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.
Falkirk was historically the south-eastern portion of the county of Stirling, serving as a major and early industrial centre. With the town of Falkirk itself positioned on relatively flat land near to where the River Forth widened into the Firth, it became home to one terminus of the Forth and Clyde Canal, which helped drive that early industry. Major industry survives to the modern day, particularly with the oil refinery at Grangemouth. By the 1973 Local Government Act, the area was spun off from the wider Stirling County into its own District in the Central Region, absorbing the Bo’ness area from West Lothian at that point. It kept that shape after the 1994 reform created a single tier of local governance.
The industrialised character of Falkirk naturally inclined it towards Labour for much of the 20th Century, though like neighbouring Clackmannanshire it was an early area of SNP growth. The disjointed Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire constituency won by the SNP in both 1974 elections included the area to the north (Larbert and Stenhousemuir) and South (Polmont and Braes) of Falkirk town. They also won majority control of the District Council in 1977, which otherwise saw Labour majorities and leads through its existence and into the current era.
Labour famously mis-stepped here ahead of the first Holyrood election in 1999 by refusing to nominate Falkirk West MP Dennis Canavan as their MSP candidate. He stood and very easily won election as an Independent at both that election and in 2003. When he retired in 2007 the seat then went to the SNP and has remained with them since since, joined by its East counterpart in 2011 and the Westminster seat in 2015.
Previous STV Elections
The neat division of Falkirk with one Holyrood seat to each of Labour and the SNP was mirrored in the 2007 election results. Labour’s 14 seats put them ahead of the SNP’s 13, who they also led by 1% of the vote. Transfer unfriendly Conservatives won just 2 seats for their 13.5% of the vote, no different to what they’d had under First Past the Post. That left the remaining 3 seats for Independent councillors.
2012 proved extremely dull in partisan terms, returning the exact same pattern of seats, though one of the Independents was replaced by a different Independent in his ward. Though it didn’t change the seat distribution, the SNP overtook Labour in votes at this election, placing about 2.7% ahead.
As if to make up for how bland 2012 was, 2017 saw substantial change. Though the SNP suffered a slight decline in votes and dropped to 12 seats, they were able to become the largest party on the council thanks to Labour’s share crashing. Labour placed second with 9 seats, though that disguised the fact they were narrowly third in terms of votes. The Conservatives weren’t able to leverage their vote position into second in seats, though they did grow massively to 7 councillors. 2 Independents made up the remainder of the council, which had dropped from 32 to 30 seats overall via boundary changes.
Wards Worth Watching
Having squeaked that runner up position in votes last time around, the Conservatives will want to turn it into seats as well. That aspiration may end up punctured by current difficulties, but on the other hand they did so well that it’s hard to see very many places they’d lose councillors without a massive swing against them. At the same time, Labour have fallen back far enough that scoping out obvious gains for them is easier said than done too. Either way, expect the SNP to be comfortably out in front again.
The Greens managed to find a full slate of candidates here last time, and if they do so again they should at least see a further increase in their vote. They might be aided in that by the fact their new Central Scotland MSP hails from the area. By contrast this was one of five mainland councils the Lib Dems didn’t find a single candidate for in 2017. They were also totally absent in 2012, and haven’t been seen at any by-elections here since. I’d say chances are I won’t need any orange bars for Falkirk this year either.
Update following close of nominations: Fair play to them, the Lib Dems proved me wrong, as they are standing 4 candidates here, more than they ever have before. The other Holyrood parties are again standing in all 9 wards. Alba are contesting 3. More details here.
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Spears (Independent).
The home of INEOS’ petrochemical plant ended up one of two gaps for the Conservatives in Falkirk in 2017. Though they were narrowly ahead of the Independent on first preferences, after transfers the latter pulled ahead by 3.2%. Those kinds of gaps are pretty easy to fill with solid campaigning or even a bit of luck. It’s also not impossible that the SNP could instead take a second seat at the Spears’ expense, but it’s enough of a stretch I opted not to put it on the map.
Update following close of nominations: Spears is standing for re-election.
Denny and Banknock (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Conservative.
Whizzing over to the opposite end of the area, Denny and Banknock appropriately offers the opportunity for the opposite outcome. Here it was the Conservatives narrowly beating an Independent, by 83 votes (1.3%) after the final transfer round. They could lose the seat if Brian McCabe, who had previously been a councillor, comes back for another run at it, though with Independents a return to the ballot is by no means guaranteed.
If McCabe doesn’t return, there’s a bit of an open question as to what could happen. It’s still possible the Conservatives lose that seat, but who’d pick it up in that scenario is unclear. Both the SNP and Labour were pretty much bang on quota and would need a fair chunk of extra votes to pick up another councillor.
Update following close of nominations: McCabe has indeed decided to take another run at this ward.
Falkirk North (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour x2.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given it was their weakest vote share, this is the Conservatives’ only other missing seat in Falkirk. They were about 2% behind Labour at the final stage, a gap that would be eminently closeable on a good day. However, look at the size of that SNP vote.
In terms of the mechanics of STV and first preferences, they were actually a bit closer to a third seat than Labour were to their second. They’d have had to get their votes spread correctly between candidates to pull that off though. If they are feeling confident they might give that a shot this time, and their chances would be reasonable – though a bad election for the Conservatives would likely help Labour maintain their pair.
Update following close of nominations: The SNP weren’t feeling bold enough to try for a third, and have again stood two candidates here.
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