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.
Compared to its northern counterpart, South Lanarkshire features more in the way of internal contrasts, both demographic and political. The overwhelming majority of the population is found in a small corner of the council nearest Glasgow, including Hamilton, East Kilbride, Cambuslang and Rutherglen – the former two having been the centre of districts and the latter two part of Glasgow from the 70’s to the 90’s. This area is par for the Central Belt course. By contrast, the now quite small county town of Lanark itself was the centre of a big rural Clydesdale district home to a large number of scattered towns.
Nonetheless, most of this area had firmly settled into Labour hands by the mid-20th century, with Rutherglen the longest lived Conservative holdout. That Labour dominance was broken briefly albeit dramatically with Winnie Ewing’s famous victory for the SNP in the 1967 Hamilton by-election. This was the start of her party’s unbroken representation at Westminster, though it’d take until 2015 to win an MP in the area again – and Labour would briefly regain one of those seats in 2017. Change came earlier at the Scottish Parliament, with all constituencies bar Rutherglen going SNP in 2011, and Rutherglen itself flipping in 2016.
In the former districts, East Kilbride proved an early centre of SNP support, with a plurality in 1974 and majority in 1977, before clear Labour majorities for the remainder of its existence. Hamilton on the other hand was consistently Labour, whilst Clydesdale was Independent leaning for the first three and Labour for the last three elections. The advent of the current South Lanarkshire council in the 90’s then led to a period of clear Labour majorities.
Previous STV Elections
South Lanarkshire’s relative political diversity came to the fore at the first STV election, when Labour’s 30 seats saw them fall clearly short of a majority. The SNP were a respectable second with 24, whilst the Conservatives also found themselves with a substantial councillor group of 8. A further 2 seats went to the Lib Dems, something of an underrepresentation, demonstrating the concentration of their support in Rutherglan and Cambuslang. Finally, the remaining 3 seats went to Independents.
The second election was a good year for both Labour and the SNP, who increased their hauls to 33 and 28 seats respectively. Indeed, one more seat and Labour would have had another majority under their belt. These came largely at the Conservatives’ expense, as that party plummeted to 3 seats. Just 2 Independents made their way onto the council this time, and Lib Dem representation was reduced to just their former Glasgow-region MSP as a Rutherglen councillor.
Though the SNP dropped a seat to 27, that allowed them to come comfortably ahead of Labour who experienced a much more painful slump to 22 seats. Meanwhile, the Conservatives did very well indeed, emerging with a very strong group of 14 councillors. No Independents were elected this time around, though that sole Lib Dem easily held his seat.
Wards Worth Watching
Not directly election related, but South Lanarkshire is such a frustrating area to map. As ever, that’s a consequence of Scotland’s truly absurd local governance structures – Rutherglen has no business being in the same local council as Biggar, yet here we are. On the actual electoral politics, the SNP will want to improve on their damp squib result of 2017 and secure a much larger lead over Labour, but it’s hard to pick out any obvious possibilities for gains. Labour meanwhile are likely to be hoping that poor Conservative result materialises and boosts their prospects.
Though he’d been a sole councillor at the election, the Lib Dems’ Robert Brown found himself leading a group after a couple of defections, one each from the Conservatives and Labour. I’d be surprised if either of those councillors were re-elected, though he could still lead a group based on another possible gain. For the Greens, the electoral geography of South Lanarkshire likely goes against them, so the main thing will be to see if they replicate 2017’s almost complete slate – they were short only one ward then.
Update following close of nominations: In fact, the Greens went a bit backwards, and are standing in 14 of the 20 wards It was a similar story for the Lib Dems who’ve dropped to 16, leaving the big three of SNP, Labour and Conservatives as the only parties present in every ward. Alba are contesting 4. More details here.
Clydesdale East (3)
2017 Councillors: Conservative x2, SNP.
Wards with double Conservatives are relatively rare in Central Belt councils – but then this ward isn’t meaningfully in the Central Belt, even if most of South Lanarkshire is. Conservative strength here is long lasting, as they’d also managed this result in 2007. Labour will be looking to upset that, as they did in 2012. At the final stage last time their candidate was 2.8% behind the second Conservative, so they have a decent chance of a gain here with a favourable transfer wind, despite the first preference distance.
East Kilbride Central North (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour.
The Conservatives only elected one councillor out of the five East Kilbride wards, but they were close in a couple of others. In this ward, they were only 1.6% behind the second SNP candidate, and in theory could gain here with a solid campaign. However, there was a by-election here following the passing of that SNP councillor, albeit she’d become Independent in the interim. The results of that were:
By-Election Winner: SNP.
This saw the Conservatives go backwards, whilst the SNP further secured their position. Probably most notable in the context of that by-election itself was the massive increase in the Lib Dem vote. However, this came in the context of the mid-2019 Lib Dem surge and general Brexit chaos. That has completely faded away by now, and will likely return to Labour and the Conservatives. I’d rate the latter’s chances now as lower than in 2017, but not zero.
East Kilbride East (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour.
This was even closer for the Conservatives, as they were a mere 23 votes (0.45%) behind the SNP’s second candidate – coincidentally, the similarly now-Independent husband of the above late councillor. Again, if the Conservatives were to make any gains in East Kilbride, this would be one of them.
This was also easily the Greens’ strongest ward in South Lanarkshire, and they can probably expect growth this time. However, this may be where electoral geography is working against them given this is, as with every East Kilbride ward, a three-seater. If it was four, there would be a clearer path for them. This may be a 2027 prospect though, especially if additional flexibility on ward sizes is deployed to full effect by Boundaries Scotland.
Rutherglen Central and North (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Conservative.
I said I’d had a bit of bother picking out SNP gains here, and even this one isn’t as simple as it seems. In 2017, the SNP’s second candidate was 2.2% behind the Conservative, so if that was all we had to go on, I’d be saying they could pull ahead. There’s a complication in the form of a 2017 by-election however:
By-Election Winner: Labour.
That was much weaker for the SNP, as Labour overtook them. It was also substantially poorer for the Conservatives, who were overtaken by the Lib Dems. On reflection I think Labour’s success in that one is likely specific to late 2017, when they were at the peak of their 2016-21 term polling.
The Lib Dem result is much more interesting – unlike the East Kilbride one mentioned above, this was before the Lib Dems’ Brexit boost. The other Rutherglen ward is home to the only elected Lib Dem in South Lanarkshire, so it’s entirely possible they’ve kept working this area hard since and could be on track for a seat here.
Cambuslang East (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour.
South Lanarkshire has a lot of “sure, this could be a Conservative gain, on a good day” wards, it turns out. Although they were comparatively weak on first preferences, transfers pulled them to within 2.5% of the second SNP councillor. Since the current context is leading us against expecting a good Conservative day, this is probably a stretch.
Hamilton South (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Labour, Conservative.
The 2017 result here was pretty close between the SNP and Labour, and got even closer after transfers, when Labour’s second candidate was barely 1% behind the SNP’s. Working on the assumption that even a poor result for the Conservatives should see them squeak a seat here, it’s still the SNP that are the most likely for Labour to gain from.
Update following close of nominations: There are only 5 candidates in the running for the 4 seats here, and neither the Lib Dems or Greens are present. That creates limited room for transfers to change things.
If you find this or other Ballot Box Scotland output useful and/or interesting, and you can afford to do so, please consider donating to support my work. I love doing this, but it’s a one-man project and takes a lot of time and effort. All donations, no matter how small, are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful.