May 16, 2017 : Craig Wilson
Local Election Tea Leaves
Well, as is customary following an election (or any contest for that matter), let’s chew over the results.
Firstly (due to continued heightened interest in politics post-indyref and greater media coverage of General Election 2017) turnout increased to 46.9% from 39.6% in 2012. Whilst by no means impressive, increased participation surely has to be welcomed.
For the runners and riders, the story was one of mixed fortunes.
The SNP turned in yet another impressive electoral performance. Whilst gaining around 107,000 extra votes on their 2012 haul, the higher turnout meant their share of the overall vote stayed steady at 32%. Nicola Sturgeon’s party received the highest percentage of first preference votes, won seven additional seats, and are the biggest party in 16 out of 32 council areas. The SNP also breached the walls of fortress Glasgow City Council – a long time ambition which brings Labour domination of the city to an end after almost 40 years.
Labour themselves had a very disappointing evening and look a shadow of the once towering behemoth of Scottish local government politics. The party vote share slumped from 31% to 20% and number of seats held fell from 394 to 262. With all majority Labour councils lost, the party will have to seek coalitions with opposition parties or independents to hold on to any Council areas. As in the Scottish Parliament elections, Labour appear to have been outflanked by the Scottish Conservatives, who seem to have been conferred the mantle of ‘most unionist’ party in Scotland. In an era of constitutional polarisation, it is difficult to communicate any message other than your views on the Union or Brexit. In both matters the Tories (at least publicly) have pinned their colours to the mast, and those of a pro-Union/Brexit persuasion would have felt comfortable voting for Ruth Davidson’s resurgent party.
Of course, the Tories were the talk of the town (or many towns, I suppose?) with the Scottish public re-affirming their status as the main opposition party in the country. Winning 22.5% of first preference votes (up from 13% in 2012) and securing 276 seats (up from 115) the party is experiencing something of a renaissance north of the border – after so many years operating in relative obscurity.
Interestingly, as well as riding the Union/Brexit wave, I get the impression that many of Scotland’s small-c conservatives are returning home to a party they felt wasn’t in a position to win elections until very recently. Certainly, many Conservative voters would have voted SNP in the past to harry Labour. Post indyref, they will feel less comfortable doing so and now see a party perhaps capable of taking on the SNP and representing their views in an undiluted fashion. With the Lib Dems effectively producing an identical result to 2012, the party still have work to do to return to fighting form. On the other hand, the Scottish Greens had a decent showing, making significant gains across Glasgow (*cough* Allan Young *cough*) and seeing a healthy increase in their share of the vote.
In terms of what all this means, that really depends on where you live. Using these results as tea leaves for predicting national changes or outcomes is a risky game, but let’s give it a go…
First things first, the SNP will now likely seize control of COSLA, which will make for an interesting dynamic between local and national government. With hard budgeting and restructuring decisions still to be made, it will be worth watching how long any honeymoon period lasts.
In terms of Westminster, we need to remember that the voting a local level is totally different to that of a general election (Single Transferable Vote and First Past The Post system, respectively). However, it is always worth looking at the first preference votes cast. In this regard, the Scottish Conservatives may be set to make real progress in some Westminster seats – particularly in the Borders. However, it will be much more difficult for them to overturn SNP majorities numbering in the several thousands (like SNP Deputy Leader Angus Robertson’s seat in Moray – which the Tories regard as a target).
With the resources (staff and money), relative popularity and some simple, powerful messaging, the SNP will likely hold on to many of the 56 out of 59 seats they won in 2015. Labour will be concerned about their drop in first preference votes and will certainly be putting everything in to holding on to the seat they hold and targeting a select few they poll well in.
As predicted, the vote is being spun (particularly by the SNP and the Tories) as an endorsement/rejection of independence/Brexit. In reality, the polls have barely shifted on this matter in almost three years and, if anything, the general election will provide a clearer view of what the public think on these issues.
Whilst parties will introspectively mull over their performances and publicly spin the result, they will also use these elections as a campaigning tool for next month’s vote, which will set the bar for our constitutional arrangements and international outlook for decades.