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.
A largely rural council covering a huge east-west stretch of southern Scotland, from which you can variously drive into England, catch the ferry to Northern Ireland, and on a clear day look south to the Isle of Man. The historic county of Dumfriesshire in the east also contains the largest town in the south of Scotland, meaning this council isn’t entirely without urban character. Although often thought of as one unit, Galloway was traditionally split into two counties – the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in the east, and Wigtownshire in the west. Much of this area is prime agricultural land, though plenty of small ports and fishing villages line the coast, and indeed one of those is my ancestral home (on one side of the family anyway).
At Westminster these areas were typically Conservative leaning, though the SNP won Galloway in October 1974 and 1997, whilst Labour took Dumfriesshire in the latter. That was initially repeated in the Scottish parliament, but the Conservatives gained the Galloway seat there in 2003 and have held it since. Labour meanwhile kept a tight hold of Dumfriesshire until the Conservatives gained it in 2016. At Westminster the Conservatives had likewise gained Galloway in 2001 as their only Scottish constituency, before effectively swapping with Labour on new boundaries in 2005. Though the SNP gained the Galloway seat from Labour in 2015, the Conservatives won it in 2017 and have therefore held the entire area in both parliaments since.
Under the previous structures, Dumfries and Galloway was a region with four districts underneath – the two Galloway counties (albeit with modified borders) whilst Dumfriesshire was split into Nithsdale and an Annandale and Eskdale district. These were typically mostly Independent, though they lost their Nithsdale majority in 1984 (to no overall control), Annandale and Eskdale in 1988 (to the Lib Dems), and regionally in 1994 (no overall control or avail, as the unitary came in the next year). They led in the first unitary election in 1995, with Labour the strongest party bloc, which repeated in 1999, before Labour took a slim minority lead in 2003.
Previous STV Elections
More than in any other rural council, STV was something of a disaster for Dumfries and Galloway’s Independents, as just 2 were elected. The Conservatives instead emerged as the clear lead party with 18 seats, ahead of Labour’s 14 and the SNP’s 10. That left 3 for the Lib Dems.
The Conservatives had a comparatively poor election this time, and were narrowly beaten by Labour, on a split of 15 to 14 seats. It was steady as she goes for the SNP with 10 again, whilst Independents made a reasonable comeback to take 7 seats. Unsurprisingly poor figures for the Lib Dems reduced them to a single councillor.
In a year the Conservatives were doing very well in general, they naturally ended up back out in front in this old stronghold, growing to 16 seats. The SNP also made slender gains to end up with 11 seats, tying them with Labour who had fallen somewhat. Independents too suffered a setback, with just 4 elected, and the solitary Lib Dem was safely returned.
Wards Worth Watching
Given the Conservatives’ historic strength in Dumfries and Galloway and their cementing of Parliamentary level dominance, they should easily hold onto their status as the largest party here. By contrast this was the SNP’s weakest mainland council, and even allowing for the fact 2017 was a poor year for them, they’ll probably still end up adrift by at least 10% of the vote.
What’s perhaps more interesting here is what happens with the Labour vote. They’ve absolutely collapsed here at Holyrood level, scraping into double figures with 10.6% of the list vote last year. That could be catastrophic for them if mirrored at local level, and almost certainly spell the end of their coalition administration with the SNP. But remember, if the Conservatives remain weakened by recent events, it may be Labour who benefit, which could blunt the worst of the losses.
It’s not just Labour who perform poorly here. The fact the Lib Dems have held a seat here disguises their almost complete absence from elections – they stood in just 3 of the 12 wards last time, and goodness knows if they’ll stand in many more this time. Although the Greens stood in 7 locally, in last year’s Holyrood election this was their weakest area within their weakest region. They may nonetheless grow this election, and though it’s a tough area, there’s one possibility for a councillor at a stretch.
Update following close of nominations: Advances for both of the smaller parties, with 10 of 12 for the Greens and 5 for the Lib Dems. Conservatives, SNP and Labour standing in all wards. Alba are contesting one. More details here.
Stranraer and the Rhins (4)
2017 Councillors: Scobie (Independent), Conservative, SNP, Labour.
This is a bit of a wild area, as in 2017 Independent Willie Scobie won almost two seats worth of votes just to himself. That was actually nothing compared to the previous Stranraer and North Rhins ward, where he’d been elected as a Labour councillor in 2007, then won an eye-popping 62% as an Independent in 2012. His transfers then helped see a Labour candidate, by surname McCutcheon, across the line. They didn’t do so in 2017, when she followed suit in standing as an Independent.
Instead, that brought another Labour councillor in on a very low first preference share. Would you believe it but that Labour councillor, Tommy Sloan, also chucked the party to sit as an Independent, forming the “Dumfries and Galloway Socialists Group” on the council with Scobie. Stranraer simply cannot keep a Labour councillor. Anyway, I wonder if that means they might finally not even bother electing one this time around. Apart from a double-independent, another option for displacing Labour might be the Conservatives, who didn’t stand a second candidate last time but were more than halfway there.
Update following close of nominations: Both Independents re-standing and two Conservatives, so watch for a messy time of it here.
Dee and Glenkens (3)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Maitland (Independent).
This was a ward with a tight contest between the SNP and Independents in 2017, with Douglas Swan being relatively narrowly beaten by Jane Maitland (3.7%) and the SNP (4.2%) at the final stage. Given how unpredictable Independents are, that alone wouldn’t have made me put this down as one worth watching. However, a couple of things have put it on my radar. Firstly, there was a by-election here in late 2018 after the Conservative stood down:
By-Election Winner: Conservative.
The absence of all of 2017’s Independents, Labour and the Lib Dems meant almost 41% of the total vote was up for grabs. No surprises then that all of the Conservatives, SNP and Greens recorded decent increases in their vote share. Since the next thing making this ward notable is that Maitland has announced she’s standing down this May, that’s the kind of Conservative share that could get them two councillors. However, I’m told they might only be standing one candidate, who isn’t even their current councillor who is instead standing in the Castle Douglas ward, which then blows things wide open for the third seat.
Given the history of the ward, a chunky surplus could go another Independent’s way – Wyper appears to be quite locally active still, and 2017’s SNP candidate is opting for an Independent run too, though you’d assume he’d be less likely to pick up Conservative transfers. If none of them are doing particularly well, or it’s highly split, or there’s a solid local campaign, this could even be a bit of a surprise Green ward.
Update following close of nominations: Intel had suggested a single Conservative, but they’ve stood two. That’s almost certainly closed the door on this potential surprise Green victory, but another has opened (see the end for a new entry).
North West Dumfries (4)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, Labour x2, SNP.
Despite the size of Dumfries, this is actually the only ward that is Dumfries and nothing but – the rest of the town is parcelled up with various parts of more rural surrounds. This was a near three way tie between the big parties last time, though the Conservatives as the strongest of these were the only ones to fail to stand a second candidate. That helped ease Labour’s path to a duo, though I expect SNP transfers would have done the job regardless.
That said they weren’t impossibly far ahead, at about 2.9%, so there’s a clear chance at an SNP gain here. The Conservatives could also pick up a second seat if they were having a better election than their already strong result in 2017, though I’d err towards that being the less likely option at the moment.
Update following close of nominations: I don’t know what the Conservatives and SNP are playing at here, or if they just couldn’t find the candidates, but neither is standing a second. Labour should therefore easily hold their second seat, seeing as the fifth and only other candidate in this four-seater is a Green.
2017 Councillors: Conservative, Labour x2, SNP.
This is one of those “Dumfries plus rural” wards, though it is largely Dumfries. It’s also very similar to the previous ward in that it was pretty close between the big three, the Conservatives didn’t stand two, Labour got two, SNP transfers would probably have secured those regardless.
It’s also similar in that the SNP’s second wasn’t too far behind when they dropped out, at 72 votes (1.4%). The complicating factor here was an Independent, David Robert Slater, who was only 6.5 votes (0.13%) shy of Labour in the final round, and who might have beaten the SNP had they been the ones in contention for two seats. If the Conservatives had stood a second candidate, as you’d assume they would this time, I doubt he’d have been in the running, so I reckon this is a clear case of a possible gain for either the SNP or Conservatives.
Update following close of nominations: No second SNP – indeed, no second SNP anywhere here – but Slater is re-standing.
Annandale East and Eskdale (3)
2017 Councillors: Conservative x2, Labour.
Throughout this series I’ve been picking out every single mainland ward that lacks an SNP councillor as of interest, as they are such rarities at the moment they are always worth comment. Of those wards, this is hands down the weakest for the SNP – indeed, 10.4% was the lowest share they got in any ward they contested. When they dropped out in 2017, they were 4.5% behind Labour. In theory, that’s a gap they could bridge.
However, even if they did so, transfers could push Labour over the line, especially considering the Conservative vote was almost certainly deflated by the fact one of their 2017 councillors was standing as an Independent. You’d assume those transfers would favour Labour over the SNP. I’d actually be very surprised if this one flipped, but even the fact of continued SNP absence would be notable.
Mid Galloway and Wigtown West (4)
2017 Councillors: Conservative x2, SNP, McColm (Independent).
This is an post close of nominations addition, so isn’t on the map. It didn’t register previously, because although it is hands down the best ward in D&G (especially around the Isle of Whithorn) and had a somewhat interesting by-election in 2020, I didn’t expect that to meaningfully change anything.
By-Election Winner: Conservative.
A stonking Conservative share here that could deliver three councillors – the reason it still wasn’t worth considering is that this was sans Independents. Well, guess what, the election is sans Independents – and sans a third Conservative candidate. In fact, there are only 5 candidates all in.
That means either Labour or the Greens have to win a seat here. Although the Greens very narrowly overtook Labour in the by-election, there would be more Conservative votes going surplus than SNP, and those are likely to drag Labour over the line. I wouldn’t say never however, it really depends on what’s going on locally. Call it 80% in Labour’s favour.
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