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.
Argyll & Bute is a bit Frankenstein’s monster, if I’m being honest with you. The core of this council area is (most of) the historic county of Argyll, a vast stretch of rural and island Scotland centred on Lochgilphead but with the main population centre at Oban. It also includes the island of Bute, drawn from what was Buteshire. Together, these formed the Argyll and Bute district of the Strathclyde region under the previous structures, bolting a big chunk of the geographical highlands onto Glasgow. When boundaries were redrawn for unitary councils in the 90’s, the Helensburgh and Lomond portion of Dunbartonshire was drawn in, so it was a bit of the Central Belt in the position of “odd, ill-fitting appendage”.
The bulk of this area was Conservative throughout much of the 20th century, though the SNP won the Argyll seat in both of the 1974 elections. Starting in the late 80’s, in line with the rest of the Highlands, it became a Lib Dem seat. In 2007 the SNP relieved them of the Holyrood equivalent, though they’d have to wait until 2015 to complete the set in both parliaments. Helensburgh and Lomond remain tied to Dumbarton for the Scottish Parliament, and thus have one of just two remaining Labour constituency MSPs.
In the old district, Independents were consistently dominant, winning a majority of seats at every election, a trend that continued for all FPTP elections in the current council. Throughout that period the SNP and Conservatives both tended to have a handful of councillors and Labour one or two. In the later years, the Lib Dems also grew into a substantial group, particularly by 2003 when they outnumbered all other party-affiliated councillors.
Previous STV Elections
Just like single-party majorities, Independent majorities proved highly vulnerable to proportional representation. Although Independent councillors were still by far the largest bloc on the council, with 16 seats, they were reduced to a minority. A majority of seats went to political parties for the first time, with 10 for the SNP, 7 Lib Dems, and 3 Conservatives.
Independents continued to go backwards in 2012, though only barely, ending up with 15 seats. The SNP weren’t too far behind on 13 seats, whilst the Lib Dems and Conservatives equalised on 4 councillors each as the former’s collapse took effect.
With Conservatives surging across rural Scotland this year, something had to give. Despite still winning the most votes overall, the 10 Independent councillors weren’t the largest group for the first time. That position instead went to the SNP, though that was largely down to suffering fewer losses, as they dropped to 11 seats. Conservatives made big gains to end up with 9 councillors, and even the Lib Dems had a relatively pleasant time of it, growing to 6 seats.
Notably for the first time since STV was introduced, one of the wards in Argyll and Bute was uncontested. That gave one councillor each to the SNP, Conservatives and Lib Dems, and it’s possible one of those parties might have gone without had a local Independent made a go of it.
Wards Worth Watching
Let’s start with what isn’t happening: boundary changes. Though Argyll and Bute came under the purview of the Islands Act and thus had some proposed changes put forward, those ended up rejected. There was quite strong opposition to them locally, ironically enough from some quarters on the basis they felt island-only wards would mean councillors lacking valuable perspective on island-mainland links. That’s probably just postponed changes until another round ahead of 2027, however.
What might happen is somewhat unpredictable, given the traditionally Independent landscape. Where Independents might re-emerge is much harder to predict than where parties might do well, for obvious reasons, so instead I’ll focus on the latter. Conservative prospects of overtaking the SNP for second place have probably dimmed lately, especially if the SNP mount a resurgence around Oban. They could still have a solid result however, especially if the Lib Dems have downed tools somewhat as part of their “pull back into strongholds” strategy.
Update following close of nominations: The SNP, Conservatives and Lib Dems are all standing full slates here. Both Labour, in 7 of the 11, and the Greens, in 5, have increased their number of candidates versus 2017. Alba are contesting 2. More details here.
South Kintyre (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Lib Dem, Conservative.
Let’s start with that uncontested ward. I have to admit I’m not sure how it ended up uncontested, given that in both previous elections the Conservative councillor won a whopping 45% or so of the vote. Especially given they’d had their Holyrood surge the year before, you’d have thought the Conservatives had a great shot at two councillors.
I’ve therefore got this pegged as a possible gain for them, at the Lib Dems’ expense – it’s unlikely that in this part of the country the SNP would be the ones losing out, at this point in time. However, if the Conservatives inexplicably don’t stand a second candidate, an Independent could arrive on the scene and pinch the Lib Dem seat.
Update following close of nominations: The Conservatives have once again absolutely inexplicably chosen not to stand two candidates here – can they not find any? The only reason the ward has ended contested this time is that an Independent is standing, so watch to see if he relieves any of the three parties of a seat.
Mid Argyll (3)
2017 Councillors: Philand (Independent), SNP, MacMillan (Independent).
A classically Independent leaning ward this one, the Conservatives weren’t actually too far off pipping MacMillan to the post. At the final stage they were about 2.5% behind, so you could easily imagine the party nabbing a seat here with a fair wind. Emphasis on fair wind however!
Oban South and the Isles (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP, McCuish (Independent), Devon (Independent), Conservative.
If we go way back to 2012, this was one of the strongest SNP wards in the country. They swept three of the four councillors here. But in 2017, they dropped to just one. Why? Well, every single one of their councillors elected in 2012 subsequently left the party. Two of them are the Independents re-elected in 2017.
As chaotic as that past may be, it also means the SNP are in with a clear shot at a second councillor here this time around. On 2017 figures it’d be easiest to claim that from the Conservatives, but one of the Independents could crash out as well. McCuish in particular has since joined the Independence for Scotland Party. It’s not impossible he’s re-elected under that banner, but it might be too fringe a hop for local voters, even attached to a weel-kent name.
Update following close of nominations: It’s curtains for the Independence for Scotland Party, as McCuish is not re-standing. The ISP are standing in a few wards across Scotland, but their chances are zero otherwise.
Oban North and Lorn (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Robertson (Independent), Conservative, K Green (Independent).
The ward covering the other half of Oban is another strong prospect for an SNP gain, without any of the chaotic history of its southern counterpart. The SNP were about 2.8% behind Green (the Independent) and with solid growth could displace him. Alternatively they could again seek to bump the Conservatives out, though that was a wider 4% gap.
Another one to watch out for here is a possible Green (the party). This was a strong result by their standards in 2017, and it’s the kind of starting point that has returned councillors at the next election in the big cities with a focused, targeted campaign. That may be slightly more challenging to turn into a seat here given the more dispersed nature of Argyll and Bute, so I’d rate this as amongst the more distant prospects in this piece, but it is a prospect.
Helensburgh Central (4)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, Lib Dem x2, SNP.
This is one of a number of wards across the country the Conservatives did not just foresee the extent of their success, and did themselves out of a second seat by standing just one candidate. Instead, the Lib Dems ended up with a double they’d otherwise have had no business winning. Assuming the Conservatives aren’t so daft this time, this could be an easy gain for them.
Update following close of nominations: The Conservatives are indeed standing two, and the Lib Dems are only standing one, which almost guarantees there will be a Conservative double here.
Helensburgh and Lomond South (3)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, Lib Dem, SNP.
If we only had 2017 results to go on for this ward, I’d probably say it was most likely to remain as-was. However, there was a by-election here at the start of 2021 following the sad passing of the Lib Dem councillor, Ellen Morton, which came out as follows:
By-Election Winner: Conservative.
These figures would instead have given two Conservatives, knocking out the Lib Dems. That’s not to say the Lib Dems don’t have a chance at a full election, especially if the Conservatives are struggling a bit more, just that they are now clearly at risk here.
Update following close of nominations: As with Central, the Conservatives are confirmed to be going for the double here.
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