1,2,3, easy as S.T.V: What are the Scottish council elections really about?
'This is a system that doesn't reward one-party dominance'
Voting in this year’s council elections has begun.
Postal votes – almost one million of them – have started arriving in what is the 11th contest (referenda excluded) in as many years.
Up for grabs is a chance to set the direction of town halls and shape the relationship between local and devolved governments during what we all hope will be the post-pandemic period.
Roads, parks, libraries, schools, care homes, local investment plans – there’s a lot at stake. And for voters, there’s a panoply of competing pledges for them to vote on, not all of which are deliverable at local level. Dangled before them, along with commitments on regional refuse staffing or nursery provision, are plans to slash train fares on the newly-nationalised ScotRail and to implement a UK-wide Robin Hood tax on energy firms, amongst others.
And then there’s the constitution. The Scottish Conservatives are urging voters to “keep the pro-UK vote together” and back their candidates, while Nicola Sturgeon has asked the public to use their visits to the ballot box to “send a message to Boris Johnson that Scotland has had enough of his incompetent, sleaze-ridden government”. That was before news broke of the partygate fines for the Prime Minister and his Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. The morning after it did, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, fresh from broadcast media rounds in which he insisted he’s behind the PM because of the war in Ukraine, deployed his party’s former box office draw, Baroness Ruth Davidson, in a bid to woo wavering voters. They walked a dog in Edinburgh, where one voter balled-up the Tory leaflet that was pushed through his letterbox, loudly calling for the party to “take this crap away with you” in full view of the press.
If that wasn’t enough, a subsequent event in Glasgow was shouted-out by anti-cuts activist Sean Clerkin. The Scottish Resistance figure has probably disrupted more election media calls than anyone else in the country, famously cornering then-Labour leader Iain Gray in a branch of Subway and being mistaken for a Tory press officer at Hamilton FC’s ground. “They should be forced to resign over partygate,” Clerkin yelled about Johnson and Sunak, generating headlines the local activists hadn’t counted on.
Rivals sense an opportunity to gain ground on Scotland’s second biggest party.
There “genuinely couldn’t be a worse time for this for the Conservatives,” a Scottish Labour source told Holyrood. “You don’t want the headlines to be about how your party leader is a criminal and your Scottish party leader is functionally fine with him being a criminal because of the war in Ukraine when the postal votes arrive.”
The voting system makes the numbers in any council election hard to predict, but Labour and the Lib Dems are both confident of picking up first preference votes from small-c conservatives and swing voters who back the union. The Tories say they’re the only team tough enough to defeat the SNP and have claimed previous comments by 25 Labour candidates provide “indisputable evidence” that this party isn’t committed to the status quo, something Labour has flatly denied. It accepts that there’s a “hardcore” of close to 20 per cent of the Tory vote that it can’t currently win because of concerns over ideology on independence, but hopes public feeling over partygate is so strong that those who’ve previously backed the SNP will use Labour to send that message to Downing Street because “we’re the only party who can get rid of Johnson at Downing Street”.
A general election is two years away, but that doesn’t matter, according to senior Labour figures who argue that the national political picture is equally or even more important to the electorate than whether or not there is a pothole on their street. Most people aren’t thinking about whether or not the local administration’s investment portfolio has delivered for them for the past five years, and don’t have a “policy-heavy” approach, they told Holyrood.
Behind the scenes at the Scottish Greens, there are similar thoughts. Fresh from increased parliamentary success, the party is standing its largest ever cohort of candidates (239) and pre-election focus groups have shifted its thinking on how it connects with communities. People are voting on national and political issues more often than not, they say, and their idea of community isn’t about who lives on their street, but about which demographic groups they identify with. Standing in Linlithgow, Green candidate Pamela Barnes says Johnson is a frequent topic of conversation in the doorstep chats she’s having with residents. But the party is trying to shift focus onto local campaign points – and to remind supporters that while ‘second vote Green’ might work in the Scottish Parliament elections, it’ll do nothing for their chances under the single transferrable vote system used for councils. “This is a big election for the Scottish Greens, the first we have contested as a party of government,” Barnes says, “but to turn our high polling into results we need to move second preferences to first preferences or risk getting pushed out in the first round of counting.
“The local elections have traditionally a low turnout, and I am concerned that a lack of trust in politics in the wake of the UK Government’s corruption and incompetence will drop it even further,” she added.
In Glasgow, SNP candidate Alex Kerr says he’s found the electorate “motivated”. His party took control of the administration for the first time in 2017 but running the river city has at times been rough going. The leadership of what is Scotland’s largest local authority has faced attack for the state of the streets and provision of libraries and leisure services. Even a slim win here means a big advantage for whoever takes charge at the city chambers, such is this council’s totemic position in our national politics. Here, Kerr says, conversations are dominated by two things – Johnson and the cost of living crisis. It is “inevitable” that partygate will play a part in the decision-making of people here, he says.
Thomas Kerr, the leader of the Glasgow Conservatives, has dismissed Sturgeon’s assertion about sending a message to Johnson, and says it’s much more about telling “the Glasgow establishment” that “enough is enough”. In the column in the Glasgow Times, Kerr was referring to Sturgeon and council leader Susan Aitken, calling their records “disastrous for Glaswegians” and insisting “that is what the election is about”.
It was Thomas Kerr who introduced Ross at the event disrupted by Clerkin, but the SNP also saw negative press at the launch of its campaign in the city, when Sturgeon – who has since faced criticism for failing to mask-up on entering a barber’s shop – was accused of dodging the press. Print journalists hadn’t been invited due to a shortage of space inside the small People’s Pantry, the party said. They turned up outside anyway and coverage was dominated by Sturgeon’s denials that she was sidestepping scrutiny. Alex Kerr says the incident isn’t what locals are talking to him about. “When we are chapping doors, people are concerned about the rise in National Insurance and fuel prices,” he says, adding that they’re “furious” at Johnson, but distrust Labour and dislike the party’s “negative” campaigning. “The voters we’re speaking to remember what the Labour administration was like when in power. It was a closed shop and communities were cut out of decision-making. Glaswegians do not want to go back to that.”
The Lib Dems have little chance of major gains here, going by previous results, but they are hopeful of gains in Edinburgh, Fife and the Highlands – places where residents feel little connection to the Scottish Parliament but have been “taken for granted by the SNP”, insiders say. Leader Alex Cole-Hamilton’s willingness to consider coalition with the SNP and the Conservatives provoked criticism from some quarters, including Labour, which has ruled out fresh deals with those parties, despite making some in 2017. Indeed, cross-party administrations were formed at 13 of Scotland’s 32 councils, with minority teams in charge at 15 others. The Lib Dems say council coalitions are inevitable this time too, and they’re “pragmatic” about how they are formed. “The reality is this is a system that doesn’t reward one-party dominance,” a source told Holyrood.
Recent headlines about ministerial behaviour have been “a bit of a wake-up call” to those who have previously voted Conservative, says Claire McLaren, who is standing for the Lib Dems, but there are “a huge number of complaints about the state of the roads and difficulties getting super-fast broadband” in Perth and Kinross. “We are seeing some green shoots of renewal, even in corners of Scotland where we have not competed for some time,” she says of her party’s prospects.
Meanwhile, Alex Salmond’s Alba Party is fighting its first ever council contest. It’s drawing from the reserves of experience found in candidates who have run races before, wearing different rosettes – particularly that of the SNP. Some of its candidates, including Chris McEleny, were elected for the SNP the last time around before defecting. They hope that same sense of dissatisfaction will get them enough first preference votes to hold onto these seats and pick up more, particularly in Glasgow and the north east, where oil and gas policy has a direct impact on local jobs. But overall, McEleny, who is seeking re-election in Gourock, says this election is far from box-office. The number of uncontested councillors returned is proof of this, he argues.
As many as 18 have already been elected due to a lack of challengers in Inverclyde, Moray and Highland. Meanwhile, the emergence of fewer candidates than seats in other parts means Scotland will not return a full slate of local representatives when votes are counted, and byelections will have to follow.
“The message on the doorsteps is people are just a bit fed-up,” McEleny says. “It doesn’t matter who is running a local council, people don’t have a high opinion of how their councils are being run. There’s a bit of a message there for the fundamental breakdown of local government. Councillors are supposed to be the closest politicians to their constituents, but they are the most detached in terms of profile.”
In the capital, Edinburgh Conservative group leader Iain Whyte says people are unhappy, but not with politics in general. “Despite what some parties are trying to claim, voters know what this local election is about,” he says. “It is their chance to set the agenda for their local area and get action on their local priorities.
“What I’m hearing on the doors is that Edinburgh can’t take another five years of this SNP-Labour neglect – and I know my Scottish Conservative colleagues across the country are hearing the same thing.”
Watching all this play out, Professor John Curtice says national issues are dominating and partygate is likely to have an effect. The unionist divide is “even sharper” than in 2017, he says, when the SNP’s capture of one third of first preference votes was “disappointing” for that party, and he expects Sturgeon’s side to come out “in the high thirties” this month.
“National popularity doesn’t necessarily translate into local votes exactly, but the broad contours of where the parties are standing usually do. The most interesting question about the election is whether or not Labour or the Conservatives are the second most popular party in Scotland. Labour are really trying to rebuild after the disaster of 2015. If they do move into second place, it will be more of a commentary on the Conservatives than the revival of Labour.
“The politics of the unionist movement have become more complicated. The parties are all saying ‘we are the only people who can defeat the SNP’. This is completely and utterly wrong. The most effective way to do that is to make sure you put a preference vote for all the unionist candidates and don’t give any votes to others. The internal political battle within unionism means that is not happening.”