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.
Moray is in many respects quite similar to neighbouring Aberdeenshire. Like Aberdeenshire, it’s somewhat different to the historic county, having lost the Cromdale are to Highland but absorbing the geographic bulk of what used to be Banffshire. And it similarly combines fishing communities along the coast with agricultural hinterland. However, the local character is also shaped by two other major sectors – the Speyside whisky distilleries and the military presence at Kinloss and Lossiemouth.
Politically, Moray has long been a clear SNP-Conservative battleground. The old Moray and Nairn seat was won by one of the SNP’s biggest names, Winnie Ewing, in 1974, and though they lost the area in 1979, they regained it in 1987 and held it for three decades. Their loss here in 2017 was particularly dramatic, as it removed their Westminster group leader Angus Robertson from office. In his place was now-leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, though he himself hung on by his fingernails in 2019. At Holyrood however the seat has never been anything but SNP.
Throughout the previous local government era, voters consistently elected Independent councils, though after the SNP had took the Westminster seat they came close to winning the council too. At the shift to unitary governance, the SNP took a clear majority for a term, before losing to Independents again for two elections – and indeed, winning fewer seats than Labour despite many more votes.
Previous STV Elections
The introduction of a partly proportional system prevented that from happening again in 2007, though Independents still came firmly ahead of the SNP, winning 12 seats versus 9. The Conservatives also properly re-established themselves on the council with 3, leaving the remaining 2 councillors for Labour.
At the following election the two largest blocs were tied at 10 councillors apiece, though the SNP had a vote lead of just over 10% compared to the combined total for Independents. The remaining seats were also an even split at 3 each for the Conservatives and Labour.
In common with a number of their strongest areas, 2017 saw the Conservatives suffer for failure to nominate enough candidates. Though they led in votes, they only won 8 councillors to the SNP’s 9. I reckon the Conservatives could have won another 3 seats had they stood two candidates in the relevant wards, displacing two Independents and an SNP councillor. Instead, the Independent bloc only shrunk a little to 8 councillors. Labour meanwhile were reduced to a single seat.
Wards Worth Watching
Moray is definitely going to be one of the fiercest competitions of the year. Losing the UK constituency in 2017 was a huge blow to the SNP, and their narrow failure to regain it in 2019 effectively (albeit unknowingly) assured Douglas Ross’ ascent as Scottish Conservative leader. If the SNP follow up holding the Holyrood seat last year by taking a lead on the council, you can bet they’ll be framing that win as a commentary on Ross by local voters. On the other hand, if the Conservatives hold onto first place, they’ll present it as being further proof only they can stop the SNP.
By chance, all of the wards worth watching in Moray cover the historic Moray portion, whilst the Banffshire end is rather quieter. Given those ends similarly split Conservative vs SNP leads, that means most of the action relates to the former. Given what I noted earlier about the Conservatives under-nomination in 2017, we’re mostly watching to see whether they make any of those gains this time, rather than expecting much in the way of losses. Indeed, an entirely possible outcome is both parties static on seats but switching places in votes.
When it comes to the smaller parties, we can reasonably expect Labour to hold onto at least their current seat, particularly given their councillor is (at time of writing) re-standing. There’s also an opening here for the Greens, though given the area that may depend on the candidate rather than the party. It’ll also be interesting to see whether they stand in more wards than the two they did in both 2017 and back in 2012. The Lib Dems had a similarly low contest rate, and are vanishingly unlikely to pick up anything here.
Update following close of nominations: Hilariously – absolutely, side-rendingly, jaw-achingly, breathlessly, hilariously – the Lib Dems now have a Moray councillor for the first time in decades, as Buckie ward was uncontested. They’d never have won a contested election! Neil McLennan (Conservative), Christopher Price (Lib Dem) and Sonya Warren (SNP) are thus going to be councillors.
It’s surprising the SNP didn’t stand two candidates, as they’d won 44% here in 2017. In addition to limiting their potential gains, Buckie was one of the wards the SNP led then and their vote there accounted for 4.2% of the total vote in Moray. That’s going to be a blow to their prospects of overtaking the Conservatives in the popular vote. That wasn’t their only astonishingly bad nomination decision, as they’ve only stood 9 candidates overall, so can’t even win as many seats as they had in 2017 never mind grow.
Anyway, both the Conservatives and SNP stood candidates in every ward, the Lib Dems in 6 of the 8, Labour 5, and the Greens in 3. Alba aren’t contesting any wards, one of only 4 councils they are missing in. More details here.
Fochabers Lhanbryde (3)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP x2.
This is the first of Moray’s Conservative under-nominations. If they’d stood two here, they’d have elected both. Since they didn’t, the SNP picked up two seats. It’s entirely possible that this time around however that the SNP hold both of their seats because the vote has swung back their way since 2017.
Heldon and Laich (4)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Cowe (Independent), Edwards (Independent).
Another possible Conservative doubler in 2017 – they’d have been run a bit harder for their second seat here given the strength of Independents, but they’d have just pipped the weaker one. Again, what we’re looking for here is whether the Conservatives make that gain this time.
Elgin City North (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Conservative.
Elgin City North is going to be an interesting one to watch because 2017 delivered an absurd outcome – an immediate by-election. The Independent, Sandy Cooper, decided less than a week in the job “wasn’t for him”. I wrote about those shenanigans in more detail in a “Back Catalogue Bonus” piece here, but the first preferences from that by-election were:
By-Election Winner: Conservative.
Effectively, all three parties gained as a result of Cooper’s absence from the re-run. Bearing in mind political developments since 2017, my feeling is that Labour should clearly be in the running, and failing that a second SNP councillor. On a good day the Conservatives could also get a second, but it’d be a lot more of a stretch here given Moray is generally more SNP-leaning now than in 2017, hence not showing it as a possibility on the map.
2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Alexander (Independent), Cresswell (Independent).
For the final ward, we’re back to the “should have been two Conservatives but only one stood” story. That’d have come at Cresswell’s expense. You guessed it, it’s a case of whether they’ll still be able to win a second seat this time assuming they do stand two.
The Greens also had a very good result by their standards here. They were 3% behind Creswell at the final stage, so with a bit of growth and a weaker Conservative result they could be in with a shot at their first seat in Moray. Oddly however that was only a very slight increase compared to 2012, in a year they otherwise tended to grow in, so there may still be some way to go here.
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