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 all three Lothians have a degree of mining heritage, nowhere is that more evident than in West Lothian. I’ve been in or through practically every town and village in the place thanks to a previous boyfriend living in the area, and the “former mining community” vibes are extremely strong. As with many councils, the historic West Lothian differs somewhat from the modern, having lost Bo’ness to Falkirk, but gaining much of what is now Livingston, a major New Town, from Midlothian.
Like mining communities across the UK, West Lothian was strongly Labour for a very long time, with the party consistently holding the parliamentary seat. However, it was also an area of relative strength for the SNP, with then-leader William Wolfe coming within 5% of winning the seat in the October 1974 election. Though a UK-level victory would have to wait until 2015, the SNP won the Livingston seat at the Scottish Parliament in 2007, and have held both seats covering West Lothian since 2011.
The SNP tied with Labour on the district council in 1977, were the largest party in 1992, and otherwise a typically strong opposition presence in a Labour-controlled council. That relative nationalist success stood in stark contrast to long-serving local Labour MP, Tam Dalyell, an opponent of devolution who originated the famous West Lothian Question.
Previous STV Elections
Both of the major parties ended up almost evenly matched at this first STV election, Labour narrowly squeaking a lead with 14 seats over the SNP’s 13. The next strongest group were a local party, Action to Save St John’s Hospital, who won 3 seats. A Conservative and an Independent then took the remaining two.
Although the SNP ended up overtaking Labour in the popular vote, leading by about 2%, their tally of 15 seats still fell one behind Labour. Despite marginally improving their vote share, Action ended up losing all of their councillors, whilst the same Conservative and Independent held on.
In 2017 the SNP finally managed to place first in both votes and seats, taking their turn at a single seat lead of 13 to Labour’s 12. All of the losses for both parties went directly to the Conservatives who ended up nearly trebling their vote and ending up with 7 councillors, and the highly popular Independent remained highly popular.
Wards Worth Watching
The fact the SNP’s 2017 lead over Labour here was down to the explosive revival of the Conservatives may mean that if the latter have a poor election, West Lothian heads back towards almost-tie territory in votes. On the other hand, given how poor 2017 was for the SNP overall, they may be able to maintain some of the distance if they grow a bit, and potentially end the streak of one councillor leads.
As will become a bit of a theme of these pieces, barring any shifts in polling that arise, it’s not necessarily easy to predict where the Conservatives could lose out on a bad day. Even if they have a worse result than 2017, it’ll still be far better than 2012. In common with other heavily urbanised but non-city Central Belt councils, the Greens and Lib Dems are weak competition here, constraining seat changes to between the big three parties.
Update following close of nominations: All five Holyrood parties are contesting every ward in West Lothian. Alba are contesting 2. More details here.
2017 Councillors: Conservative, SNP, Labour.
Linlithgow has long been a strong ward for the Conservatives, providing their sole councillor in the first two STV elections. They did so well here in 2017 that it could, on a good day and with favourable transfer winds, have given them a second councillor – had they stood a candidate. Although such a good day seems less likely this time, if they were to succeed, it’d come at Labour’s expense.
It’s perhaps also worth noting this was a comparatively strong ward by Green standards. Careful, targeted campaigns have given them victories with that as a starting point in the past. However, given we might generally expect Conservative losses here to go Labour’s way, the level of growth the Greens would need to knock anyone else out is probably unachievable this year.
Whitburn and Blackburn (4)
2017 Councillors: SNP, Labour x2, Conservative.
Though the SNP had a narrow lead over Labour in 2017’s first preferences, favourable transfers helped squeak the latter’s second candidate over the line. Given they were only 80 votes (1.2%) behind, the SNP could easily overturn that this time to give them the double. Alternatively, given how close to two full quotas each of those parties were, a bad day for the Conservatives could see them dropping out of the ward.
2017 Councillors: Labour x2, SNP, Conservative.
This is another ward where the SNP could clinch a double if they are having a better election than last time. That could come either at Labour’s expense, displacing their second, or at the Conservatives’, as they were short a full quota here. A notable bit here was the share won by an Independent candidate, Jim Walker. Just shy of 10% is solid for a Central Belt Independent, and perhaps reflects a base he had built up from decades as a local councillor, and previously for the SNP. Walker sadly passed away last year, and his absence may further boost his former party’s chances.
Armadale and Blackridge (3)
2017 Councillors: Borrowman (Independent), SNP, Labour.
Speaking of popular Independents, can I introduce you to Stuart Borrowman? When I say popular, I mean 45% is a comparatively poor result – back in 2012, he was elected with an eye-watering 56.7%. His transfers alone can make or break who wins the final seat. They split almost evenly between Conservatives and Labour in 2017, with Green and Lib Dem transfers doing the rest of the work pushing Labour to the third seat.
If they were having a bad election, it’s possible to imagine Labour losing their seat here to the Conservatives. However, at the moment, that seems less likely than the status quo prevailing. It’s not one I’ve marked on the map given it’s a bit out there, but if the SNP were feeling bold they could try standing a second candidate and seeing how they got on with transfers.
Update after close of nominations: The SNP were not feeling bold here and stood only one candidate. It’s therefore definitely only a Labour to Conservative switch to watch for.
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