Wards Worth Watching takes a look at what could be some of the most interesting contests across Scotland this May, based on past election results. No claim is made that these are the only possible changes that will occur, nor that other wards aren’t interesting. Some possible outcomes will be impacted by party decisions as to number of candidates and whether incumbent councillors choose to re-stand or not.
Scotland’s third largest city has two particular claims to fame. Historically, it had as many Universities to its name as the entirety of England did, a fact it had a lot of fun with at the time. And in more modern times it has been Scotland’s oil and gas capital – though that’s perhaps a more uncomfortable status to hold in an era of pressing need for climate action. Both of these have brought the city a degree of affluence that somewhat tempered the typical leftwards lean of Scotland’s other industrial cities.
That meant that through much of the democratic era, Aberdeen’s representation in the UK parliament was split between Labour in the north and Conservatives in the south, though Labour would intermittently win both until they gained a more solid hold in 1997. The SNP won both seats in 2015, though Aberdeen South returned briefly to historic Conservative form in 2017. At Holyrood the three seats started out two Labour and one Lib Dem – again, it was the south that was odd-one-out – before the SNP gained one in 2003, and they’ve held all three since 2011.
Though Labour were the dominant force in the city council through the late 20th century, failing to win a majority in the old district just once in 1977, they typically faced a very strong Conservative group. Through the 80’s and into the 90’s the Lib Dems would slowly grow their strength to become the city’s second force, culminating in them taking the lead in the final FPTP elections in 2003.
Previous STV Elections
When STV was introduced, the Lib Dems held onto that leading status by winning 15 seats. Though the SNP had won more first preference votes, they only found themselves with 12 seats, continuing a trend from the FPTP era of underperforming versus their vote share. Labour placed third with 10 seats but they weren’t that far behind the two leading parties in votes, meaning Aberdeen was pretty evenly split between three big parties. The Conservatives placed a more distant fourth with 5 seats, and a single Independent completed the council.
The second election was another wrong winner situation, though this time it was Labour coming slightly behind the SNP but winning 17 seats to the latter’s 15. Although the Lib Dems still had a relatively respectable share, it wasn’t enough to stop a tumble down to 5 seats. It was also a pretty poor result for the Conservatives who fell below 10% and were reduced to 3 councillors, putting them on a par with Independents. However, they found themselves in a stronger governing position than previously, entering practically unremarked into a coalition with Labour and the Independents.
Whereas 2012 passed without much notice, 2017 brought high drama. It was Labour’s turn for a sharp reversal in fortunes as they fell to 9 seats, allowing the SNP to finally become the lead party in the city with their 19. Resurgent Conservatives won 11, whilst the Lib Dems slipped to 4 and a pair of Independents filled the remaining seats.
Shortly after the election, one of the Lib Dem councillors quit the party to sit as an Independent. Combined with the other Independents, Conservative and Labour groups, that enabled the formation of a bare majority administration with 23 of the 45 seats. Various party positions had hardened as a result of the 2014 referendum, the 2015 UK election and 2016 election, and Scottish Labour at national level did not approve of this coalition, and demanded their councillors withdraw. They refused to do so, and ended up sitting the entire term as “Aberdeen Labour” councillors.
Wards Worth Watching
Given 2017 was a tough year for the SNP and peak for the Conservatives, we might expect the currently over-large gap between the two to be at least maintained. Despite their overperformance last time, the SNP actually have a couple of shots at growing their representation, though not quite to a majority. Going the other way, the Conservatives only have one clearly possible gain versus a trio of easily foreseeable losses. Those are particularly easy to imagine slipping away if they are still suffering in the polls come May.
It’s very hard to say what will happen with Labour, given the odd circumstances of the past five years. They’ve got a couple of potential obvious gains, and also a couple of possible losses if there is any backlash. Bear in mind that at every by-election in the city in this term they’ve lost big chunks of their vote, and losses at Holyrood last year were substantially above their national average. Meanwhile, the heavily underrepresented Lib Dems have a few prospects for rectifying that problem, though both would involve translating decent by-election results into full election gains.
The Greens have a clear opportunity to break through and make this a five-party council for the first time. They’ve got one ward where they have an excellent chance at picking up a seat, and another more distant prospect that on a very good day could give them an instant group. They’ve also announced their intention to contest every ward in the city for the first time, compared to 7 at the last election.
Update following close of nominations: Confirmed sweep of 13 wards out of 13 for all of the Holyrood parties. Alba are contesting 4. More details here.
Bridge of Don (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Conservative, Reynolds (Independent).
In 2017 this had a couple of close calls, with Labour only 1.5% behind the SNP’s second candidate at the final stage, and earlier the Lib Dems had been just 21 votes (0.29%) behind Labour. On that basis, both parties would have a decent chance at success. However, there was a by-election here in 2019. This rare double, following the sad death of one of the SNP councillors and resignation of the Conservatives, looked like this:
By-Election Winners: Conservative, SNP.
The two defending parties easily won the seats on first preferences. Had this been a full election, it’d have been much less clear what would happen – transfers would have determine which out of the Conservatives, SNP and Lib Dems picked up the last two seats. That’s to say nothing of what the impact would have been had Reynolds been on the ballot – as a former Lib Dem, it’s possible his absence boosted his former party.
In addition, this was October 2019, when the Lib Dems were still riding high on their Brexit Bounce. They may not be quite so high, nor may the Conservatives given recent difficulties, and Labour may not be quite so low. Reynolds himself also didn’t win an entirely secure share at the full election. I’ve therefore settled on this offering a chance for Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem gains, and an SNP and/or Independent loss.
Kingswells, Sheddocksley and Summerhill
2017 Councillors: Lib Dem, SNP, Conservative.
A very solid Lib Dem performance here last time, but not one that would be likely to give them a second councillor. Instead, the final seat came down to a straight scrap between the Conservatives and Labour, with the former triumphing by 81 votes (1.6%) at the final stage. This could therefore be a strong prospect for a Labour gain.
If you refer back to the transfers you’ll also see it was even closer between Labour and the second SNP candidate when the latter dropped out, a difference of 48 votes (1.0%). Given the Conservative lead was much wider (4.6%) and allowing for general transfer dynamics, I don’t think that puts the SNP in a particularly strong position to actually win a second seat. The maths here are generally favourable to a 2:1 split for the Pro-Union parties vs the SNP.
Hilton, Woodside and Stockethill (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Conservative.
On the other hand, this is a three-member ward that could easily give a second SNP councillor. They were 2.5% behind the Conservative last time.
George Street and Harbour (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Conservative.
Here’s where the Greens have one of their best shots at a new councillor anywhere in the country, and their first in Aberdeen. In 2017 they were 4.3% behind the Conservatives at the final stage. The fact the Conservatives have been polling poorly recently combined with some, ahem, past controversy surrounding their councillor here is likely to play in the Greens’ favour.
They are also well positioned to grow their vote share in the ward. Aberdeen Central, which this ward lies within, was again the best constituency in the North East for the Greens last year at 9.9% of the vote. In addition, a brutal selection dispute ahead of the 2016 election had cratered Green organisational capacity in the North East region overall, which undoubtedly impacted their 2017 campaign too. That’s all well in the past now, and it seems the party has recovered locally.
Update following close of nominations: Although the Conservative councillor is re-standing, it’s not in this ward. That kind of move in the absence of boundary changes often speaks to a lack of confidence, so the Greens may be feeling quietly confident.
Lower Deeside (3)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, Boulton (Independent), Labour.
This is the only ward in Aberdeen not only to not have an SNP councillor, but never to have had one. They’ve failed to make it through in any of the three STV elections, but could this be their year? Well, never say never – Labour’s lead over them at the final stage last time was about 3.8%.
However, the SNP will likely have to rely on their own growth to overcome that, rather than relying on any Labour decline. The Conservatives had a big surplus here last time which boosted Labour prospects, as did a weighty pile of Lib Dem transfers. Any weakening for either of those parties could pad out Labour’s first preference share directly, never mind transfers likely remaining strong.
Torry and Ferryhill (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Conservative, Labour.
Although a mannequin was once famously nominated in this ward (don’t ask), it almost got away with not being notable this time around. Instead, another 2019 by-election raised some interesting prospects:
By-Election Winner: SNP.
Of the three by-elections in this term, this was the worst for Labour in terms of both their absolute and relative decrease in vote share, losing over half. That put both the Lib Dems and Greens within spitting distance. In fact, a quick run through the by-election as if it were for four seats suggests that the Greens would narrowly – oh so narrowly! – have pipped Labour for the final seat, having similarly narrowly overtaken the Lib Dems earlier in the process.
A by-election is of course a very different beast from a full election, however. The Greens may be boosted by the fact the Ferryhill side of the ward is in that Aberdeen Central constituency and by a strong campaign. They may be thwarted by any Labour recovery, especially if the Conservatives are weaker. Any Conservative slide may also benefit the Lib Dems, who probably won’t be as high as in 2019 but could still pick up enough transfers to win. This is therefore a harder and more distant prospect for the Greens, but it could still be a route to a pair of councillors.
Hazlehead, Queens Cross and Countesswells (4)
2017 Councillors: Lib Dem x2, Conservative, SNP.
This is a post close of nominations addition, so does not appear on the map, though as a an Aberdeen councillor pointed out on Twitter, I was perhaps remiss not to include this in the first pass. This is the ward where the Lib Dems suffered an immediate defection on the part of Jennifer Stewart. This time around they are only standing one candidate, but Stewart is standing again. It’ll be interesting to see how she fares.
After transfers in 2017, the SNP were only 27 votes (0.35%) ahead of the Conservatives’ second candidate, meaning the Conservatives have the prospect of a gain from either the SNP or the Lib Dems (notionally)/Stewart (personally).
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