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.
As with many councils named for a former shire, Stirling isn’t quite a perfect reflection of the historic county. The modern Stirling council area effectively consists of the northern portion of traditional Stirlingshire, from Stirling itself in the east along through the valley of the Endrick Water south of the Forth as far as Loch Lomond, plus a large portion of what was once southwestern Perthshire most notably including Dunblane and Callander. That gives the area quite a stark contrast between the urbanised and somewhat industrialised east and the rural, farming west.
After some jostling between Unionists (precursors to the Conservatives) and Labour early in century, by the mid-30’s the Stirlingshire constituencies had settled into Labour areas. However, this likely disguised the fact the rural western portion was more strongly Conservative. When 1983 introduced boundaries based on the modern area, they’d hold the new Stirling seat until Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth was one of the Cabinet casualties in Labour’s 1997 landslide. Eventually, growing SNP strength here was evidenced by winning the Holyrood constituency in 2007, then obviously taking the Westminster equivalent in 2015. Conservative resurgence briefly turned the area blue in 2017, before losing heavily again to the SNP in 2019.
Those tight contests between the Conservatives and Labour were evident through the local elections too. The Conservatives had very narrow pluralities in the first two elections to the old district, then Labour won half the seats in the third and a majority in the fourth. The final two district elections saw both parties tied on half the seats, followed by a Labour majority in the first unitary election in 1995, a half-seat tally for Conservatives in 1999, and another Labour majority in 2003.
Previous STV Elections
The first STV election in 2007 was a real masterclass in how messy STV can be, with Labour claiming 8 seats on 28.2% of the vote, the SNP 7 on 29.2%, and the Conservatives 4 on 25.3%, barely ahead of the 3 the Lib Dems won on 11.5%. Established patterns of support showed clearly here, with all Conservative councillors drawn from the rural West and Dunblane, versus clear SNP or Labour leads in the urbanised East.
As part of their collapse in 2012, the Lib Dems were totally wiped out of the council. In their place were an additional 2 seats for the SNP, who also had a substantial growth in vote share, whilst Labour held steady in both seats and votes, and the Conservatives held all of their seats in the face of a large vote share decline. The remaining seat was won by the Greens, with former Mid Scotland and Fife MSP Mark Ruskell returning to elected office after 5 years.
2017’s council election presaged the Conservative success at Westminster the next month, leading in terms of first preferences, though both parties tied on 9 seats. Labour lost half their votes and seats, dropping to 4 seats, whilst the Greens narrowly held onto their single seat a year after Ruskell had made his way back to Holyrood, passing the torch to a new councillor. The geographic divide was extremely stark that time, with the SNP leading in urban Stirling, and Conservatives in the rural and affluent west.
Wards Worth Watching
If the narrow Conservative lead here in 2017 was a sign they’d win the Westminster seat the following month, the SNP having regained it in 2019 bodes well for their chances. Apart from their historic strongholds, it felt like Stirling was the 2017 loss the SNP had been most stunned by and were determined to reverse. However, it’s unlikely they’ll run as fierce a campaign for the locals as they did for Westminster, so if they do take a lead I don’t expect it to be in the double-digits.
Both the Conservative and SNP wins in the UK parliament had been built on absolutely devouring Labour’s vote, which means it’s hard to say in advance what may happen to them. Based on Holyrood results, they don’t appear to be as low as 2019 which may stem further losses, and a bad day for the Conservatives could be to Labour’s benefit. The Greens meanwhile will be looking to create (one of) their first group(s) of councillors outside of Edinburgh and Glasgow by building on their single seat. Finally, don’t expect the Lib Dems to mount a return to the council, but do watch to see if they stand a candidate in every ward. In 2017, they were the only one of the Holyrood 5 not to do so.
Update following close of nominations: They Lib Dems are contesting every ward, joining the Conservatives, SNP, Labour and, weirdly, the Scottish Family Party in doing so. Surprisingly, seeing as they had a full slate last time, the Greens are only in 5 of the 7. Alba are contesting just one. More details here.
Dunblane and Bridge of Allan (4)
2017 Councillors: Conservative x2, SNP, Green.
This was an obvious ward to expect a very good Conservative result, and they had the wisdom to stand two candidates. If they have a worse election this time, they could lose one of those. Similarly in the firing line are the Greens. Their result here was much weaker than it had been in 2012, almost certainly due to change in candidate, and they scraped ahead of Labour by 75 votes (1.1%) at the final stage. This is therefore Labour’s best hope of a gain in Stirling, if they have more Conservative transfers to keep them ahead of the Greens.
Though the SNP are quite distant on first preferences, a Green elimination also offers the potential of boosting them to a second seat. However, given Green growth last year and after five years for the new councillor to bed in, they’ll probably be a lot harder to shift this time around. Also, if the Lib Dems were going to return to Stirling council, this ward would be their best bet. Given everything else going on here though, they probably don’t have much of a chance.
Update following close of nominations: One of the 2017 Conservative councillors, Alastair Majury, was not re-selected and is standing as an Independent. He’d previously made headlines for pretty untasteful comments on social media. He’s unlikely to have much of a chance, but he could pull enough votes from Conservatives to shift the order of elimination to another party’s benefit.
Stirling North (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP x2, Conservative, Labour.
Looking the other direction for the Greens, Stirling North is one where they could be in line for a gain, though it’s unlikely to be easy. This ward contains a real mix of areas, with Raploch being one of the most deprived communities in Scotland, Causewayhead one of the most affluent, and the Stirling University campus offering a big chunk of students.
In that sense, it’s quite favourable to all four of the major parties in Stirling. The Conservatives should be secure here, so the Green route in would be to take Labour or the second SNP candidate’s seat. They’ll need a big growth in first preferences to pull that off though, given the clear advantage both of those parties had in 2017.
Stirling East (3)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour, Conservative.
Urban Stirling has become quite heavily SNP-leaning, and the east of the city offers the SNP’s most likely gain. This was the Conservatives’ second weakest share in Stirling last time, and after transfers they were about 2.9% ahead of the SNP’s second candidate. If the result overall looks more like 2019 than 2017, this is one that could easily change hands.
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