What do the council elections hold for Scotland?

Written by Kate Shannon on 3 May 2017 in Inside Politics

Council elections are tricky to predict and don’t follow trends set by Holyrood and Westminster.

Ballot box - Image credit: PA Images

Council elections have often suffered from a negative press. They are generally seen as a vote concerned with dog poo, litter and planning applications, none of which enflames the collective national interest.

While they might not have received the publicity of the independence referendum or Brexit, council elections are, arguably, one of the most important Scots will vote in.

After all, the councillors elected on 4 May will control huge budgets around education, social care, roads and more, all of which are vitally important to people’s day-to-day lives.


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This view of local government elections as less ‘sexy’ than other votes has inevitably played a part in low turnouts; however, 2012 was particularly bad.

It was the first year the council elections were uncoupled, having previously been held on the same day as the Scottish Parliament vote.

Consequently, turnout dropped from 52.8 per cent in 2007 to just 39.7 per cent in 2012.

An Electoral Commission report published in the months after the 2012 vote stated: “For many, turnout is viewed as the most important measure of the health of a democracy.

“However, the coincidence of Scottish Parliament and local elections in recent years has made it difficult to judge the interest of the electorate in local elections.

“It is not at all surprising that the decoupling of the two sets of elections resulted in sharply decreased turnout between 2007 and 2012.

“However, turnout in 2012 was also five per cent lower than in the first set of elections to these councils in 1995, and indeed was the lowest in Scottish local elections since the wholesale restructuring of local government in 1974.”

It will be interesting to see whether May’s election sees an improved turnout or whether the downward trend continues.

This year all 16 and 17 year olds can vote for the first time and it is widely expected to boost numbers by some measure.

However, with a snap general election called for 8 June, Scotland continuing to debate a possible second independence referendum and the Brexit negotiations looming large over people’s lives, the council elections could be overshadowed.

There’s also an argument that the general public is suffering from voter fatigue after being asked to cast their votes in six elections in three years.

On top of this, it appears confidence in local councils is low.

The most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, which was based on interviews with between 1,200 and 1,700 people between 11 July and 23 December last year, found that just under a third of people (32 per cent) trusted their local council to make fair decisions.

Forty-four per cent of people said their local council was good at listening to people’s views before taking decisions – unchanged from 2015.

However, when asked who had the most influence over the way Scotland is run, only five per cent said local councils and eight per cent said local councils should have most influence over the way Scotland is run.

So what are the likely results? Council elections are tricky to predict and don’t follow trends set by Holyrood and Westminster.

The poll in 2012 was the second local government election held using the Single Transferrable Vote system, where candidates are ranked in order of preference.

Even though the SNP had secured an unprecedented majority at Holyrood 12 months previously, the party gained only the narrowest lead over Labour in terms of councillor numbers.

The SNP took 32 per cent of first preference votes and 425 seats, while Labour secured 31 per cent and 394 seats.

The Conservatives received 13 per cent (115 seats), with the Lib Dems, who were suffering from their Westminster party’s Tory coalition, on just six per cent (71 seats). Independent candidates took 196 seats.

Conversely, despite the SNP beating Labour in vote share, they did less well in terms of controlling councils.

Following the vote in 2012, the party took minority control of a further two councils (Clackmannanshire and North Ayrshire) and participated in coalition arrangements in an additional six.

The Electoral Commission report from 2012 noted: “Labour also took minority control of two councils (Fife and West Lothian), but were in coalition with other parties in a further eight.

In two cases Labour and the SNP were in coalition together, and in a third council (Highland) shared control with the Liberal Democrats.

“The Conservatives formed a minority administration in North Ayrshire and were in coalition in nine councils, while even the biggest losers of the 2012 election, the Liberal Democrats, shared power in four councils.

“Clearly, in the world of STV for Scottish local elections, almost no type of coalition is ruled out.”

One of the most important battlegrounds is the Labour stronghold of Glasgow. In 2012, Labour returned a majority of 44 seats.

Fast forward to today and it remains important to both Labour and the SNP, with the stakes raised by the city voting Yes in the 2014 independence referendum.

It is also worth noting that in 2015’s Westminster elections and 2016’s Holyrood vote, the SNP took every constituency seat in the city.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently said May’s election was an “historic opportunity” to elect Glasgow’s first ever SNP-led administration.

Launching the party’s manifesto for the city, she said: “For far too long our communities have been let down by Labour. But we will not let you down.

“We know that local people know best, which is why the days of top-down decision-making will be over for good under the SNP.

“And we are crystal clear that the SNP will stand up to the Tories’ obsession with austerity. We will protect household budgets and reshape local services so they are fit for communities in the 21st century.”

In February, a Panelbase poll of 1,028 voters found 14 per cent of those who were likely to vote planned to give their first preference to Scottish Labour when ‘don’t knows’ were excluded.

Support for the SNP was at 47 per cent, the Scottish Conservatives 26 per cent, the Liberal Democrats five per cent, the Greens four per cent and UKIP three per cent.

Only about half (53 per cent) of those who voted for Labour in 2016’s Holyrood election said they intended to give the party first preference, with 21 per cent opting for the Tories and 19 per cent for the SNP instead.

Holyrood asked Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dudgale about this poll.

“The polls being bad for the Labour Party isn’t news, it’s been that way for some time now,” she said.

She added: “I said clearly when I became leader that the problems we faced hadn’t happened overnight and they wouldn’t be fixed overnight.

“I’ve got a clear vision and a plan for what I want to try and do as leader, which is to try and reform the party.

“All the decisions I make are rooted in that. The reality is that Labour councils are the last thing that stands between the SNP and Tory cuts and the people.

“There’s a strong message that our councillors and activists can take out around the country, that local government can be used as a barrier against the worst of austerity.

“I’m immensely proud of some of the things I’ve watched Labour councils do across the country.

“There are really ambitious, new ways of thinking about how to deliver the very best public services.

“It is Labour councils which are innovating and doing things differently all the time, but I believe that if they get the chance to tell their own stories, not just about what they’ve done but what they plan, we’ll do very well.”

With uncertainty still surrounding a second independence referendum and Brexit making headlines, will this impact on the vote?

Prime Minister Theresa May entered the fray in February to urge voters across Scotland to use the local elections to express their opposition to Scottish independence.

Writing exclusively for Holyrood ahead of the Scottish Conservative conference, the PM framed the local elections on constitutional grounds.

She wrote: “We will also be looking forward to the local elections in May, when voters across Scotland will have the chance to send a clear message to the SNP that they do not want a second independence referendum by voting Scottish Conservative and Unionist on 4 May.”

The local government elections ought to be just that, local, however, with Scots so used to debating wider constitutional issues, this has become a key pillar on which many of the party campaigns are based.

In Edinburgh, SNP group leader Frank Ross wrote a column in the Edinburgh Evening News saying the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats do not exist as stand-alone Scottish parties.

While he insisted he was not questioning their Scottishness and meant no insult, his claims received an angry response from the pro-Union parties.

Not long after, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave a speech in Glasgow and addressed the issue of tone in any future referendum debate.

She said: “I will ensure that at all times we make our case – not just with passion and conviction – but with courtesy, empathy and respect.”

Launching the Scottish Liberal Democrat election campaign, leader Willie Rennie said: “Unlike the SNP and the Greens, we will put local communities first, not another divisive independence referendum.

“With Liberal Democrats, you get a champion for your area not a cheerleader for independence.

“Our plan for a strong economy and a fair society contrasts with the reckless hard-Brexit of the Conservatives and the divisive approach of the nationalists.”

However, the Scottish Greens emphasised the importance of protecting public services.

Kim Long, Green candidate for Dennistoun in Glasgow, said: “We’re determined to put power in the hands of our communities.

“Our councils need more Green voices. We will speak up to protect public services, give our schools the resources they need, support our care staff and tackle the housing crisis.

“Green MSPs secured an extra £160 million from the Scottish Government for councils to spend on local priorities this year, while other parties’ posturing achieved nothing.”

Local government elections might not receive the big headlines of those preceding the Holyrood and Westminster votes and the issues debated may seem more parochial.

However, for many people and many communities, 4 May is vitally important.

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