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.
Modern Midlothian is very much a shadow of its former self. It had already lost the historic centre at Edinburgh before the advent of true local government, and then in the 70’s was further truncated with the loss of everything west of the Pentlands, Musselburgh, and the area around Heriot. The area remaining was largely defined by mining for much of the 20th Century, though perhaps not to the same degree as West Lothian.
That naturally led to Labour consistently winning Westminster seats covering the area right up until the SNP’s 2015 landslide. They were strong enough here that Midlothian was one of their 2017 gains, brief though they proved. In the Scottish Parliament the SNP relieved Labour of their Midlothian seat in 2011, though due to boundary changes they also could be considered to have displaced a Lib Dem that had held a mostly Borders seat with a sliver of Midlothian in it.
Apart from a brief spell where Labour fell one short of a majority after the 1977 election due to an SNP surge, they barely had a handful of opposition councillors for decades. That was mostly in the form of Conservatives during the District Council period, followed by the SNP then Lib Dems after the unitary councils were created in the 90’s.
Previous STV Elections
Though STV punctured their dominance somewhat, Labour still emerged as the largest party on the council with 9 seats – exactly half of the total. That was despite only polling 3% ahead of the SNP, who found themselves with 6 seats. The Lib Dems were similarly about 3% ahead of the Conservatives, but won 3 seats whilst the latter got nothing for their 10% of the vote.
The second STV election ended up much more appropriately knife-edge. Labour’s lead over the SNP fell to just 29 votes, and both parties ended up with 8 seats. The Lib Dems found themselves ejected from the council entirely, whilst the final two seats were taken by an Independent and one of the first Green councillors outside the big cities. That Green seat came despite winning only about half as many votes overall as the Conservatives did.
Having suffered the imperfections of STV at previous elections, surging support for the Conservatives finally gave them a breakthrough in 2017, when they won 5 seats. That came at everyone else’s expense, as Labour lost a seat to drop to 7, whilst the SNP lost two and fell to 6 – though for the first time the SNP had a narrow lead in votes. 2012’s sole Independent did not stand for re-election, whilst the Green councillor was only the second incumbent councillor from that party ever to lose re-election.
Wards Worth Watching
Midlothian has the dubious distinction of being Scotland’s least “naturally” proportional council area, as all of its wards are three-member – not a single four-member to be found. That’s in large part why 2017 was so close to being a simple case of one councillor each, in every ward, for all three big parties, and why the Greens lost out despite an overall increase in vote share.
Every single STV election here has been pretty close between the SNP and Labour, at least in vote shares. That it was so close in 2017 probably speaks to how bad a year the SNP were having, and how good Labour’s was. This year both parties will be hoping to win a stronger lead over the other. However, the SNP’s share upon regaining the Westminster seat in 2019 was still quite far below their 2015 result. That raises the possibility that, combined with the likelihood of a weaker Conservative result, Midlothian could still be quite tight.
Depending on their own campaign and how votes for other parties shift, the Greens could yet make a return to Midlothian. This is the only council they’ve ever been represented on then ejected from, but it was also their highest overall local vote share outside of the two big cities. On the other hand, the Lib Dems aren’t likely to make much of a splash. They only stood in two wards here in 2017, so we’ll see if they up that this time.
Update following close of nominations: There’s a little uptick for the Lib Dems to 3 of 6, but that means they are the only Holyrood party without a full slate. Alba are contesting 4. More details here.
2017 Councillors: Labour, SNP, Conservative.
This ward was home to the Green casualty in 2017, driven in part by the Conservative breakthrough, and by the Green’s loss of votes. You’d assume this would then be their best bet at breaking back onto the council, but they have a hill to climb. Even if the Conservatives lose their seat, which is entirely possible if they drift further from quota, it’s not just the Greens in the running for it.
Labour performed very well here, and their second candidate was only around 2% behind the Greens before dropping out, though even if they hadn’t been they’d still have lost to the Conservative. Especially if Conservative votes went directly into Labour’s pile, they could flip the seat this time. Another possibility is the SNP. Although they were a long way off in 2017, as noted throughout this series, that was their absolute worst year of the past decade. A better result this time could put a second candidate ahead of the Greens, then carried to victory on the latter’s transfers. Overall, could be a messy one!
Update following close of nominations: There are only four candidates vying for the three seats here, which limits the scope for transfers or pipping of second placed candidates and so on, which likely increases the prospects for an unchanged Big Three result here.
2017 Councillors: Labour x2, SNP.
Although it wasn’t quite their weakest ward in Midlothian, Dalkeith ended up the only one without a Conservative councillor. That’s probably down to it being Labour’s strongest area. At the final transfer stage, the Conservatives were 4.8% behind. That’s a gap they could bridge if Labour were suffering this year and the Conservatives stable, but given the opposite is likely to be true, this might be a stretch. Although I expect the SNP will probably grow here, my feeling is that transfers would work against their chances of a second.
Midlothian South (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Conservative.
Now, this was the Conservative’s weakest ward, but they nonetheless managed to keep ahead of the SNP’s second candidate, winning by 4.2% at the final count. As Labour transfers only narrowly preferred the SNP over the Conservatives and Independent transfers were split evenly, the SNP never made up for their starting deficit.
They are in with a shot at the double this time though, assuming they do manage to increase their vote share in Midlothian relative to 2017. On those previous results Labour also have a decent prospect of winning a second seat, as their second was a similar distance behind the SNP when they dropped out earlier in the count.
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