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 fourth city once sat within Angus, but has long since grown to such size and import as to be its own unit without governing attachment to a county. The current city is a bit smaller than the 70’s version, which had included the flanking villages of Invergowrie and Monifieth plus scattered villages to the north. Once famed for the three J’s of Jute, Jam and Journalism, Dundee could be seen in some respects as an easterly parallel Glasgow, with a strong industrial era, followed by some tough post-industrial years, and now undergoing a cultural revival.
As you’d expect from a major industrialised city in Scotland, Labour were long the dominant force here. However, things were much messier than in Glasgow. At Westminster the east end of the city was a site of early SNP success, as their leader throughout the 80’s, Gordon Wilson, represented the seat from 1974 until 1987 when Labour won it. The SNP re-took the seat in 2005, sandwiched between them winning the Holyrood equivalent in 2003 and then the western seat in 2007. All Dundee constituencies have been in their hands since taking West at Westminster in 2015.
Despite this the city council wasn’t so inclined in the old district era, with the SNP not winning any councillors until 1984. Instead, the Conservatives were Labour’s main local opposition, and indeed were the largest party (just) in both 1977 and 1980. Even had the Conservatives not been experiencing a complete collapse in the 90’s, the new boundaries had removed most of their best areas. Labour won an easy majority in 1995, a tougher challenge from the SNP reduced them to a minority in 1999, before the SNP themselves took a minority lead in 2003.
Previous STV Elections
Whereas STV brought substantial change to most Scottish Councils, effects in Dundee were quite mild. The SNP were able to further grow their local lead by winning 13 seats, which had come at the Conservatives’ expense, leaving them with just 3 councillors. Labour’s 10, the Lib Dems’ 2, and a single Independent were all the same totals as they had been in 2003.
Although the SNP failed to live up to their 2011 Holyrood results in most of the country, here they achieved a majority with 16 seats. That made Dundee not only one of very few councils to have a single-party majority in the STV era, but one of just two where that was an SNP majority. As Labour were static on 10 and the same Independent was re-elected, it was the Conservatives and Lib Dems who lost out to the SNP, leaving each with just a single seat.
The SNP failed to repeat this feat in 2017, a year in which no council elected a single-party majority for the first time, as they slipped down to 14 councillors. Labour also suffered a dip to 9 seats. Those losses went to the Conservatives and Lib Dems, who returned to their 2007 tallies of 3 and 2 seats respectively. Once again, the sole Independent was re-elected.
Wards Worth Watching
The big thing to keep an eye on here will be whether the SNP can regain their lost majority. They actually briefly had one following a by-election in North East ward, after the sad passing of the Labour councillor, but not too long after one of their councillors resigned from the party and they went back to minority. Unlike neighbouring Angus, where they’d have to overturn another party’s vote lead, here they just need to extend their own, and perhaps not by that much given the imperfections of STV.
What exactly happens to Labour and the Conservatives will also be a big part of this election. The difference in seats in 2017, Labour with three times the Conservatives’ tally, had absolutely no reasonable basis in first preferences, given a mere 3% lead. Instead, transfers and uneven vote distributions did most of the work here. Until recent dramas, the Conservatives probably had a decent chance of evening things out with a couple of gains from Labour. That may be less likely now, but you never know.
Turning finally to the two smaller parties, the Lib Dems didn’t just mirror 2007 in seats, they did so in votes too. That was remarkable when you consider how badly they did in actual historic strongholds like the Borders. If they can repeat that performance this time, they are primed for further gains. Meanwhile for the Greens, Dundee is probably their weakest city by vote share, both relative to the other three City Councils and the three smaller cities without their own councils. Nonetheless, they do have at least one chance here, though it may be a distant one.
Update following close of nominations: Dundee is a full slate election not just for the Holyrood parties, but also Alba – their only one in the country. More details here.
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Borthwick (Independent).
The home of Dundee’s one Independent councillor, he was barely a bawhair from ceasing to hold that office. The Lib Dems weren’t even 9 full votes (0.15%) behind at the final stage of transfers. Given Borthwick went on to give the SNP the support necessary to form an administration, a Lib Dem win here could have had a major impact on the city’s governance. If they’ve kept up a presence here, this is their most likely Dundee gain.
Update following close of nominations: A huge boost to Lib Dem aspirations here, as Borthwick is not re-standing for election. Unless the Conservatives were to benefit from a lot of his 2017 votes, there’s not really any other prospect for a gain here – no second Labour candidate, nor are the Greens or Alba likely in contention.
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour x2.
Two SNP, two Labour wards feel sort of typical for both Dundee and Glasgow, and this is a fine example of the genre. Although the Conservatives were, in strict quota terms, closer to a seat at the outset than Labour were to a second, transfers obviously made the difference – not least as the Independent candidate, Tom Ferguson, had been elected as a Labour councillor in 2012. Naturally, his transfers went mostly to his former party.
Nonetheless, the Conservatives didn’t end up too far behind when all was said and done. They had a deficit of about 3.4% which you could perfectly well imagine them making up with a good campaign. Whether they have a good campaign is, of course, another matter.
West End (4)
2017 Councillors: Lib Dem, SNP, Labour, Conservative.
Hello, chaos. To say this is a strong Lib Dem ward would be an understatement. It in fact accounts for more than 40% of their entire vote across the city. It’s high enough that they could probably have elected a second candidate had they stood one. It’s actually quite odd they didn’t, given they’d topped the poll here in 2012 too – perhaps they reckoned the vote was too personal to the councillor. Instead, it was a Conservative that took the final seat here.
That means that if the Lib Dems are wise enough to stand two this time, it’s the Conservatives who are first in the firing line. However, Labour weren’t too far ahead at the final stage – just 2.2%. If they were having the worse day, their seat could flip. In fact, if the SNP were on an upswing, they could be in the running for a seat too – their second candidate was also 2.2% ahead behind the Conservatives. A two Lib Dem, two SNP ward is a genuine possibility. That’s one route to a majority for the latter.
This was also the Greens’ strongest Dundee ward in 2017. It’s quite far off what they’d have needed to win, but if they grow a bit, the general chaos of potential transfers could still push them over the line. They were… yep, you guessed it, 2.2% behind the SNP’s second candidate when they dropped out. The other way round, and a fair few SNP preferences would flow their way. This is a wild ward, it has to be said.
Update following close of nominations: The Lib Dems are indeed standing two candidates here, meaning combined with the situation in Strathmartine, they are in a very strong position to double their group.
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour x2.
As if to help chill things back down after the West End, Coldside is a classic SNP-Labour twofer. As distant as the Conservatives were on first preferences, it was only about 3.4% adrift of Labour’s second. As with Lochee, a gap that is eminently closeable… on a good day.
The Ferry (4)
2017 Councillors: Conservative x2, SNP, Lib Dem.
This ward, covering Broughty Ferry, single handedly blocked the 2017 boundary changes from taking effect in Dundee. Electoral parity required West Ferry to be split off from the rest of the ward. Residents were not having it. It is – alas – a truth universally acknowledged that you do not do things to upset the most affluent bits of any given area, as they are the ones most likely to write in and give you a headache. So it proved here, with mere mention of the Ferry still enough to give the Local Government Minister of the time nightmares. The plans were shelved.
Boundary controversy aside, this Conservative-leaning ward offers the SNP’s other route to a majority in Dundee. Though the Conservatives are a fair bit ahead, it’s not a gap the SNP would be incapable of closing. However, in a spectacular example of how close STV can get, the SNP’s second candidate was only 0.1 vote (yes, zero-point-one vote) ahead of Labour at the point the latter dropped out. A better result for Labour could put them in the running.
Indeed, if the Conservative to SNP gap isn’t insurmountable, nor is the Lib Dem to Labour gap. Although a weaker day for the Conservatives is probably likely to make more transfers available for the Lib Dems in this particular ward, they could still lose their seat if they haven’t been nurturing their local vote.
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