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.
Whereas most of historic Renfrewshire is made up of well-established, urbanised and formerly industrial areas, East Renfrewshire mostly grew as a Glasgow suburb. Areas such as Giffnock, Netherlee and Clarkston are obvious urban extensions of the city, whilst Newton Mearns owes most of its population to post-war growth. Alongside the more distant Eaglesham, these areas made up the Eastwood district under the previous local government structures. East Renfrewshire was created by adding the Barrhead and Neilston section of the old Renfrew district – a particularly egregious example of administrative gerrymandering, given these areas are barely connected.
In any case, the suburban nature of the Eastwood core here historically gave East Renfrewshire a very different flavour to the rest of the county. The Westminster seat was firmly Conservative right up until their 1997 wipeout, when it went Labour, with whom it’d remain in both parliaments for nearly two decades. In 2015 the SNP won the Westminster seat, followed by the Conservatives winning the Holyrood seat in 2016. They also gained the Westminster seat in 2017, but it was one of those they lost again in 2019.
The Conservatives were so dominant here that until 1988 the only opposition on the district council was a pair of “Ratepayers”. The addition of those heavily Labour-favourable areas in 1995 reduced the Conservatives to a slim minority, before Labour took similarly narrow leads in 1999 and 2003.
Previous STV Elections
That trend of tight Conservative vs Labour contests continued under STV, as both parties emerged with 7 seats, though the Conservatives had a substantial lead in terms of votes. The SNP got their first representation with 3 seats, alongside 2 Independents and a lone Lib Dem.
Eastwood had been one of the Labour seats that resisted the SNP tide in 2011, which may have helped ensure they had a good result the following year with 8 councillors. They weren’t far ahead of the Conservatives in first preferences, but the latter dipped slightly to 6 seats, whilst the SNP went up marginally to 4. The final seats went to 2 Independents again, as the Lib Dems were ejected from the council.
If Labour’s Eastwood victory in 2011 had set the stage for their 2012 success, then the Conservatives’ winning that seat in 2016 similarly presaged a strong showing in 2017. For the first time since the mid-90’s, the party ended up with an clear lead on a tally of 7 councillors. Slow and steady growth for the SNP gave them second place for the first time with 5 seats. Labour slumped to third with just 4 this time, and the final 2 seats once again went to Independents.
Wards Worth Watching
East Renfrewshire is a somewhat difficult one to parse going into this election. If the Conservatives are still suffering from their current woes in May, you’d assume Labour would be the most likely local beneficiaries. However since 2017 when they fought hard to try and win the Westminster seat back, Labour support has been in freefall here. Their vote share halved in both the Westminster and Holyrood constituencies at the most recent elections. That said, their regional vote share was basically static, so they may have stabilised.
At the same time, the SNP look to be much better off than in 2017. Their 2019 UK result here was higher even than their 2015 figure, and they recorded a solid performance in Eastwood last year. A combination of these factors could mean a small handful of seats shift across the area, but in ways it’s not necessarily easy to predict in advance – I’ve only got one ward clearly worth watching.
Update following close of nominations: Of the Holyrood 5, the Lib Dems are the only party not contesting every ward in East Renfrewshire, standing in just one. Alba are contesting 4. More details here.
Clarkston, Netherlee and Williamwood (4)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Labour, Macdonald (Independent).
Last time the final seat in this ward was an extremely close contest between Labour and the second Conservative candidate. Labour came out 46 votes (0.45%) ahead, but a more even distribution of the Conservative vote between their candidates would have seen both over the line. If the local Labour decline outpaces the Conservatives’, this could be one that flips.
On the other hand, the ward is also home to a rather odd Independent in the form of David Macdonald. He made the headlines ahead of the 2019 European Elections, when as Change UK’s (remember them?) lead candidate for Scotland, he announced it would be far better to vote for the Lib Dems. He subsequently joined that party, then left it again in pretty short order. If that’s left enough local voters feeling bemused, he could lose his seat.
Finally, if the SNP have indeed gone on an upwards swing in East Renfrewshire, this could deliver a double for them too. They’d need to substantially improve on their 22.7%, so I’d rate that as an outside chance, but it’s a chance nonetheless.
Barrhead, Liboside and Uplawmoor (4)
2017 Councillors: Devlin (Independent), Labour, Conservative, SNP.
This is a post close of nominations addition, so does not appear on the map. With less than two weeks to go until polling day Greg Turner, the Conservative candidate for this ward, was suspended by the party for highly inappropriate remarks made online. Although voters aren’t always aware of such suspensions, and a fair whack of postal votes may have already been returned, this could still be enough to put a second SNP councillor in contention.
In 2017, this was the least Conservative ward in East Renfrewshire, and the only one where they didn’t win at least one full quota of votes. At the deciding stage, they were 3% ahead of the SNP’s second candidate. In addition to voters aware of the suspension turning away from the candidate, two other things may boost the SNP’s prospects of a double.
Firstly, Devlin’s voters were clearly more favourable to the SNP (and Labour) than they were to the Conservatives. Twice as much of his chunky 6% surplus last time went to the SNP (1.5%) than the Conservatives (0.8%). Secondly, the previous Conservative Paul Aitken has been sitting as an Independent for years now and is standing again. You’d need more local intel than I to know if he’s in with a shot, but even if he isn’t, the quirks of STV and imperfect voter preferencing could impact on the result.
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