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.
Possessing one of the strongest regional identities in Scotland, such that it still often refers to itself as a Kingdom, Fife is divided into two very distinct areas. The southern end is home to some of Scotland’s largest towns, in Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy and the New Town of Glenrothes. Throw in the dockyards at Rosyth and the mining villages across the various bits of the Fife Coalfield, and you get a very typically Central Belt area. By contrast, the north east of Fife is much more rural in character, home to a string of small yet historic fishing burghs along the famed East Neuk and an ancient university at St Andrews.
These areas therefore have very strongly contrasting political histories. Labour were naturally dominant in the industrialised south, whilst the Conservatives held sway in the more rural north east. The Lib Dems would replace the Conservatives by the late 80’s, and won the UK’s Dunfermline seat in a 2006 by-election, then an overlapping Holyrood seat in 2007. The SNP meanwhile made their first constituency inroads in 2007 with Glenrothes, then took all of Fife bar Cowdenbeath in 2011. Fife has been in a bit of flux since, with Labour losing all of their seats then regaining one at Westminster then losing it again, whilst the Lib Dems once again hold the North East in both parliaments, after initially failing to regain it at Westminster by just 2 votes in 2017.
Local elections mostly followed suit, with a clear Labour majority in the urban districts and the regional council most years – only in 1977 did the Kirkcaldy district see the Labour slip to a minority. In the North East, the Conservative to Lib Dem handover came in 1984. When the single unitary Fife council arrived in the 90’s Labour won a majority at both elections, then ended the FPTP era having relatively narrowly lost it in 2003.
Previous STV Elections
At Council level, the introduction of STV in saw a very evenly balanced Council. Labour won 24 seats, just ahead of the SNP’s 23. Though the Lib Dems placed a further 5% of the vote behind the SNP they weren’t far off seat-wise with 21. That left 5 seats each for the Conservatives and Independents. Though STV shook up the geographic distribution, it was largely to the expected pattern, with Labour strongest in the South, the SNP around Glenrothes and Levenmouth, and the Lib Dems in Dunfermline and the North East, where the Conservatives also elected most of their councillors.
The Lib Dem collapse was particularly dramatic in Fife, losing around half of their vote and their councillors to be left with 10. Their vote and seat losses were almost entirely mirrored by Labour who rose to a mighty 35 seats. There were much more modest gains for the SNP who were up to 26 whilst the Conservatives went down to 3, and the Independent group dropped to 4.
2017 went back to a more evenly balanced council, though not quite 2007 levels. Labour’s previous gains were entirely reversed, dropping 11 seats back to 24, though they got off somewhat lightly from a sharp vote decrease. Another modest SNP gain put them in the lead with 29 seats. Conservatives made huge gains up to 15, and their vote share was not much more than 2% shy of Labour. Though the Lib Dems were static in terms of votes, they fell to 7 councillors overall and only elected one outside their North East stronghold, and Independents disappeared entirely.
Wards Worth Watching
This is another of those councils where the SNP’s leading position seems assured. Despite that, and their perhaps relatively poor 2017 result, it’s hard to pick out that many obvious potential gains for them. There’s perhaps a general sense of unpredictability here, given a lot is going to hang on what happens with the other three major parties.
For the Conservatives to get within touching distance of Labour last time, at least in votes, was remarkable by Fife standards. They’ll almost certainly be down from that peak this year, but by how much, and to what degree it’ll benefit Labour versus the Lib Dems is hard to say. Labour’s 2017 fallback was so severe that it’s even harder to see where gains will come from than it is for the SNP.
Turning to the Lib Dems, the main thing to look out for here is if they can return some more councillors outside of their North East Fife stronghold. They have a couple of potentials, but their chances there might have dissipated with their Brexit bounce. On the other hand, they should be more than secure in retaining dominance where they currently lead.
Finally, the Greens managed to put forward a candidate in every ward in 2017. If they can do so again, they should see decent growth in vote share. Their 2021 gains in Fife, typically their weakest part of the Mid & Fife region, were significantly above the national average at 2.3% (compared to 1.5%). Whether that turns into seats is another matter entirely, as in 2017 they had no clear centre of support.
Update following close of nominations: Only the SNP and Conservatives with full slates here. Oddly, all of Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens have one absence, and so are in 21 of the 22 wards. It’s not the same ward though, reflecting different distributions of membership and support I reckon. Alba are contesting 11. More details here.
Dunfermline Central (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour x2, Conservative.
This was one of the casualties of the Lib Dem drawback into the north east, possibly aided by the retirement of the sitting councillor. If this was all we had to go on, I’d probably have put this ward down as a possible SNP second at Labour’s expense, with 2.2% having separated them after transfers in 2017. However, we had a by-election here in late 2019:
By-Election Winner: SNP.
This was a typically Fife knife edge in the transfers, with another 2 vote lead for the SNP giving them the victory over the Lib Dems at the final stage. Labour’s vote share absolutely collapsed, but rather than end up wiped out of the ward entirely, I’d expect that had this been a full election the Conservative and Lib Dem surplus would have squeaked them into a seat. Given the context of this vote it’s unlikely the Lib Dems have kept up quite this level of support locally, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t still much better off than in 2017. As such, I’m opting to view them as being the only party with an obvious potential to pick up a seat here.
Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay (4)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP x2, Labour.
The only Conservative-led ward in Fife, and one they could probably have won a second seat if they’d put up another candidate. They didn’t, so it fell to the SNP to win a double instead. This ward also had a by-election, though a year before the previous ward did:
By-Election Winner: Conservative.
There weren’t particularly substantial changes here – basically, the Lib Dems gaining at Labour’s expense, but not enough to put them in contention for a seat at a full election, I don’t think. On a similarly bad day Labour could be the ones giving up their seat to a second Conservative, though I think that’s a less likely outcome than the SNP doing so once transfers are brought into play.
Update following close of nominations: The Conservatives are indeed aiming for a double here.
2017 Councillors: Labour x2, SNP, Conservative.
Labour remained extremely strong in this ward, perhaps foreshadowing that they’d pick up the Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath seat at Westminster the next month. I can’t see any reason why they’d fail to hold both seats this time around, so instead it’s the Conservatives at risk. They were only 1.9% clear of the SNP’s second candidate in 2017, so only a slight shift in votes would be needed to tip this one, at a time when we might expect deeper cuts for the Conservatives.
Burntisland, Kinghorn and Western Kirkcaldy (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Conservative, Labour.
This was actually pretty close to being a second Conservative-led ward, though they’d be far less likely to achieve that this time around. It was also quite close run between Labour and the Lib Dems for the final seat, with 1.8% separating them. That makes this one of the strongest prospects for the Lib Dem gain outwith the north east, though whether they’d do as well without an incumbent councillor it’s hard to say.
Kirkcaldy Central (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour x2.
Barely a whisker of an SNP lead in first preferences meant it was easy for Labour to overtake on transfers and emerge with the double. They did so with about a 2.5% lead over the Conservatives, who are therefore probably best positioned to take one of the Labour seats.
Kirkcaldy East (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Conservative.
Weaker results for both Labour and the Conservatives in this portion of Kirkcaldy nonetheless allowed the latter to pick up a seat here. The SNP were 1.9% shy of getting both of their candidates in, so they are likely to be in with a good chance at pulling that off this time. The stronger of the Independents here had been an SNP councillor, which will have pulled her former party’s share down a bit at the time.
St. Andrews (4)
2017 Councillors: Lib Dem, Conservative, SNP, Labour.
The urban core of North East Fife remained firmly Lib Dem led in 2017. Indeed, they weren’t too off picking up a second seat here. At the final stage of transfers they ended up 1.9% off beating Labour. I’d expect the Lib Dems to have further strengthened here since then, so they’ve probably got a very good chance this time.
Also note this was the Greens’ (joint) highest share in Fife, but see what I mean about it not really being concentrated anywhere. This was actually a substantial decrease compared to 2012, when they’d won 9.9%. You’d think a university town would be a good bet for them, but it’s probably not going to be one for this election.
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.