Wards Worth Watching: Aberdeenshire

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.


Bringing together vast stretches of farmland, a dizzying number of traditional fishing communities, and plenty of Aberdeen dormitory towns, Aberdeenshire is one of those ginormous Scottish councils that it would be funny trying to pass off as “local” government if it wasn’t so embarrassing. Despite the name this modern incarnation doesn’t simply cover the historic county of Aberdeenshire, but has absorbed Kincardineshire and a large chunk of Banffshire, including Banff itself. Under the old District and Region model, it consisted of three parts – Gordon, Banff & Buchan, and Kincardine & Deeside.

At parliamentary level the area was typically strongly Conservative, until in the 1974 elections the SNP won the areas now covered by Banff and Buchan. Though the Conservative reclaimed them in 1979, the SNP took a much tighter hold in 1987. By this point the Lib Dems had also taken Gordon, and would take the remainder of Aberdeenshire and Kincardine in 1997. In 2015 the SNP took all Aberdeenshire seats, then lost them all to the Conservatives in 2017, and narrowly regained Gordon in 2019. Holyrood initially mirrored Westminster, though the SNP took Gordon by 2007, the whole area in 2011, and lost Aberdeenshire West to the Conservatives in 2016.

Throughout the district era each of the three were heavily Independent, though Gordon took a brief Liberal spell in 1988, and the final Kincardine and Deeside election saw an Independent-Conservative tie. The newly formed Aberdeenshire started with an SNP-Lib Dem tie, with Independents not far behind, and then the Lib Dems took a clearer lead for the last two FPTP elections.

Previous STV Elections


In a year full of “wrong winner” results, Aberdeenshire was one of the more egregious. Winning roughly 35% of the vote netted the SNP 22 seats, and the status of second largest party. The largest were the Lib Dems who won 24 seats for around 25% of the vote, whilst the Conservatives won 14 for nearly 21%. The remaining 8 seats went to Independents.


The Lib Dem collapse gave the SNP an opportunity to place a much stronger first this time, with a commanding 28 seats. That was twice the second placed Conservative’s steady 14, whilst the Lib Dems plummeted to 12 seats. Independent ranks expanded to 11 councillors, and diversity was brought by a pair of Labour and solitary Green councillors. It’s worth noting the Green had previously been a Lib Dem, and was elected very much on a personal rather than party basis. In any case, the sitting administration had to expand to include a number of Independents.


This election ended up one of the most fascinating in the country. Experiencing an incredible surge in support that nearly doubled their vote, the Conservatives ended up narrowly ahead of the SNP with 23 seats to the latter’s 21. However, they placed a whopping 12% of the vote ahead. This highlights another pitfall with STV – parties need to stand the right number of candidates. The Conservatives simply hadn’t anticipated their level of success, and by my estimate did themselves out of 7 seats by not standing a second candidate in those wards.

Naturally that bolstered the other parties and candidates. In addition to an extra SNP councillor, it led to the Lib Dems winning 14 (rather than 11) and Independents 10 (rather than 7). Labour lost one of their seats, whilst the personally popular Green was easily re-elected.

Wards Worth Watching

General Comments

In what may come as a shock to a country used to a focus on the Central Belt – to your comfort or chagrin, depending on where you live – I have to say that Aberdeenshire is hands-down the most electorally interesting council this year. It’s by no means nationally representative, but there have been some really fascinating dynamics here in recent years. Given the size of Aberdeenshire, how those pan out in May could have national repercussions.

Starting with the SNP, they’ve suffered big negative swings in recent elections. That process started in 2016 and was in full force for 2017, hence their poor result on the council and loss of all their MPs here at Westminster. Yet, they made up ground in 2019, and at least year’s Holyrood election managed to hold off (quite narrowly) the Conservatives in the constituencies they’d held in 2016. That disguised a poorer result on the list though, where the Conservatives came top in two further constituencies the SNP had won. So, for the SNP, we’re watching to see just how strong a bounceback they’ll manage compared to 2017.

Turning to the Conservatives, they are obviously in a very strong starting position here. As noted above, they grossly underestimated their support here in 2017 to the tune of a whopping 7 councillors, so surely they’ll stand more candidates this time to try and make up for that. Whether they can convert all of those new candidates into gained seats is another matter however. They were unlikely to match their 2017 peak anyway, but the lockdown parties episode may have pushed them further backwards. The combination of these two things however could give the seemingly odd circumstance of the Conservatives losing votes and gaining seats.

The Lib Dems meanwhile might find themselves extremely thankful for any Conservative difficulties. Remember, Conservative under-nomination had meant the Lib Dems could grow to 14 seats rather than fall to 11 (from 12) last election. Any lost Conservative support in Aberdeenshire is very likely to go the Lib Dems’ way. They’ll really, really need that support to flow to them. Last year’s Holyrood result was abysmal for the Lib Dems, costing them their North East MSP – and thus formal group status at Holyrood. I’d expected the Lib Dems could be bracing to lose half of their seats here – which when you consider Aberdeenshire makes up 20% of their total haul of councillors, would be a massive setback.

In addition, the five-party nature of Aberdeenshire is very clearly at risk. Labour and the Greens only won one councillor apiece in 2017, and there’s the distinct possibility that neither will have a seat this time. It’ll also be interesting to see how widely they contest this election. Labour managed 14 wards last time though given a general pull back from rural areas in recent years, they might fall below that. The Greens meanwhile only put up five candidates in 2017, but have stated their intention to stand in 11 this time.

Update following close of nominations: The Greens fell just short of that, and are standing in 10 of 19. If they’d lived up to the claim that’d have put them even with Labour who’ve fallen to 11. Conservatives, SNP and Lib Dems are thus the parties present in every ward. Alba are contesting 7. More details here.

Troup (3)

2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Partridge (Independent).

Obviously, “wards the Conservatives missed out on a second councillor for lack of a second candidate” is going to be the major theme of this entry. It was an Independent who could have lost his seat had they done so, and though it may be harder to unseat him this time if he stands again, it won’t be impossible.

Update following close of nominations: Two Conservatives and no Independent leaves the door wide open for their gain.

Central Buchan (4)

2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Smith (Independent), Lib Dem.

Conservative transfers are what took the Lib Dems over the line here, who would otherwise have just been too far behind if the Conservatives hadn’t misjudged their support. Even with those transfers their lead over the SNP’s second was only 2.6%. This was the SNP’s second strongest ward in Aberdeenshire last time, so it’s both them and the Conservatives in the running for a second here.

One possible spanner in the works – as far as I’m aware, a certain Alex Salmond still resides in the village of Strichen within this ward. I’d be surprised if he didn’t think being a councillor was beneath him, but if he did appear on the ballot paper, perhaps this could be somewhere Alba pick up a seat.

Update following close of nominations: Two Conservatives and SNP, Alba are standing but not in the form of Salmond.

Peterhead North and Rattray (4)

2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Buchan (Independent), Sutherland (Independent).

Indisputably one the Conservatives should have won a double, as they had more than two quotas. They didn’t, so instead it was an Independent in the form of Iain Sutherland who won a seat. He was only 41 votes (0.9%) ahead of the SNP at the final stage last time, so depending on how votes have shifted since then they could also be in with a shot at two seats.

Update following close of nominations: Two Conservatives, but their 2017 councillor Dianne Beagrie standing as an Independent could muddy waters.

Turriff and District (4)

2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Lib Dem, Duncan (Independent).

Close to two full quotas here last time for the Conservatives, and thus likely would have knocked Independent Sandy Duncan out. The Lib Dems meanwhile are probably relatively comfortable here – though some of the by-election results we’ll see below may suggest a closer call is coming.

Update following close of nominations: Two Conservatives and no Independent leaves the door wide open for their gain.

Mid-Formartine (4)

2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Johnston (Independent), Lib Dem.

Slightly more distant from the double than in other Aberdeenshire wards, the sub-10% share for the Lib Dems is likely what would have done them in and helped a second Conservative across the line, had there been one. We also have a much more recent snapshot of support here thanks to a by-election last year:

By-Election Winner: Conservative.

If replicated at a full election, this would be an easy double for both the Conservatives and SNP. Although this was the only Aberdeenshire ward where the Lib Dem share increased at a mid-term by-election, their candidate was 2017’s second Independent, Jeff Goodhall. That Lib Dem increase was less than Goodhall’s 2017 share, making for a net loss of support. Throw in the impact of the sitting Independent if he re-stands at May’s election, and the Lib Dems aren’t starting from a great place here.

Update following close of nominations: Two Conservatives and Johnston is re-standing, so those Lib Dem chances may be narrowed.

Ellon and District (4)

2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP x2, Lib Dem.

Narrowly exceeding two full quotas here, the Conservatives absolutely should have got a second here. Uniquely to this ward for Aberdeenshire, their lack of foresight didn’t benefit the Lib Dems or an Independent, but instead the SNP, who walked away with two seats. They’d be the only possible losers in my sights but for a 2020 by-election:

By-Election Winner: SNP.

They pulled off a bit of an upset to both take a lead in first preferences and, despite how narrow that was over the Conservatives, win the whole by-election after transfers. Both parties were clear of the 40%(+2 votes) hurdle for two seats, whilst a Lib Dem collapse could bode ill for their chances. They might be more comfortable with incumbents, but by no means safe.

Update following close of nominations: Two Conservatives and SNP.

Inverurie and District (4)

2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Whyte (Independent), Lib Dem.

Yet another ward the Conservatives should have stood two candidates, this is one where I think they might actually not quite have made it over the line. The Lib Dems were probably starting with enough first preferences that with the assumption SNP and Labour transfers would favour them over the Conservatives, they’d have held on. This was very rapidly followed by a by-election, as the Conservative councillor was elected MP the next month:

By-Election Winner: Conservative.

This would then be a clear-cut case of two Conservative councillors at a full election, but surplus and Labour transfers would probably still have hauled weakened Lib Dems over the line. However, remember 2017’s Independent councillor was absent from the ballot by virtue of incumbency. Assuming she does half-decent again, it’ll still be the Lib Dems in line for being knocked out if the Conservatives do better this year.

Update following close of nominations: Two Conservatives but no Independent, so Lib Dems may be breathing a sigh of relief. Could still be knocked out by the SNP though.

East Garioch (4)

2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Green, Lib Dem.

This was a nice, uncomplicated ward back in 2017 in terms of votes, and a highly diverse one in terms of seats. You can also see that strong Green councillor elected on a personal vote. However, this is another ward that had a by-election, following the sad death of the Lib Dem councillor:

By-Election Winner: Conservative.

This came out pretty poorly for both the Lib Dems and, especially, the Greens. If replicated in May, these are the kind of figures that would take a four-party ward and turn into a two-party carve up between the Conservatives and SNP. Clearly the Lib Dems are in the firing line, and the point about the Green support here being almost entirely a personal vote is very evident.

That wouldn’t be fatal to the Greens if that councillor was standing again, obviously – but it doesn’t seem he is. Of the 11 candidates the Greens have named for Aberdeenshire, not only is Martin Ford not one of them, but East Garioch isn’t one of the wards. That’s what makes that double-double for the Conservaitves and SNP seem particularly plausible.

Update following close of nominations: I don’t think the other parties were following the press closely to spot that Martin Ford had not been named as a Green candidate, because the Greens are entirely absent yet neither the SNP nor Conservatives have stood two candidates. They’ll regret that, as they could very easily have won the seat. Instead, there are two Independents on the ballot, who you’d assume have to be more likely than Labour to benefit.

Aboyne, Upper Deeside and Donside (3)

2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Lib Dem.

Again we have a bit of a trend-bucker here in that whilst it’d have been advisable for the Conservatives to stand two here, they probably wouldn’t have got them both in. In pure quota terms, they were about as close to second as the Lib Dems were to their seat, but throw in imperfect transfer discipline and transfers from other candidates, and the Lib Dems probably still would have made it in. However, it’d have still been a close run thing, so don’t write off Conservative chances at a double here this time.

Update following close of nominations: Two Conservatives and 2017’s SNP councillor running as an Independent.

Banchory and Mid Deeside (3)

2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Lib Dem.

A clear majority of the vote for the Conservatives here and thus a clear two councillor situation – again, had they stood two. That seems to have been to the Lib Dems’ benefit, though the SNP weren’t far ahead. In fact I’m surprised that my estimate is that the SNP weren’t the ones that would have lost out – I did that a couple of years ago and don’t have the working anymore, only the outcome. Given how much LE22 work I have to do, I’m going to have to trust my past self even whilst looking at this with a furrowed brow and going “hmmm, are you sure?” Regardless, it’s clear either of those parties could be bumped off this time by the Conservatives.

Update following close of nominations: Two Conservatives, so they’re in the running.

North Kincardine (4)

2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Lib Dem, Labour.

The final ward in this piece, and indeed the entire Wards Worth Watching series, is a doozy. Labour’s only seat in Aberdeenshire in 2017, their councillor Alison Evison has headed up COSLA, the umbrella body for Scottish local government since then. After five years in that role, and ten as a Labour councillor, she has announced she’ll be standing as an Independent this time round.

That alone has probably tanked Labour’s chances of maintaining a presence in Aberdeenshire, but it’s by no means guaranteed she’ll be re-elected as an Independent. It’s entirely possible we’ll see a much more fractured first preference vote, which could then (assuming the parties stand the candidates for it) through transfer rounds squeak a second Conservative or SNP councillor in, even from comparatively low starting points.

Update following close of nominations: Hang on. Evison is indeed standing as an Independent – but in Mearns. The story where she announced she was doing so did say Mearns, but my brain didn’t process that. I just assumed she’d stand where she’d been a councillor for 10 years. How thoroughly weird.

Right then, the Labour seat isn’t at risk from a Labour-turned-Independent councillor, but instead the Conservatives or SNP. Both are standing two candidates. Both have their 2017 councillors standing as Independents. What a chaotic ward!

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