Scottish Local Government Elections 2022: The Need for a Long View
These are the three questions worth considering
Most parties have something to celebrate in the local elections results. The SNP, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens all made advances. There are two exceptions. The Conservatives emerged the big losers with a loss of 63 seats. Elsewhere, independents continued to find it difficult to compete under the single transferable vote system against their party competitors. The attention now turns to local government formation in councils.
STV produces reams of data for analysts to pore over. This can take some time to collate and analyse in depth. There is a need post-election to consider what these elections reveal more generally about Scottish local democracy. Three sets of questions are worth considering. These are: turnout; transfer patterns; and how voters use the STV electoral system.
Turnout for Scottish local elections will likely end up higher than that for English local elections held on the same day. Nonetheless, there is no room for complacency. More work clearly needs to be done to engage voters in Scotland. Average turnout was 44.8 per cent across Scotland’s 32 councils. This was down from 46.9 per cent in 2017.
The national average hides a wide range of participation. Turnout levels are often linked to local socio-economic factors. Aberdeen makes this point well. The lowest turnouts were in less prosperous areas. George Street/Harbour and Tillydrone/Seaton/Old Aberdeen wards, recorded 28.3 per cent and 30.7 per cent respectively. Low turnout is persistent. George Street/Harbour also recorded the lowest turnout (20.5 per cent) Scotland-wide in the 2012 local elections. By contrast, in the more affluent Lower Deeside ward, turnout was well above the national average at 55.5 per cent. Similar patterns will be evident throughout Scotland.
In the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, a record number of voters opted for postal votes. This increase was attributed to the desire to avoid contagion during the COVID pandemic. It contributed to record turnout in those elections. The extent to which postal voting has persisted in the 2022 local elections also needs to be understood. Did this help stop turnout from falling further? Might there be a need to consider other ways of voting in an effort to boost turnout in future Scottish elections?
A significant proportion of successful candidates were elected via preference transfers from voters. This tends not to be widely covered since it requires a deep-dive into data from the STV system. Past experience has shown, for example, that the Greens’ 35 councillors will have relied greatly on transfers from other parties. A notable 2022 result was in Edinburgh’s Almond ward. The Liberal Democrats returned three councillors here. Their third candidate was elected on the eighth round of counting, relying almost exclusively on preference transfers having only achieved 1.4 per cent of the first preference vote.
Where parties have enough local support to run a team of candidates, transfers tend to stay in the party. Past research has shown such internal party transfer solidarity can be well above 70 per cent. Transfers between parties are also important. Previous research has suggested that the Conservatives can appear strategically isolated in this respect. As the sole party of the right, they can struggle to attract transfers from the other more centre-left parties’ voters. This limits the party’s performance and is likely also to have contributed to the party’s result in 2022.
Voters’ Use of the System
STV is sometimes suggested to be a confusing system for voters. This is not the case. It is a system which empowers voters, allowing them to vote for candidates, or parties. Although counting may be complex, ranking candidates by numbers (1, 2, 3, etc) is not a difficult idea for voters to understand. Only 1.85 per cent of ballots were rejected in 2022, down from 1.95 per cent in 2017. Most of these rejected ballots will be because voters have failed to mark their preferences accurately. Typically, this takes the form of marking two Xs or two 1s. Additional voter education may be useful here. Despite this, most voters use the system well; 98.15 per cent of voters completed their ballot successfully and had their preferences counted. In the previous three rounds, voters have used an average of three preferences, with a hardy few going completing all the choices on their ballot paper. This is likely to also be the case in 2022. Scottish voters have typically used the system in a comparable way with Irish or Northern Irish voters, both of whom have much longer experience with STV.
In summary, analysis at speed can often miss key issues. A longer-term assessment of various aspects of these local elections is therefore necessary, starting with the issues raised here. This might provide important clues both for party strategists, and for electoral policymakers, into what might need improvement before the next round of local elections in 2027.
Dr Alistair Clark is reader in politics at Newcastle University. He has written extensively on Scottish local elections under STV. He tweets at @ClarkAlistairJ