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.
This is the big one – the biggest one. In a country that makes a mockery of the concept of local government, Highland council is a joke so bad it’s long since ceased to be funny. Famously huge, Highland covers what used to be the counties of Inverness, Nairn, Caithness, Sutherland, and Ross and Cromarty, along with small portions of historic Argyll and Moray. Under the 1973 Act, Highland was a region, under which there were districts for Caithness, Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, Inverness, Skye and Lochalsh, Nairn, Lochaber, and Badenoch and Strathspey.
Come the 90’s, rather than turn those districts into unitary authorities or do some mild mergers, we just took the region made that a unitary. Nobody likes this anymore. Nobody. Combining a major and rapidly growing city in Inverness with a dizzying array of rural communities simply hasn’t worked. Even some MSPs, past and present, have begun to talk about the need to divide Highland back up.
Politically, the Highlands have often been diverse, with all of Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems holding Westminster seats here historically. By the late 20th century, the Lib Dems were typically the lead party, though Labour had a brief spell in the Inverness-centred constituency in 1997 and 2005 before the Lib Dems reasserted themselves. The SNP have held the Scottish parliament equivalent since 1999, and all Highland constituencies since 2011. They similarly gained the Westminster seats in 2015, though the Lib Dems have held the northernmost since 2017.
At local level, Highand has long been the most Independent leaning of the big rural councils. They historically held clear majorities on the region and in all districts, with only Inverness ever having an Independent minority. That continued into the unitary era, with Independent majorities in all three FPTP elections. It was clear the Highlands weren’t entirely Independent-minded however, as the Lib Dems, Labour and SNP all had consistently solid groups through that time.
Previous STV Elections
STV didn’t come close to ending Independent dominance of Highland council, but it did force them into minority status for the first time, with 35 seats. Reflecting both historic and recent shifts in support, the Lib Dems and SNP also performed strongly, winning 21 and 17 councillors respectively. Labour filled out the remaining seats with their 7.
Independents held steady at this election, once again winning 35 seats. The SNP meanwhile took a clear second place with 22 councillors, and what could have been a Lib Dem disaster actually saw relatively mild losses that left them with 15. Labour once again took the remaining places, this time electing 8 councillors.
A whole range of different political shifts finally caught up with Highland at this election. Firstly, Independents shrunk to their smallest group yet, winning 28 seats. This time it was the SNP holding steady, with 22 councillors. The Conservatives had a strong result, coming from none to elect 10 councillors, the same as the Lib Dems who suffered further losses. Labour too went substantially backwards and won just 3 seats.
The Greens elected a councillor too, one of very few outside of the two big cities. Interestingly, that’s not quite their first councillor in the area – back in 1990, a Green was elected regional councillor for the Nairn ward, becoming the first Scottish Green ever elected. However, he didn’t last particularly long with the party, opting to become an ecologically-minded Independent shortly after.
Wards Worth Watching
As with the islands, the strength of Independents here in Highland makes some aspects of previewing the election difficult for a solitary nerd. I obviously can’t offer much in the way of prediction for which Independents will stand in the first place, never mind be elected. On that front, the thing to watch out for is whether Independents continue to weaken versus parties, or if that was a 2017 blip.
On the other hand, the fact parties have been increasingly strong here allows us to pick out quite a few interesting wards. The SNP should be secure in their position as the largest party, but there’s likely to be a fascinating contest for second party between the Conservatives and Lib Dems. At Holyrood last year, the Conservatives grew in every constituency here, whilst the Lib Dems went back in all bar Caithness, Sutherland and Ross. For Labour, it’s likely to be a case of seeing if they can hold steady, whilst the Greens have at least two possible gains in their sights. Watch and see if the latter stand in more wards this time too – their 2017 vote share was built on candidacies in just 8 of 21 wards.
One final point of interest, though for something that didn’t happen – boundary changes. Highland had some proposals made as a result of the Islands Act, that would also have created a few 5-member wards in Inverness. Those would have really shaken up what we could expect to happen. However, they also saw a continued shift in councillors away from the rural areas to Inverness. The proposals were met with fury – indeed, the response from Highland Council’s political leadership struck me as one of the most outrageously unjustified attacks on an impartial public body I’ve ever seen.
Boundaries Scotland were accused of carrying out an unwanted review, and deliberately failing to account for the needs of rural areas. In fact, they were legally required to conduct the review, and their proposals constrained by the legislative requirement for all wards within a given council to adhere to roughly similar ratios of voters to councillors. You simply cannot choose to massively overrepresent rural versus urban areas within the same council area, it’s not legally possible. The anger led to the proposals being rejected, but that has simply postponed the inevitable. A review ahead of 2027 will look the same, indeed likely even worse, for rural Highland. As stated earlier, the only solution here is wholesale reorganisation of local government in the area.
Update following close of nominations: Surprisingly, only the Conservatives and Lib Dems are contesting all 21 wards here. An unexpected SNP absence has them on 20, Labour fall to a low of 14, and the Greens grow to a record 11. Alba are contesting 4. Independents are present in all bar two wards, but there’s been a massive decrease in their total numbers, only 40 this year versus 61 in 2017. More details here.
The fact the SNP went without contesting Caol and Mallaig meant the ward went without contest entirely. That handed Andrew Baldrey (Green), John Grafton (Lib Dem) and Liz Saggers (Conservative) seats. Although the Greens would absolutely be expecting councillors in Highland, Caol and Mallaig wouldn’t have been on their radar. Similarly, much has been made on Twitter of the fact the Conservative appears to have been a paper candidate, given links to Nairn.
North, West and Central Sutherland (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Lib Dem, Morrison (Independent).
Transfers are truly incredible things, and this ward really showed that. Although the Conservatives had the most votes of any candidate – by one whole vote – they didn’t manage to win a seat. However, it was extremely close. At the final stage of the count, the most popular winning candidate was just 23 votes (0.8%) ahead of the Conservative. An unanticipated rain shower could have changed the results here. That makes this a clear prospect for a Conservative gain.
Update following close of nominations: Morrison is re-contesting this ward, not being part of the general decrease in Independent candidacies this time.
Wick and East Caithness (4)
2017 Councillors: MacKay (Independent), Sinclair (Independent), Conservative, SNP.
No surprises in that this was a strongly Independent-leaning ward in 2017. No party candidate was particularly close to quota, but the Conservatives and SNP got there on transfers. Though the latter were only 1.1% ahead of Labour at the final stage, I have no reason to expect Labour to do well this time, based on a by-election last year following Sinclair’s resignation:
By-Election Winner: Lib Dem.
The Lib Dems roaring back from last place and not even 4% of the vote to winning the by-election was impressive. In hindsight, it made sense, given the Lib Dems had been working the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency for the Holyrood election. Fernie also did well as a returning Independent. The full election will be very different, assuming sitting Independent MaKay re-stands, but I’d give both Fernie and the Lib Dems a solid chance at winning the vacant-vs-2017 seat. Since Labour were absent at the by-election, I assume their full election chances now to be nil.
Update following close of nominations: Both MacKay, the incumbent Independent, and Fernie, the possible additional, are standing.
East Sutherland and Edderton (3)
2017 Councillors: Labour, Lib Dem, McGillivray (Independent).
A very rare mainland ward lacking an SNP councillor, they weren’t too far off – around 2.2% behind the Independent at the final count. However given nobody was at quota and instead relied on transfers, if the SNP do make a gain here it could be at anyone’s expense. The Conservatives were more distant, but about 3.3% behind McGillivray when they dropped out, so I wouldn’t write them off entirely, though they are a less likely victor.
Update following close of nominations: No Labour candidate here, and thus either the SNP or Conservatives will gain their seat.
Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Conservative, Campbell (Independent), Lib Dem.
Scotland’s largest ward was quite strongly party-political by rural Highland standards, with barely a quarter of the vote going to the Independents. This was also a very strong Green ward, and they overtook the confusingly named Greene early in the count process, finally ending up 1.7% behind the Lib Dems for the final seat. For further complexity however, there was a by-election here in 2018 following the Lib Dems’ resignation:
Dingwall and Seaforth (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Lib Dem, Paterson (Independent), MacKinnon (Independent).
In the “will Highland end up less Independent” stakes we have another possibility here for one to be knocked out by a party candidate. In this case it’s the Conservatives, who were only 1.5% behind MacKinnon at the final transfer stage. I’d generally rate all such gains as less likely now than I would have a few months ago, but still possible.
By-Election Winner: SNP.
As with the Wick by-election, remember that the absence of a sitting Independent throws off the voting spread, likely accounting for Greene’s boost. Nonetheless, both the Greens and Lib Dems did worse at this vote – though not to a degree that, with favourable transfers and a bit of a recovery since then, they couldn’t still win a seat from. Whether the Greens actually make that gain is going to partly depend on whether the Lib Dem campaign in Holyrood made an impact in this ward. If it did, the Lib Dems might be quite secure.
Update following close of nominations: Shockingly, given the strong performance previously, the Greens haven’t stood this time. Can’t gain where you don’t stand. That means the Lib Dem seat may be more secure – but it could also be a prospect for a second SNP councillor, this being one of only two Highland wards they are standing two candidates.
Black Isle (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Lib Dem, Barclay (Independent).
There are a lot of wards to get through in Highland, so suffice it to say this one is pretty similar to the previous one in being an option for the Conservatives to pinch from an Independent. They were only 21 votes (0.5%) behind in 2017.
Update following close of nominations: Barclay isn’t standing again, perhaps boosting prospects of an Independent disappearance here, though there are three others on the ballot, including Bev Smith who stood in 2017.
Caol and Mallaig (3)
2017 Councillors: Henderson (Ind), SNP, Thompson (Ind).
A pair of very strong Independents were joined here by an SNP councillor, who sadly passed away not long into the term. First preferences in the subsequent by-election were as follows:
By-Election Winner: Lib Dem.
That was a huge turnaround for the Lib Dems, likely aided by the voters going spare from the two Independent councillors obviously not on the ballot. Were that all that had happened since the full election, I’d have wondered if the Lib Dems and SNP would be in contention for the third seat this year. However, Ben Thompson resigned from the council just after the deadline for by-elections. That means there’s a spot effectively open, and thus both the Lib Dems and SNP could relatively easily win a seat, assuming there isn’t an alternative Independent hoovering up the votes instead.
Update following close of nominations: As noted above, this ward was uncontested, and thus elects a Green, Lib Dem and Conservative. In effect, the accidental Green here balances out the loss of any chance in Wester Ross, making a trio highly likely.
Inverness Ness-side (3)
2017 Councillors: Lib Dem, SNP, Conservative.
Had the boundary changes gone through, Inverness would have been really fascinating as it’d have gone from entirely 3 member to a mix of 4 and 5 member wards. Instead, this is the only appearance for an Inverness ward in this piece. This was such a strong result for the Lib Dems that it could have elected a second candidate if they’d had one – assuming the vote isn’t too personal to the councillor. If they don’t stand a second or it is quite personal, the other option for picking up a seat here would be Labour, who were 2.6% behind the Conservatives at the final stage last time.
Culloden and Ardersier (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Balfour (Independent), Lib Dem.
A little bit of a treat here in the “possible Conservative gains” stakes – rather than an Independent, I reckon it’s the Lib Dems they’d be in line to gain the seat from if they did. Transfers lifted the Lib Dems past the Conservatives in 2017, but only by 59 votes (1.6%).
Update following close of nominations: Balfour is one of the many Independents calling it quits, which perhaps helps secure the Lib Dems. Nonetheless, there are two other Independents on the ballot that could take a seat.
Badenoch and Strathspey (4)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, Lobban (Independent), SNP, Green.
This is the one ward in Highland – and one of four outside of the two big cities – where the Greens won a seat in 2017. They did so with a solid first preference share, that gives a good base from which to defend it. However, it was a narrow win of 2.2% over the Lib Dems at the final stage, so it’s by no means impossible the latter push them back out. Overall though the Greens enter this election in Highland with the prospect of growth looking more likely than decline.
Update following close of nominations: The SNP are trying for two here, which seems optimistic based on 2017 results – unless they are expecting Lobban, formerly one of theirs, to have lost all support this time. This being their only other Highland ward with two candidates seems odd given the below situation…
Fort William and Ardnamurchan (4)
2017 Councillors: Baxter (Independent), SNP x2, Conservative.
This is the final ward to look at today – I know, this has been a long piece, but there’s a lot that could happen in Highland. And this ward is a fine one to cap it off with, as there’s all kinds of weird stuff going on. We have the classic highly popular Independent, we have a decent Labour result that was only 2.8% behind the second SNP candidate at the final stage, and would therefore seem to be a prospect for a gain. And we have a by-election from December 2021 that turns all of that on its head:
By-Election Winner: SNP.
First things first: where the hell did the Greens come from? They’d never contested this ward before, and out of the blue they come third, with a better share even than what elected their one Highland councillor previously. Secondly, note the complete absence of Labour. Thirdly, look how much more secure the SNP were here – that’s just shy of two full quotas, in full election terms. Ah now, but remember, popular Independent Andrew Baxter wasn’t on the ballot, so that left lots of votes up for grabs.
Except, Baxter is now a Conservative. That’s actually a return to the fold for him – he’d stood unsuccessfully under that banner in 2007 before being elected as an Independent in 2012. In addition, he announced his retirement last year, so he’s unlikely even to be able to lend any personal vote to his party. And what other Independent could win? The three that did stand at the by-election did relatively poorly, and you’ve got to assume any other serious candidate weighing up standing in May would have seen the sense of a by-election outing with less than five months to go.
That means there’s a very good chance that, whilst the other usual by-election caveats apply, this might actually be a reasonable reflection of a possible result in May. That’d mean delivering a ward of two SNP, one Conservative and one Green. I’d rank this a top three chance for a Green gain outside of Glasgow and Edinburgh, which until I saw the vote displays at the by-election count would never have occurred to me as being vaguely possible. All that said, the Lib Dems weren’t terribly far behind, so they aren’t out of the running either. Both could actually get in, if the SNP have a worse day at the full election and drop their second seat, though that seems the least likely of these three scenarios.
Update following close of nominations: No second SNP candidate here, so they can’t hold their double. That’s going to be a massive boost to Green prospects. There are only 5 candidates standing here, which means only one will lose out. With a fresh Independent on the ballot, I reckon the Lib Dems will be facing off against them for the final seat.
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