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.
Though Scotland is a relative rarity in European terms in that our capital isn’t our largest city, Edinburgh is otherwise typical of capitals across the continent. It draws together areas of relative wealth and deprivation, and has extremely high political diversity. Unlike its counterweight at the other end of the Central Belt, Edinburgh has relatively minimal sprawl connecting it to historic surrounding towns – it only flows neatly into Musselburgh in neighbouring East Lothian. However, the council boundaries do include some outlying villages that the city proper hasn’t yet absorbed either, most notably at (South) Queensferry in the west.
The comparatively affluent nature of the city would see it retain Conservative MPs right up until the party’s collapse in 1997, and it would also be a site of one of their earliest constituency victories at Holyrood in 2003. Though Labour were the leading parliamentary force in the city for a time, the Lib Dems also had a strong presence, particularly in the West and South. At Westminster, Edinburgh South was Labour’s sole Scottish seat in 2015 and again since 2019, whilst the Lib Dem loss of West would only last until 2017. At Holyrood, the SNP first won a single constituency here in 2007 before almost sweeping the city in 2011. 2016 saw each of the pro-Union parties win a single constituency, though the Conservatives would lose theirs in 2021.
The old district council started with Conservative leads in the first three elections, though only 1977 was with a majority. This shifted to clear Labour leads for most of the rest of the time and through the early unitary era, with only 1992 failing to produce a Labour majority. That year was also the start of a steady uptick in Lib Dem representation in Edinburgh, culminating in taking the mantle of second largest party in 2003.
Previous STV Elections
The introduction of STV gave the city a full showing of its diversity for the first time, albeit with some quirks. Vote shares bunched very tightly together, with Labour in first, followed with Conservatives and Lib Dems less than 1% behind, the SNP not quite 3% shy. Despite that ordering of votes, the Lib Dems won the most seats with 17, ahead of Labour’s 15, and the SNP’s 12 likewise leapfrogged the Conservatives’ 11. At the same time, a relatively strong result for the Greens handed them a trio of councillors. In what would perhaps be a surprising outcome now, the Lib Dems and SNP came together to form the administration, despite being just short of a majority.
In a year of severe defeats for the Lib Dems, Edinburgh was one of the most painful, as they plummeted to just 3 councillors, and placed fifth in vote share. Both Labour and the SNP benefitted enormously from the Lib Dem collapse, winning 20 and 18 seats, respectively. That allowed those parties to form a coalition administration, as one of the first in a number of uneasy settlements between these arch-rivals.
Though they lost a few votes the Conservatives held steady on 11 seats. Previously the smallest party, the Greens overtook the Lib Dems and doubled their haul of councillors to a half-dozen – and in a first for the party, actually proved the most popular option in two wards.
At the last election it was Labour’s turn to collapse, though they wouldn’t suffer as badly as the Lib Dems had in 2012, dropping to 12 seats. Though the SNP took a lead in seats with 19, they were slightly less popular in vote terms than the Conservatives who ended up with 18 councillors. That “wrong winner” scenario somewhat mirrored 2007, as did the fact the ongoing (but flipped) SNP-Labour administration was now a minority.
For the two smaller parties, the Greens maintained an upwards trajectory, winning 8 seats. However, that was a net gain figure, as Edinburgh was the site of one of the party’s first ever losses of an incumbent councillor. They also returned to fifth place in vote share behind the Lib Dems, who experienced enough of a recovery to tally up 6 councillors.
Wards Worth Watching
Whereas 2017 was – very narrowly – a “wrong winner” election, this time around it seems much more likely the SNP’s lead in seats will be matched by a lead in votes. That however will likely be down more to a poor result for the Conservatives than their own strength, with a substantial weakening for the Conservatives evident well before more recent polling difficulties.
Although the Conservatives were static overall at Holyrood, they had a perhaps surprisingly poor day in Edinburgh. Between 2016 and 2021 they dropped from 25% to 20% of the regional list vote in the city, losing support in every constituency, which was the driver of them falling from 4 to 3 MSPs in the Lothian region overall – simply losing Edinburgh Central would have been balanced with a list seat had they maintained their vote share.
That compared to a fall of not even 1% for Labour, from just shy of 19% to just over 18%. Obviously that wouldn’t have exactly been a warmly welcomed result, but it could have been a lot worse. It’ll likely have helped set the stage for a relative stabilisation, when there were points in recent years where it was possible to imagine Labour slipping to fourth in the capital. They’ve got a few seats at risk, but are now unlikely to fall far from their previous result.
Edinburgh has long been the best area for the Greens, showing further growth last year. Although they have a couple of vulnerable seats, they’ve also got the benefit of strong polling (at time of writing) and enough potential gains to pull them into double figures for the first time. In addition, they have a very good chance of (re)overtaking the Lib Dems in vote share. Given Edinburgh’s politically fractured nature, they could also find themselves topping the poll in one or more wards. They’d actually done so back in 2012, before the Conservative surge put them in front in those wards last election.
Finally, the Lib Dems also had a decent result at Holyrood last year, gaining a couple of percent. That was growth across the city, but not by a huge share – the largest being, of course, in Edinburgh Western – and it was still lower than their 2017 result. It’s reasonable to assume that if the Lib Dems make further progress, it’ll only be a seat or two more. They’ll be close to their limits in the west, and their starting position in most of the other wards is pretty weak.
Update following close of nominations: All of the major Holyrood parties are standing in all 17 of Edinburgh’s wards. Alba are contesting 7. More details here.
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Conservative, Labour.
Forth’s fourth seat is likely to be hotly contested this time around, with the second SNP councillor having to fend off both the Greens and Lib Dems. Last time around transfers, including a weighty Conservative surplus, pulled the Lib Dems just 42 votes (0.4%) ahead of the Greens to end up facing off against the SNP’s second, finally ending up around 2.4% behind.
Had the Greens remained ahead, it’s entirely possible Lib Dem transfers would have seen them to victory. Given the party’s growth since, they head into this election with a strong chance of picking up a seat here. However, the Lib Dems may be similarly bolstered in first preference stakes if the Conservatives have weakened, helping keep them in the game.
2017 Councillors: Conservative x2, SNP, Lib Dem.
As noted earlier, the Greens experienced two losses for incumbent councillors for the first time in 2017, one of which was in Edinburgh for this ward. The second Conservative candidate was just 1.9% ahead of the Greens at the final stage, and given how much weaker we expect them to be this time, the Greens could easily gain from them.
However, Labour had started slightly ahead of the Greens too, with transfers leading to them ending up 44 votes (0.32%) behind when they were eliminated. You’d expect Green voters to heavily favour Labour over the Conservatives, so had this gone the other way, that could have given Labour a seat. On balance I’d say given shifts since the Greens have the better chance here, but don’t write Labour off. If the Lib Dems were having a worse election their seat could also be in doubt, though I’d expect in this part of the city they’ll probably be alright.
Sighthill and Gorgie (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Conservative.
We’ve been getting stronger and stronger Green results as we’ve gone down the list so far, with this ward being the strongest Green first preference share in Edinburgh that didn’t lead to a councillor – and one of the strongest in the country. At the final stage they were 1.4% behind the SNP’s second candidate, and could conceivably swipe the seat from them this time. A second route might be from the Conservatives. Beyond their likely weaker position this time around, their councillor resigned from the party just over a year in, so there won’t be any personal vote to compensate.
Update following close of nominations: In fact, said former Conservative is standing as an Independent. She hasn’t a hope in hell, and may be severed enough from her party not to impact them much, but drawing even a few votes from them could heighten their chances of losing their seat.
Colinton and Fairmilehead (3)
2017 Councillors: Conservative x2, Labour.
You don’t find many wards without an SNP councillor on the mainland, but this is one of two in Edinburgh. They’d had a councillor back in 2012, and only lost to the second Conservative candidate by 13 votes (0.11%). Labour were only 1.2% ahead when their councillor was elected, so that’s another possibility. The SNP candidate this time is former MSP Marco Biagi, which may boost their chances in terms of having an experienced figure in the race. If elected, it’ll be a rare case of a Local Government Minister going on to be an elected representative in local government.
2017 Councillors: Conservative, Green, Labour, Lib Dem.
This is Edinburgh’s other non-SNP ward, where they’d similarly had a seat in 2012 but lost it. The Lib Dems were the closest to missing out, with an advantage of just 58 votes (0.43%) over the SNP. Labour weren’t miles ahead either in the grand scheme of things with a 1.8% lead, but given this lies within their Edinburgh South/Southern stronghold, they’d again be the less likely to drop out this time. Similarly, there’s a tight enough bunching of votes here that on first glance the Greens seem shaky, but given their history in the ward and recent growth, I think they’re even less likely to go be sent packing.
City Centre (4)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Labour, Green.
There’s another potential five cornered contest in the City Centre ward, though one that in 2017 was rooted in transfers. From starting more than 5% behind Labour, the Lib Dems closed to 2% by the final round, thanks in particular to receiving the biggest portion of the substantial Conservative surplus. Again, assuming a poorer day for the Conservatives this May, that surplus could become direct first preferences for the Lib Dems, keeping them in with a chance at knocking Labour out.
Update following close of nominations: None of them will win, but there are six Independents on the ballot – a record for a non-Islands ward. Feels like a lot of people taking vanity runs at the Capital’s centre, frankly.
Craigentinny and Duddingston (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Conservative, Labour, Green.
The SNP really should have got two seats here with that kind of vote share – I think what happened was they shot themselves in the foot by standing three candidates. Voter transfer discipline is not 100%, so if a party over-extends, they can lose votes between candidates, allowing another party through, which is how the Greens picked up their seat. There was a by-election here in late 2020 though which gives a more recent flavour of support:
By-Election Winner: SNP.
The Greens made significant gains, placing narrowly behind Labour and much closer to the Conservatives, both of those parties having lost a fair chunk of votes. However, with transfers as they were, this could still be a result that knocked the Greens out at a full election. It’s also a safer starting point that could instead see Labour or the Conservatives lose out if either fall further backwards. Effectively, the SNP have a clear route to two seats here, that goes through any of three other parties.
Liberton and Gilmerton (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Conservative.
This was Labour’s best ward in the capital in 2017, putting them reasonably close to beating the SNP. Their second was 2.4% behind the SNP’s in 2017, a gap that could be pretty easily closed. The SNP’s double didn’t last the whole term though – Edinburgh has been quite fractious overall, actually – as Derek Howie left the party in 2020. He then “aligned” with the Greens, who don’t accept direct defections, but he’s not standing this time. Given the Greens placed fifth in 2017, I don’t see them being able to leverage that vague alignment into a seat.
Portobello and Craigmillar (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Conservative, Green.
This ward is another option for the SNP to pick up a seat from their partners in cooperative government, with the Greens coming 1.9% ahead of the second SNP candidate back in 2017. However, the Green starting position in 2017 was already three-quarters of the way to a quota. Given the party’s growth since then, they’ll be much harder to shift this time around.
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