarked by some that there appear to be far fewer Independents standing this time around, but just how much has it shifted?

Candidates and Councillors

Candidates Nominated and Councillors Elected

Note: Due to differences in how data was collated by different sources for previous years, some of these figures may be slightly out from what you find on e.g. Wikipedia. It depends on whether a given source counted the likes of e.g. East Dunbartonshire Independent Alliance as Independents or a local party. However, such discrepancies won’t shift anything by more than about a half-dozen.

Well, that sums up the situation quite neatly, doesn’t it? This year, the total number of Independent candidates (357) is only just over half of the peak figure in 2012 (691). Even allowing for the fact there was a huge dip between 2012 and 2017 (-27.8%), in relative terms there’s been a roughly similar one again since then (-28.5%).

It isn’t even that this is a reflection of a generally lower number of candidates this year. With 2548 names put forward in total, that’s only very marginally (-1%) behind the 2572 that stood at the last elections. Independents are therefore a genuinely much smaller part of the picture, amounting to 14.0% of all candidates, compared to 19.4% in 2017.

Candidates Nominated by Council Type

We can also look at this per general “type” of council. I’ve used broad classifications here of urban, rural and islands councils. Scotland’s council areas are mostly absolutely massive so your average “urban” council will have rural parts and vice versa, but the general categories work for these purposes.

Unsurprisingly there’s a general decrease everywhere, but it’s sharpest in urban councils with a net reduction of 64 (-34.2%) Independent candidates. Rural areas are down by almost as much, with 63 (-31.3%) fewer. Finally, the islands end up least hard hit down only 15 (-13.5%).

It’s worth then digging down as to how much of this is incumbents retiring versus “new” candidates not coming forward. Given how distinct the islands are from the mainland on this front, I’m going to look at the mainland separately to start with.

Mainland Councils

Urban Council Independents

Of 2017’s crop of Independent councillors, a total of 26 (25% of the mainland total) came from urban councils. As noted above, some of these do have quite substantial rural components – for example, South Ayrshire’s Independents represent the two geographically largest wards in the council.

Despite urban councils having the sharpest decrease in Independent candidacies, the overwhelming majority (21) of these councillors are standing again. Only 4 are retiring, and one (Robert McKendrick) very sadly passed away in office.

Rural Council Independents

Naturally, the rural councils are much more Independent heavy, contributing 80 (75%) of the 106 mainland Independent councillors at the last election. Again, the “rural” categorisation here is relative – areas Inverness, Perth and Dumfries are major urban centres, but act as cores within their mostly rural councils.

Barely more than half of these councillors (41) are standing for re-election. That compares to 33 who are standing down, 5 who’ve already resigned at some point during the term, and again one (Len Scoullar) who unfortunately died during his term. There is at least one Independent who joined a party and is standing under that banner, but that’s a bit of a different circumstance – and he’s not standing in his ward, he’s standing elsewhere as what appears to be a paper candidacy favour to his party. 

The figures are particularly stark for Moray, where only a quarter of 2017’s Independent councillors are giving it another go, and Highland, which accounts for almost half of the total loss of mainland Independents all by itself. That’s not simply turnover, it’s an exodus. 

Mainland Independents

Summing up both blocs of councillors and a total of 58.5% of the mainland councils’ Independents from 2017 are up for re-election. What about the Islands, which had the least severe decrease in candidacies?

Islands Councils

Island Council Independents

That’s oddly satisfying, isn’t it? In all three Islands councils, 13 of 2017’s Independent councillors (of which there were 62 total) are standing again. That still means a fair chunk are standing down, alongside a few resignations and again, very sadly, one (Kevin Woodbridge) who passed away.

Note that for Eilean Siar I’ve counted an Independent who joined the Greens and is re-standing in his ward again amongst the “resigned.” Obviously, he’s still the same individual, but not an Independent anymore!

This may not at first glance look as severe as the figures for the rural mainland, but it’s still quite a lot of turnover…

Island Council Totals

… In fact, in relative terms it’s only slightly better off than those rural councils, with 63% (39) of 2017’s Independents standing for re-election. More than a third of them aren’t returning, though the islands are much less likely to end up with a large net loss, just because of how overwhelmingly Independent they are anyway. That’s not to say there haven’t been very real impacts, however.

The fact that we had 8 uncontested wards across Scotland, but 5 of them were in the Islands, suggests a more acute crisis of representation here. That’s especially true given 3 of these were undercontested – they didn’t even have enough candidates to fill all the spots.

What's Going On?

Overall then, only 60% of Independent councillors are attempting to hold their seats this year. Combine that with a much smaller pool of replacements to choose from, I’d be surprised if this didn’t lead to a substantial net loss for Independents. It’s hard to quantify in advance how far they are likely to fall, but dropping below 150 councillors seems distinctly possible. Remember though that whatever they get on the day is likely to grow by 3 after the undercontested ward by-elections take place.

But… why is this happening? What has led so many Independents to pack it in this year, and why is there a substantial reduction in Independent candidacies overall? I don’t have a definite answer to that, but I do have some thoughts. Part of it is almost certainly what I talked about at the end of this piece – that being a councillor is increasingly hard and thankless.

Beyond that, we’re now at 15 years since the introduction of STV. A lot of Independents have served for most or all of that time, and indeed some have been serving since the FPTP era. It’s perhaps natural that a lot of those folk might be wanting some quieter years. Not all Independents are on the older end of the spectrum – I know at least one still in his 20’s – but they mostly are, and you can certainly understand the desire for a normal retirement!

It’s also possible that STV has done a lot to break the dominance of rural Independents in particular. In the FPTP era it wasn’t uncommon for rural wards to go completely uncontested to whatever Independent was standing, but STV has largely eliminated that. It’s also made wards larger than they were under FPTP, and means Independents often have to represent far wider areas than just their own town or village.

Political parties have thus become a steadily more prominent part of local politics in rural areas. They also benefit from needing to find fewer candidates to stand than they had to under FPTP, and that those votes are more likely to translate to seats.  Maybe more folk who would have otherwise stood as an Independent now feel they have to align to a party in order to succeed?

Whatever the cause, this time next week we’re certain to be taking stock of an election where our rural councils took on a much more partisan edge. Not just an electoral curiosity in itself, in some places it could lead to party candidates being elected who’d otherwise have had no chance. In others, it could make the difference as to who forms the rural administration. As exciting as it may be to look at what’s happened to the parties, don’t let this intriguing bit of drama pass you by.

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