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.
The Scottish Borders, it may come as a shock to hear, account for most of Scotland’s border with England. This modern area brings together the four historic borders counties of Berwickshire, Roxburgh, Selkirkshire and Tweeddale (or, archaically, Peeblesshire) as well as a portion of ancient Midlothian. Although there are plenty of mid-sized towns across the Borders, there aren’t any large towns, meaning this is a largely rural part of the country. Under the old regions and districts model this had been a region with districts split largely on historic lines, with the main departure being an Ettrick and Lauderdale district covering Selkirkshire and much of the north-central borders.
Despite that rurality, the Conservatives weren’t unchallenged here. Berwickshire’s tie with a large chunk of East Lothian meant it was typically represented by Labour with the odd Conservative intermission, whilst the then-Liberals gained the main Borders constituency in a crucial 1965 by-election, and by 1983 would end up holding both seats covering the area. The Scottish Parliament started similarly Liberal, but the Conservatives have held one Borders seat since 2007 and the SNP the other since 2011. Part of the Borders have been in a Conservative Westminster seat since 2005, and though the main seat went from Lib Dem to the SNP in 2015, the Conservatives have since secured that one too.
Locally, the region tended towards Independents, electing a majority except in 1978 and 1994. The districts largely followed suit, though Berwickshire was always Conservative majority, and Roxburgh had a Liberal majority in 1980. The first unitary election in 1995 saw a renewed Independent majority, followed by an Independent-Lib Dem tie in 1999 and Independent plurality in 2003.
Previous STV Elections
STV helped turn the Borders into an almost entirely party-political council for the first time, with a close contest for the lead between the Conservatives who emerged with 11 seats and Lib Dems on 10. The SNP ended up with a group of 6, narrowly edging out the 5 Independents who were elected. Interestingly, a specific local Borders Party had also been formed, and won 2 seats.
At the second election under PR the Conservatives maintained their leading place with 10 seats, but were perhaps unexpectedly closely run by the SNP who grew to 9 seats. Independents recovered somewhat with a tally of 7, whilst the Lib Dems went into reverse and fell to 6. The local Borders Party also held both of its seats, whilst nearly doubling its vote.
Whilst the Conservatives were undergoing a revival in most of Scotland, it’s fair to say that in the Borders they had skipped past the modest term revival and gone straight to sweeping all opposition out of their way. They won almost twice as many votes as any of their competitors to finish with a clear lead of 15 seats, ahead of the SNP who still held 9.
Independents crept up to 8 seats, whilst catastrophe visited the Lib Dems, who plummeted to 2 – likely due to the same local weakness that caused them to lose their South Scotland MSP in 2016. The Borders Party appears to have dissolved before the election, though one of their councillors was re-elected as a plain Independent.
Wards Worth Watching
This mighty bastion of the Conservatives’ revival is unlikely to be anything but this May. The question therefore isn’t whether the Conservatives win, but by how much. Given the general state of play in 2017, it’s probably fair to say the SNP underperformed, and could do much better this year. Also important will be the fate of the Lib Dems. If the Conservative result is comparatively poor, it might help reverse what had seemed a terminal withering of the Lib Dems in the Borders. Whether that’s enough to turn their fortunes around or simply keep them on life support, it’s impossible to say at this point.
The smaller parties in this area are Labour and the Greens, who were almost on a par last time – the former had stood 8 wards versus the latter’s 7. For Labour we’ll be looking to see if they are still putting in a solid slate when they’ve often been absent from rural Scotland of late. It’ll also be interesting to see whether the Greens pull a full slate together.
Oddly, their local branch opted to stand in both of the Holyrood constituencies last year, despite the general weakness of the Green vote in the South and the otherwise cautious Green approach to constituencies. That may indicate a degree of organisational capacity and desire to stand that leads to more presence this year.
Update following close of nominations: That certainly proved to be the case, as in a shock turn of events the Greens joined the Conservatives as the only two parties standing in every ward in the Borders. Astonishingly, the SNP are only contesting 9 out of 11, the same tally as Labour. That surprisingly puts both of them ahead of the Lib Dems who are contesting 7. Alba meanwhile are contesting just one. More details here.
Tweeddale West (3)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Lib Dem.
What was already a very bad election for the Lib Dems wasn’t far off being even worse. At the final stage of the count, Green transfers lifted them 43 votes (0.9%) ahead of the second Conservative candidate, enabling them to nab a seat. When you consider the first Conservative candidate was 50 votes ahead of the Lib Dems, a perfectly even split of the Conservative vote would have just locked them out.
That’s a very hard split to get, but they might not need to this time. If the Lib Dems have continued to fade here, they may have slipped too far behind already. Alternatively, five years more of local presence and Conservatives on the back foot nationally might be enough to keep one of the seats here orange.
Tweeddale East (3)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Tatler (Independent).
The other half of Tweeddale perhaps offers some brighter Lib Dem hope – if, again, they haven’t slumped further. After transfers in 2017 they found themselves about 1.9% behind the winning Independent. They could pick a seat here back up if any decrease in the Conservative share directly pumps up their first preferences. Neither the Conservatives nor SNP are likely to be in with a chance at a second seat here, but this might be a ward that flips to an SNP lead.
Galashiels and District (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Conservative, Aitchison (Independent), Scott (Independent).
Speaking of SNP-led wards, this was the only one in 2017, and not by much. However, that means it’s likely to be their best (and probably only) shot at getting two councillors in a Borders ward. Their second candidate placed 2.3% behind that second Independent, Harry Scott. That’s a deficit the SNP could easily overcome if their performance improves.
Update following close of nominations: Not if they only stand one candidate it isn’t. In addition, former Borders Party-turned-Independent councillor Sandy Aitchison isn’t standing again. Given there’s also only a sole Conservative candidate, it’s possibly a new Independent that’s most likely to pick up a seat now – possibly Bill White, who had served from 2012-2017.
Kelso and District (3)
2017 Councillors: Conservative x2, Lib Dem.
There are very few mainland wards without an SNP councillor, and Borders has two of them. The other, Hawick and Hermitage, looks like it’ll stay out of reach. This one however could have just enough of a crack in the door to let them through – indeed, they came narrowly ahead of the Lib Dems last time on first preferences, but would lose by 2.4% after transfers. That’s their most likely route in here. However, I’ve got this down as an outside chance for one of the Conservatives being knocked out.
As with so many parts of this series, that assumes a much poorer result for the party than in 2017 from a combination of not being at the same peak and suffering for recent Westminster drama. On the assumption that’d flow in the first instance to the Lib Dems that could secure their spot, and thus leave the Conservatives fighting off the SNP. That’s a longer shot, on a shift that’s already possibly quite a long shot, but we’ve got to include a few of these to keep things interesting, right?
Update following close of nominations: Nae chance of an SNP gain here, as this is one of their absent wards. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the Green vote as a result. That’s not the only oddity here, as there are two Labour candidates – a bold play from a party that won 2.7% in 2017.
Hawick and Denholm (3)
2017 Councillors: Marshall (Independent), Conservative, SNP.
This is a post close of nominations addition, and so it’s not marked on the map, as it’s the other ward the SNP aren’t contesting this time. At least with the previous ward, they’d never had a councillor! Again, worth watching to see what on earth happens to the Green vote here – they didn’t exactly do brilliantly in 2017, but they are now the sole pro-Independence party. The formerly SNP councillor however will be on the ballot as an Independent candidate, and I wonder whether it was a late decision on that front that led to an absence?
The Lib Dems are also absent here, but unlike last time there’s a further Independent in addition to that SNP-turned-Independent candidate. Incumbent Stuart Marshall won an absolutely mind boggling share in 2017, and if he does so again, his transfers will determine who picks up the vacant SNP seat. My money would therefore be one of the other Independents.
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