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.
Although the name may seem self-explanatory, North Ayrshire is unique amongst Central Belt council areas for including major inhabited islands in the form of Arran and Cumbrae. These were historically in the Clyde islands county of Buteshire, before being aligned with Ayrshire (and split from Bute) in the 70’s. That has given a real mix of communities, from the industrialised new town of Irvine, to the popular resort town of Largs, and the dispersed island communities on Arran.
Historically, this was a bit more Conservative leaning in the north around Largs, whereas the southern portion around Irvine went Labour – it wouldn’t be until 1987 that Labour held both the Westminster seats. At the Scottish Parliament both seats started out with Labour, until the SNP very narrowly won the northern half in 2007, before more securely holding both from 2011. Westminster success would follow in their 2015 landslide, with both constituencies covering the area remaining SNP since.
In the previous local government arrangements, the area went by the name of Cunninghame, which is preserved in the Scottish Parliament constituencies. Though usually dominated by Labour, this was one of the districts where the SNP won a lead, but no majority, in 1977. Otherwise the largest opposition bloc for most of the period were the Conservatives, though in common with the rest of Scotland they withered somewhat by the time the rebranded unitary North Ayrshire arrived in the 90’s, which was consistently majority Labour in the FPTP era.
Previous STV Elections
In common with much of the Central Belt, STV substantially reduced Labour’s presence on the council, though they still had a clear lead with 12 seats. The SNP took second place with 8, and 5 Independents then formed the third largest group. Rounding things out were a trio of Conservatives and pair of Lib Dems.
For only the second time locally, the SNP managed to pull ahead of Labour at this election, squeaking into the lead with 12 seats versus the latter’s 11. Independent candidates also fared quite well, with a cool half-dozen councillors. Only one Conservative made it back onto the council, and the Lib Dems were ejected entirely.
Although the SNP extended their lead in vote terms over Labour to just over 9%, the parties ended up tied on 11 councillors. Resurgent Conservatives weren’t too far behind Labour in first preferences, and found themselves with a reasonably large group of 7. Independent representation slipped somewhat, as only 4 were elected this time.
Wards Worth Watching
North Ayrshire is unique in having had boundary changes both in 2017 and 2022, as the only mainland-majority council to have proposals under the Islands Act accepted. That introduces some complexity to attempts to compare with 2017 as we need estimates on the new boundaries, which I made a go of here. In further uniqueness, these changes have made North Ayrshire the only council to have either five-member or one-member wards. Fives should come into place across Scotland in 2027, but the one is likely to remain unique into at least the next election.
The big question this election is whether the SNP can open up some genuine distance over Labour. There are a couple of prospects that look promising for them, whereas Labour would seem to already be at the limits of what Conservative transfers could give them. There was also previously the possibility that the Conservatives might overtake Labour in votes, as they did at Holyrood last year, but that outcome may be a victim of their recent troubles.
As with the other Ayrshires, expect a minimal impact from both the Greens and Lib Dems. The Greens did at least stand here last time, in three wards, so we’ll see if they can increase that this time. Support appears to be strongest in the northern end, based on comparatively substantial gains there last year. Given that’s where the more proportional 5-member wards are, there could be a 2027 prospect shaping up. The Lib Dems standing at all would be an improvement for them. They did stand in the one by-election that was held, so may be able to field at least one candidate.
Update following close of nominations: A quite substantial presence for the Lib Dems in 6 of the 9 wards this year, whereas the Greens have no change on 2017 and are contesting 3 – the only bit of Ayrshire they haven’t went backwards on this front. SNP, Labour and Conservatives are all standing in them all. Alba are contesting one. More details here.
North Coast (5)
Notional 2017 Councillors: Conservative x2, SNP x2, Labour.
This combines the current North Coast and Cumbraes ward with the West Kilbride portion of the Dalry and West Kilbride ward, creating the first five-member ward. A strong one for the Conservatives, they should have won two seats in 2017 on the new boundaries. Indeed, they should have done so in the preceding ward but only stood one candidate. That allowed an Independent in Ian Murdoch to win a seat, but I’m assuming they’d have been more tempted to stand two in a five-seater.
We’re watching to see whether they do so this time, or whether having had time to bed in, Murdoch can relieve them of a seat. More likely based on 2017 results, but perhaps less so in current context, he could also gain at the SNP’s expense. As noted above, the Greens are unlikely to actually win a seat, but I’ve had it confirmed they are standing a candidate here, and this is the ward worth seeing what their share looks like in.
Update following close of nominations: Conservatives did indeed stand two here, as are the SNP, Murdoch is re-contesting (and I’m told by a local source is considered very effective), and this is one of the Green wards. All in all, I think this should be particularly interesting!
Garnock Valley (5)
Notional 2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Conservative, Reid (Independent).
The other five-member ward, adding Dalry to the existing Kilbirnie and Beith ward is more likely to be where the SNP lose out. My estimate on 2017 has Independent Robert Barr missing out by just 42 votes (0.57%) versus the SNP’s second candidate. However, the limitations of using past results mean that estimate has no votes whatsoever for Barr in the Kilbirnie and Beith end, and a more realistic assessment of the last election probably puts him ahead of the SNP, so that’s what we’re on the look out for here.
Update following close of nominations: Both Reid and Barr are standing, so there is a prospect for two Independents. Two Conservative candidates too – again, bit optimistic, I think people are getting carried away with the five member wards!
2017 Councillor: SNP.
This is the most truly unique aspect of North Ayrshire, a ward with just one councillor. That does not however mean it reverts to first past the post – instead, it’s functionally the Alternative Vote, just as with a single-seat by-election. That’s how on my estimate the Conservatives were a bawhair ahead of the SNP in 2017’s first preferences, and then a bawhair (5 votes, or 0.23%) behind after transfers. You’d have to assume this one really could go either way in May.
Update following close of nominations: SNP-turned-Alba-turned-Independent councillor Ellen McMaster is standing here. Don’t expect her to win, but do expect her to eat away at her former party’s vote, which could be crucial given not everyone marks later preferences.
Irvine West (4)
2017 Councillors: Labour x2, SNP, Conservative.
No boundary changes in Irvine, so this will be entirely the same ward again. This was extremely close between Labour and SNP second candidates in 2017, with Labour winning by just 14 votes (0.31%). It’s therefore easy to see the SNP gaining at their expense this time. That said, the Conservatives aren’t too far above quota here, and on a bad day it could be them losing out.
Irvine South (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Conservative.
Another prospect here for an SNP gain, which would come at the Conservatives’ expense. In 2017 the SNP’s second candidate had been 3.3% behind, a gap that’s easy to imagine them closing given the changes since 2017. They may also be helped along by some particular Conservative circumstances here, in the form of a peculiarly absent councillor.
I’ve noted a number of wards throughout this series where the Conservatives underestimated their support and didn’t stand enough candidates to capitalise on it. Well, a natural and logical consequence of that was in some cases, they hadn’t even expected their sole candidate to be elected. That very much appears to be the case here, where councillor Margaret George apparently hasn’t been carrying out much of her role. She won’t be standing again, but her successor candidate may find some damage has been done.
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