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.
Though it carries the name of one of Scotland’s historic counties, the modern Renfrewshire council is limited to the central stretch of that area. It’s almost equivalent to the previous Renfrew district, short Barrhead and Neilston. This nonetheless represents the bulk of the county’s population, centred on the major town of Paisley, which has long since overtaken neighbouring Renfrew in importance. A band of former industrial towns including Johnstone, Linwood and Erskine make up most of the rest of this council, though it also contains a more detached, rural element in the west, especially around Lochwinnoch.
For a while, Westminster constituencies were split partly on that basis, so whilst most of Renfrewshire was held by Labour, the western end had a brief spell under a Conservative MP from 1983. The SNP’s first constituency victories came in 2011, when they took Paisley and the northern seat, completing a sweep with the southern in 2016. In winning the Westminster constituencies in 2015, they’d made a bit of history when Mhairi Black became the youngest MP ever elected in the democratic era, unseating Labour veteran Douglas Alexander.
In fitting with the industrialised and urbanised nature of the area, that district was majority Labour for all but one election of its existence – 1977 was an almost even split between them, the Conservatives and SNP. Labour majorities similarly held through the 1995, 1999 and 2003 elections on the new boundaries, although the SNP had won slightly more votes at the last one.
Previous STV Elections
At the first STV vote, Renfrewshire ended up a dead heat between Labour and the SNP on 17 seats apiece, though Labour took a narrow lead in votes. The remaining seats went 4 to the Lib Dems and 2 to the Conservatives, though the latter had won more first preferences, just to really run with the wrong way around vibes.
Although SNP expectations were high following their huge success at the 2011 Holyrood election, 2012 ended up being a remarkably positive election for Labour. Renfrewshire saw one of their best results, with 22 seats making this one of their four majority councils. As the SNP dropped only a couple of seats down to 15, this was mostly made up of Conservative and Lib Dem losses. Both of those parties were reduced to a single seat, on a par with an Independent.
Labour’s luck ran out by this election, as they won 13 seats compared to the SNP’s 19. The Conservatives meanwhile put in a strong showing as their revival hit its peak, ending up with a solid bloc of 8 councillors. With a second Independent elected, that left the Lib Dems as the only Billy nae mates group, still on their sole councillor.
Wards Worth Watching
In East Renfrewshire, it was a bit of a struggle to find wards that were interesting. In Renfrewshire, the struggle is to find wards that aren’t. I’ve got fully two-thirds of them down to keep an eye on here, which was fine when I did it for Clackmannanshire (which only has five wards) but faintly comical in a council with 12. I’ve tried to trim that down but I just can’t – there’s so much potentially going on!
Firstly, the SNP were only three seats short of a rare majority in 2017. That’s precisely as many possible gains as I’ve identified for them. Labour meanwhile have four clear possibilities, but for both parties only one would be a direct gain from the other’s existing stock of seats. There are also three obvious possible gains for the Conservatives. Things could get really chaotic.
There’s also a very good chance that those end up being the only three parties represented on the council. The Lib Dems’ only councillor is standing down after a very long time, which may be the end of a personal vote that held up remarkably well. There’s a strong possibility then that, although they are unlikely to win any seats, the Greens firmly overtake the Lib Dems in vote share. They stood a full slate of candidates here in 2017, and would likely need to do so again to pull that off.
Update following close of nominations: That certainly won’t be happening, as something has gone very wrong for the Greens here – they’re only standing in 4 of 12 wards. That’s less than half of the Lib Dems’ 9, whilst the SNP, Labour and Conservatives are standing in them all. Alba are contesting 1. More details here.
Renfrew South and Gallowhill (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour
Though the Conservatives had a substantial Renfrewshire breakthrough, this ward was one they missed from their spread. If they were to have a better election this time round, they could perhaps pick it up – they were 64 votes (1.6%) behind the second SNP candidate back in 2017.
Paisley Northwest (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Conservative.
Although a comparatively weak ward for the Conservatives, they had enough of an advantage over Labour’s second candidate to pick up a seat. This time around, Labour will want to return this to a 2:2 split with the SNP, and having been only 1.7% behind the Conservatives at the final stage last time, have a solid chance of doing so.
Paisley Southeast (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Mack (Independent).
Nobody has any idea what on earth is going on in Paisley Southeast. It’s chaos. There’s a disqualification story around Independent, now former, councillor Paul Mack, that just keeps getting more and more bizarre. The most recent twist in the tale was lodging a higher appeal, which brought a planned by-election to a screeching halt. Absolutely unprecedented scenes.
That final appeal ended with a retrospective ban that runs out before the deadline for nominations, and thus Mack will be allowed to stand for re-election. Whether this episode has done his chances in or not is hard to say, as voters may not be aware of events, and also can have… counterintuitive reactions at times. In 2017, he had a 4.4% lead over the Conservatives at the final stage, so if Mack’s on the out they could take it. However, this is their third-from-bottom ward in Renfrewshire in terms of vote share, so that might be easier said than done.
It could alternatively go to the SNP as a double, as the already largest party in the ward, especially if their first preference share is up. Certainly, the SNP were (narrowly) the next most preferred party for Mack’s voters in 2017. Alternatively, a weak Conservative result could send transfers flowing to a second Labour candidate, giving them another seat. That’d be probably the most difficult outcome to achieve out of the three given here, but not impossible.
Update following close of nominations: Paul Mack is indeed re-standing, so I’m fascinated to see what on earth happens here.
Paisley Southwest (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Lib Dem.
When the Lib Dems were absolutely collapsing in Renfrewshire and across Scotland, Eileen McCartin held on valiantly, with not all that much of a dip in her vote. That may have something to do with having been a very long serving councillor, with 24 years under her belt by 2012, and so 34 years now. She has announced her retirement, which then raises the very big question mark of whether a party colleague can hold the seat.
I think that will be a challenge, given we can assume a substantial degree of personal vote at play here. If her successor does drop a huge chunk of the vote, it then becomes a question of who benefits most. The fact this was the Conservatives’ weakest ward in Renfrewshire is probably related to the Lib Dems’ strength, so their chances might be up substantially. On the other hand, if Labour were feeling bold, a second candidate could likewise pick up a fair whack of votes. The SNP stood three candidates here last time but only got votes for two, and I don’t see that changing.
Update following close of nominations: No bold Labour second, so it’s just the Conservatives in the running to end the Lib Dems’ presence in Renfrewshire.
Johnstone South and Elderslie (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Conservative.
We’ve got another ward where Labour will be on the hunt for a double here. Based purely on 2017’s later transfers, the 3.1% gap with the SNP’s second candidate looks closeable. However, at an earlier stage, they were about 4.9% behind the Conservatives. That’s likewise the kind of deficit that can be easily made up. Given the current political context I’d say gaining from the Conservatives is a bit more likely.
Johnstone North, Kilbarchan, Howwood and Lochwinnoch (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Conservative, Doig (Independent).
When you just know that nobody will be happy if you leave them out, you’ve got to go for the quadruple-barrelled ward name. The representation was quadruple as well, with nary a double councillor in sight. That could however change in May, as both the SNP and Labour have solid prospects of gaining a second seat, potentially locking down the ward between them.
Of the two that could lose their seats, the Conservatives are probably the most likely. Although they were ahead of Doig in first preferences last time, they are a less popular transfer option. If the Conservatives have that poor election most observers currently expect, it’s easy to see them losing. Doig could also be at risk, especially as he may have given up Independent affiliation to join the “Scotia Future” party, though it’s unclear if he’ll stand under that banner. If he does, his personal vote could still see that fringe outfit with genuine elected representation.
Update following close of nominations: Doig is re-standing, but again as an Independent, so no prospect for Scotia Future to win a seat.
Houston, Crosslee and Linwood (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour x2, Conservative.
Although the SNP had a relatively small lead over Labour in first preferences, the Conservatives’ second strongest result in Renfrewshire sent a chunky surplus Labour’s way, giving them the double. However, it was extremely close at just 20 votes (0.4%). It’s not hard at all to imagine the SNP flipping that to give themselves the second seat.
Bishopton, Bridge of Weir and Langbank (3)
2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Labour.
The only ward not led by the SNP in the council wasn’t a Labour victory, but instead Conservative. In fact, the Conservatives did so well here that it’s yet another ward that with two candidates they could well have got them both elected. That’s therefore a distinct possibility if they take the shot this time, though if they are having a less successful election, you’d expect other party transfers to overwhelmingly favour Labour and help them keep hold of their seat.
Update following close of nominations: The Conservatives are indeed chancing their arm at a double, and are the only party with two candidates in the ward.
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