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.
In contrast to its western neighbour and much of the Central Belt, East Dunbartonshire is defined by its relative affluence, containing a number of Glasgow’s leafiest suburbs. It’s also something of a chimera, as the historic county of Dunbartonshire had a big gap between the Bearsden and Milngavie area and an exclave around Kirkintilloch and Cumbernauld. In the 1970’s reorganisation, the former became its own district, whilst Kirkintilloch became the anchor for a Strathkelvin district which also included Bishopbriggs and a number of other Lanarkshire villages to the south, plus some Stirlingshire villages to the North. Modern East Dunbartonshire mostly merged those two districts, sans the Chryston area.
The (not entirely equivalent) East Dunbartonshire constituency is renowned for being a rare example of a seat all four Westminster parties have won at some point. However, it’s important to note the version won in 1974’s elections by the Conservatives then SNP was the one with a huge Cumbernauld chunk, so definitely isn’t comparable to the version won by the Lib Dems in 2005, regained in 2017, and then lost along with their UK-level leader in 2019. At Holyrood, the two constituencies covering the modern area were mostly Labour until the SNP won them in 2011, though Strathkelvin and Bearsden elected an Independent, Dr Jean Turner, as their contribution to 2003’s rainbow parliament.
In the elections to the old districts, Bearsden and Milngavie was consistently Conservative, whereas Strathkelvin was majority Labour after an unsettled start which included an SNP plurality in 1977. With the formation of East Dunbartonshire, the 1995 election saw a Labour majority, before the Lib Dems took a bare second place in 1999 and became the largest party in 2003, almost signposting the Westminster victory two years later.
Previous STV Elections
Of all the councils in Scotland, East Dunbartonshire was the one with by far the most bizarre outcome from the new voting system. Despite placing third in terms of votes, the SNP emerged as the leading party with 8 seats. Labour’s comfortable vote lead only translated to 6 seats, whilst second most popular party the Conservatives placed third with 5 councillors. The Lib Dems, who were barely a hair behind the SNP in terms of votes, ended up with a paltry 3 seats, with the remaining 2 going to the local East Dunbartonshire Independent Alliance.
Effectively, the SNP benefitted from having a well-spread enough vote to see them to a seat in every ward, whereas everyone else had peaks and troughs that saw them with too many votes in some areas and too few in others. A fantastic reminder that whilst STV is more proportional than FPTP, it doesn’t offer enough seats per electoral area to guarantee true proportionality.
Fortunately for fans of genuine proportional representation, 2012 gave something much more akin to an accurate result. Whilst the SNP were unmoved on 8 seats, Labour made enough gains to bring the two parties level, correctly reflecting their status as first and second most voted for parties. There was a mild case of wrong way round with 3 Lib Dems and 2 Conservatives despite a slight vote lead for the latter, meaning that with an ordinary Independent elected alongside the 2 EDIA members, it was the Conservatives who lost out the most this time.
If you enjoyed 2012’s reasonable proportionality, I’m afraid to say 2017 was a step backwards. Whilst the top two remained broadly reflective of votes, with 7 SNP and 6 Conservative councillors, the Lib Dems managed to also win 6 seats despite barely increasing their vote, coming roughly 10% behind the Conservatives. Despite then being barely over 1% behind the Lib Dems, Labour won a woeful 2 seats. The EDIA disappeared in this election – sadly, one of their councillors had died in the previous term, and the other didn’t re-stand – leaving that sole ordinary Independent.
Wards Worth Watching
Damned if I know what’s going to happen in East Dunbartonshire, given this area’s tendency to take the idea that STV is meant to be proportional and just throw it fully out the window. As the first preference vote is quite heavily split here, I think there’s a good chance the SNP will retain their first place in votes. Whether that remains true in seats, who knows.
It’s similarly hard to figure out what might happen to the three other parties currently represented on the council. The general sense for all three would be for a weaker result than 2017 – the Conservatives due to being below their peak anyway never mind recent troubles, the Lib Dems from having lost the Westminster seat, and Labour from general decline. It seems very unlikely that all three could lose out all at the same time, however.
Probably most at risk here are the Lib Dems, with Labour having most to gain. The seat difference between those two parties was nonsensically wide in 2017, but could go to something much more accurate this time. That may partly depend on what happens with Conservative first preferences if that party is having a bad day. It’s also very unclear how much the Lib Dems benefitted in 2017 from the fact they were about to regain the Westminster seat (albeit temporarily). Their vote share really wasn’t comparable to some of their other FPTP strongholds, which means it may not have particularly far to fall even if the party has weakened since the loss of their leader in 2019.
Similar to Midlothian albeit without the past history of a councillor, East Dunbartonshire is a tough nut for the Greens to crack given all bar one of the wards here are 3-member. The one that isn’t was their second worst result here in 2017. They recorded a solid 8.7% in Bearsden South, but it’s hard to see a route through to winning a seat given the competition. Expect a reasonable increase in the party’s vote if they stand in every ward again, but not much else.
Update following close of nominations: The SNP, Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour are standing in all 7 wards. The Greens have ended up short one candidate this time, though it’s in what was easily their weakest ward in 2017 and won’t impact their vote much. Alba are contesting 2. More details here.
Bearsden North (3)
2017 Councillors: Cumming (Independent), Conservative, Lib Dem.
A rare ward without an SNP councillor, this is their best and quite possibly only prospect for gaining a seat locally. It was a close run thing after transfers last time, when the SNP ended up 1.5% and 1.8% behind the Conservatives and Lib Dems, respectively. Either of those parties could find themselves on the sharp end of an SNP increase.
Update following close of nominations: Oddly, the Conservative councillor elected in 2017 is standing as an Independent… in Bearsden South. Absence of an incumbent Conservative might help the SNP slightly, but not as much as if Meechan was standing in this ward.
Bishopbriggs North and Campsie (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Conservative, Lib Dem.
One of Labour’s narrowest losses they were just 51 votes (0.6%) shy of the Lib Dems at the final stage of transfers, so there’s a substantial prospect they could bounce back in May. They weren’t far off beating the SNP’s second candidate either, at 1.6%, so they’ve got two avenues here, albeit I reckon the Lib Dem one is the more likely.
Lenzie and Kirkintilloch South (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Conservative, Lib Dem.
This was the site of the Lib Dems’ most unexpected East Dunbartonshire victory in 2017. I have it on good authority that the newly-elected Lib Dem councillor, who was his party’s local campaign organiser, made a victory speech that boiled down to “well, I’ll be doing the expense returns for our whole campaign after this, and I’ll be marking down £0 for this ward.” That’ll have made defeat all the more galling for Labour.
Overall, Labour were 2.0% behind after 2017’s transfers. There’s a further complexity here in that Labour dropped out when they were behind an Independent, who my local source advises is highly unlikely to reappear this time. A very quick scan of the preference profile says his transfers would have been much more Lib Dem leaning, which may mean a significantly bigger hurdle for Labour than it seemed at first sight.
If you find this or other Ballot Box Scotland output useful and/or interesting, and you can afford to do so, please consider donating to support my work. I love doing this, but it’s a one-man project and takes a lot of time and effort. All donations, no matter how small, are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful.