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.
Scotland’s largest city has in many respects followed a similar trajectory to other big cities across the UK. It was a major industrial centre with a booming population but often poor living conditions. A post-war transformation of the city had the double effect of massively reducing the population whilst setting the stage for a period of decline and deprivation. Though the city still faces many challenges, a cultural revival in the 90’s has continued to the present day, making the residents of the city almost unbearably proud of it. I’m allowed to say that, as I’m just as guilty as any Glaswegian!
Labour were without a doubt the dominant party for a long time. In the democratic era, non-Labour success in the city was a rare exception until recently. Those exceptions included a few by-elections, with the SNP winning Govan in both 1973 and 1988, and the then Social Democrats winning Hillhead in 1982, which had been the final Conservative seat in the city. The first of those gave the very sadly missed Margo MacDonald, later to serve three terms as an Independent MSP, her first entry into politics. Current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon won Holyrood’s Govan seat at the full election in 2007, and her party won another by-election victory in Westminster’s Glasgow East the following year. Since 2011, most of the city’s seats have been in SNP hands at most elections, though they briefly lost one at Westminster in 2017.
The city council was particularly solidly Labour, with a Conservative leadership between 1977 and 1980 the last before decades of unbroken Labour control. However, they never achieved the feat of becoming sole party as they have in some English cities and boroughs, facing a varying handful of Conservative, Liberal, SNP and even Militant Labour councillors. The latter became the Scottish Socialist Party, winning 15% of the vote in the last FPTP elections in 2003 – there’s a fascinating parallel universe where the SSP didn’t collapse spectacularly and benefitted from STV…
Previous STV Elections
Even the introduction of a partly-proportional system wasn’t enough to end Labour’s dominance in Glasgow, as they still emerged with a very comfortable majority of 45 seats out of 79, more than double the 22 won by the SNP. However, STV did assist in further diversifying the city council. The Lib Dems gained a couple of new seats to reach 5 councillors, a tally matched by the Greens.
This was much to the latter’s own surprise, and I have it on good authority they only had their eyes on two seats. They managed to win Hillhead as planned, but fell just 4 votes short in Pollokshields, where the Conservatives managed to hold their single seat. Conservative support was still too poorly spread to benefit from PR, putting them on par with SSP-offshoot Solidarity, who also won a single seat.
The SNP went into the 2012 elections with high hopes. They’d won 5 of the 8 constituencies in the city at the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, and Labour had just gone through a nightmare few months. Perhaps in response to 2011’s results, Labour had deselected a large number of councillors, who didn’t take too kindly to that, forming a new Glasgow First party and prompting a dramatic budget showdown.
But when the electoral dust settled, Labour suffered a net loss of just 1 seat, dropping to 44 – still a clear majority. The SNP’s net gains of 5 seats, up to 27, therefore came mostly at the Lib Dems’ expense, who were left with a single seat. The Conservatives and Glasgow First joined them on the billy nae mates benches. That left the Greens holding steady with 5 seats total, whereas 2007’s sole Solidarity councillor had defected to Labour at the end of 2007, then ended up standing unsuccessfully for Glasgow First.
Political gravity finally caught up with Labour in 2017, as they suffered a defeat in Glasgow in line with their losses in both parliaments in 2015 and 2016. Perhaps foreshadowing the next month’s UK election however their losses weren’t as severe as expected, dropping to 31 seats. The SNP therefore took the lead with 39 seats and though that was short of a majority on the expanded council, it was sufficient to form a minority administration and end nearly four decades of Labour control.
As with the rest of the country, the Conservatives surged upwards, from their sole seat to a total of 8 councillors. They still suffered from relatively low transfer rates and an even spread that left them still underrepresented for their vote share. By contrast, the Greens played their cards just right to grow to 7 seats, their proportional share. Nobody was elected with the status of lone councillor this time, as the Lib Dems lost their last seat, and the Glasgow First councillor had defected to and was re-elected for the SNP.
Wards Worth Watching
Given Glasgow’s size and prominence in the national media, there’s a good chance the city will receive the most national attention for the third time in a row. Whether it will end up justifying that is another matter. It’s certainly true it’ll be hard fought between the SNP and Labour, but the SNP are generally performing better here than they were throughout 2017. Their lead should be secure, though the majority they were clearly hunting for last time is unlikely to materialise. Labour may also be able to make up some of their lost ground, especially if they can eat up some of the Conservative vote.
The Conservatives are looking decidedly shaky in third place. Remember, STV is only roughly proportional by ward, rather than across the council – that’s why despite winning substantially more votes, they only placed one seat ahead of the Greens. The problem for the Conservatives is their vote is relatively evenly distributed – which means they wouldn’t have needed a lot more in 2017 to pick up a whole bunch of seats, but could also lose a lot of them on a relatively small negative shift. They are also notably transfer unfriendly in Glasgow.
Although the Greens typically fare less well at local level, the Conservatives’ aren’t helped by the fact they narrowly slipped into fourth at Holyrood in the city last year – their slight lead in the Glasgow region was down to Rutherglen, which is not in the city council area. Even if the Greens were static the Conservatives could fall behind in seats. However, the Greens can probably expect some decent growth this time, and have clear potential gains, giving a path to the first time since the 1977 election the city would have three groups with double digit seats.
Finally, the Lib Dems didn’t just lose their last seat in 2017, but they failed to stand in every ward for the first time since STV was brought in. They put forward a candidate in 20 of the 23. They might manage a full spread this time, but it’s vanishingly unlikely to lead to seats. They’d tried hard to win a seat in Partick East/Kelvindale last time, and weren’t particularly close – and in a by-election there last year, their vote plummeted.
Update following close of nominations: Not quite a full complement for the Lib Dems again, just shy on 22 of 23 wards. The four parties represented on the council are standing in them all once again. Alba are contesting 14. More details here.
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Conservative.
I’m not sure what they did wrong, or if they took the seat for granted, but this was where the Lib Dems lost their final councillor last time. I don’t think they have much in the way of prospects of picking it back up, especially given they continued to go backwards in the Cathcart constituency last year. Although they aren’t under threat from the Lib Dems, the seat at risk here is the Conservatives’. Their lead over Labour’s second candidate was about 3.7% at the final stage, so they don’t need to fall far to drop out.
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Green.
This was the Greens’ most surprising victory in 2017, and their lowest share anywhere in the country that led to a seat. A series of favourable transfers helped keep them ahead of Labour and SNP competitors, eventually overtaking the Conservatives to nab the final seat by just 71 (1.1%) votes. When Labour’s second dropped out, they were only 1.6% behind, and the SNP’s third earlier in the process had been a mere 48 votes (0.7%) shy.
Any one of those three parties could gain at the Greens’ expense this time around, though I’d put the Conservatives as the least likely at the moment. Remember though, the Greens have been on the up in Glasgow, and they’ll likely have dug in here, and so will be less easy to shift now.
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Conservative, Green.
Govan wasn’t the only ward that was close for the Greens. After having missed it twice previously, they finally picked up a seat in Pollokshields, squeaking ahead of the second SNP candidate by 1.0%. That means it’s notionally very vulnerable this time, though this ward is entirely within the Glasgow Southside seat where the Greens went up by a substantial 4.8% at Holyrood last year, so I wouldn’t be betting on this one. Given the Conservatives have held a seat here since 2007, I’d also expect them to be quite safe.
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Green.
Back in 2012, when it had slightly different boundaries, Langside had been that election’s Govan for the Greens, in that they won a seat with a below-10% vote share – a more remarkable feat when it was a three-member ward. Modest gains under the new boundaries helped put them in a position to overtake the Conservatives on transfers, with a lead of 97 votes (0.9%) at the final stage. Again, like the other vulnerable Green wards, they probably go into this much safer than last election. Langside is within the Cathcart constituency, where they were up 4.4% at Holyrood.
Southside Central (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour x2.
You’re probably getting a sense that the southside of Glasgow is worth watching in general, and that’s clearly the case. Unlike the other wards within the Southside Holyrood constituency, this is the one the Greens missed out on in 2017. They’d actually won a seat here back in the first elections in 2007, though their incumbent didn’t re-contest in 2012 and they lost the seat.
They couldn’t reclaim it last time, placing a comparatively distant 5.9% behind Labour’s second candidate. It’s still a ward where they could make a gain on a good day however, given their strong growth in the overall area. Tough as it would be, that would almost certainly come from Labour.
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Conservative.
In what was Glasgow’s most chaotic ward, Calton was the most surprising Conservative gain, given their generally transfer unattractive nature. They managed to beat the SNP’s third candidate by 52 votes (0.9%) at the final stage, and earlier in the process had been a nice 69 votes (1.3%) ahead of Labour’s second, and even earlier a still narrow 2.9% ahead of the Greens.
This would be the most likely Conservative loss in Glasgow even in a good year, and it could go to any of those three parties. The SNP or Labour were a bit closer in 2017, but don’t write the Greens off. They’d won only 3.6% here in an August 2015 by-election, so clearly worked the ward hard to get up to 9%. It’s possible further growth here could give them their second east end councillor. If they do pick up a seat here then it’ll be topical news too, as candidate Kate Samuels would be (quite possibly) the first Ukrainian to be elected as a councillor in Scotland.
Victoria Park (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Conservative, Labour.
Oh no. Not this ward. The Greens were agonisingly, excruciatingly, unbearably close to a seat here in 2017, when they were just 40 votes (0.47%) away from making this the only ward in Glasgow without a Labour councillor. It was also, painfully, their narrowest loss in the whole of Scotland. “Hang on”, you might initially think, “those are probably going beyond impartiality there, Mr BBS”, and you’d be correct. That Green bar however was yours truly, so I’m allowed to be personally aggrieved. As I’ve said before though, in hindsight I’m much happier reporting on elections now than I am participating in them, and BBS wouldn’t exist if I had won, so silver linings eh? Also, I really like Maggie, so I’ve found it hard to hold a grudge against her for gubbing me.
Anyway, as close as that result was last time, this won’t be an easy win for the Greens. Part of what blocked them (well, me) last time was a Conservative surge in the Jordanhill area, and people in Jordanhill turn out to vote. Nonetheless, there are two routes open to them. The first is obviously to overtake Labour, banking on Green growth in the city since 2017. The second is if the Conservatives lose support. Although this was their strongest ward by first preferences, it’s surprisingly vulnerable given the balance of 2017 transfers were quite Green favourable.
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Conservative.
This was pretty close run on first preferences, with Labour nipping at the SNP’s heels. When it came to transfers, the final round in which both of those parties second candidates plus the Conservatives were in play had Labour 2.2% behind the SNP, and 2.4% beind the Conservatives. Labour would be in a decent position to gain from either party, but in the current context it may be the Conservatives who are most vulnerable, despite having been close to quota on first preferences previously.
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Conservative.
In 2017, the SNP’s second found themselves 2.5% behind the Conservative at the final stage, and so on that basis alone we could say there’s a possible SNP gain to be had here. There was however a by-election here last year – might that suggest anything different?
By-Election Winner: SNP.
Eh, not meaningfully. Barely any changes here whatsoever – the bulk of those going to the Greens, who still have a pretty low share by Glasgow standards. Thus, the same conclusion as previously stands – a possible SNP gain at the Conservatives’ expense. The SNP may be helped along here by the fact that the incumbent Conservative not only isn’t re-standing, but has been rather publicly scathing about his successor candidate.
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