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by Kate Shannon
22 May 2017
All change: Scottish local government has undergone major changes

All change: Scottish local government has undergone major changes

On May 4, millions of people across the country headed to polling stations to cast their vote in the local government elections. Scotland was looking to fill 1,227 councillor roles in 354 wards across 32 councils.

These councillors would be responsible for millions of pounds of public money and in charge of vital services such as education, social care and roads.

However, prior to polling day, there was concern about what the turnout might be. UK council elections rarely see many people turning up to vote and Scots in particular have been asked to cast their ballot in different elections many times over the past few years. 

In 2007, the last election which saw the council vote fall on the same day as the Scottish Parliament election, turnout was 52.8 per cent. In 2012, this figure fell to 39.7 per cent. 

An Electoral Commission report published 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.”

If this wasn’t enough, in the thick of the council election campaign, Prime Minister Theresa May announced there would be a snap general election just a month later on 8 June.

However, after the dust settled, a more positive picture started to emerge. According to Elections Scotland, turnout across the country was 46.9 per cent, 1,927,149 people cast their vote and 1,889,658 ballot papers were valid (37,491 or 1.9 per cent were rejected). This year, all 16 and 17 year olds were able to vote for the first time and it will be interesting to see what difference this made to the turnout.

Willie Sullivan, director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, said: “While the slight lift on 2012 turnout should be welcomed, [it] was a bottom of the barrel election as far as turnout goes – the lowest since the ‘70s. 

“So unfortunately, there is little to cheer about this time, given that the majority of the public chose to stay at home. 

 “With 2.3 million Scots not taking part and many hundreds of thousands not registered, local democracy is not out of the danger zone – these levels of engagement are warning signs that show our democracy still needs intensive care. 

“A BMG poll we commissioned last November showed that 24 per cent of Scots would rather finish the ironing than go and vote in a council election.

 “And while at least we don’t have the vote-wasting machine of first past the post used in English local government, the lack of truly local government in Scotland makes it difficult for people to feel they have any real say in running their own towns, villages and communities.”

In terms of how the political parties fared, it was a mixed picture. If there was a ‘winner’, it was the SNP who received the most seats, returning 431 councillors and 32.3 per cent of first preference votes. 

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “The SNP has won the election in Scotland and won it loud and clear.

“Thanks to the support of people across the country, the SNP has secured the largest number of councillors, the highest share of the vote – with an increase on the last result in 2012 and is the largest party in the most council areas.

“SNP councillors and SNP councils will put their communities and the people of Scotland first.”

However, one of the biggest stories of the election was the increase for the Scottish Conservatives. The party won 276 seats and 25.3 per cent of the first party preferences, considerably up on the 2012 result where they won just 115 seats and a 13.3 per cent share.

Leader Ruth Davidson said the result made it “crystal clear” that the Scottish Conservatives “have the strength to fight back against the SNP”.

She added: “We have gained seats in councils all over Scotland. We are now in a position to lead Scotland’s fight back on June 8 in the general election too.

“We will speak up for the millions of Scots who have had enough of the uncertainty and division of the last few years. We will stand up for everyone who doesn’t want a second referendum on independence.”

Labour undoubtedly took the biggest hit. In Scotland, the party dropped from 394 to 262 seats and on first preference votes, fell from 31.4 per cent in 2012 to 20.2 per cent.

Labour also lost control of the four councils where it had previously returned a majority. This included in Glasgow where Labour had been in power since 1980. 

Speaking after the results were announced, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said: “This is obviously a disappointing election for Labour, but thousands of people in communities across

Scotland have placed their trust in us and we will continue to play a major role in local government.

“We have won against the odds in East Lothian and Inverclyde, gained Midlothian from the SNP, and tied with the SNP in North Ayrshire.

“Across Scotland, there has been a clear backlash against the SNP’s plans for a divisive second independence referendum and anger over the SNP’s woeful record running our schools, hospitals and public services.

“The SNP’s number one priority at this election was an overall majority in Glasgow, but Nicola Sturgeon’s party has clearly fallen back significantly from the results in 2015 and 2016 in our largest city and in other communities across Scotland.

“Councils across Scotland are today in no overall control and in the coming days we will be looking to build agreements with parties that will join us in opposing inflicting more austerity on communities and providing good quality local services.”

The Liberal Democrats returned 67 seats with 6.8 per cent of the first preference vote. 

Meanwhile, the Scottish Greens hailed the election as a success, with 19 councillors elected to five councils.

Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Greens, said: “Greens have expanded our support base across Glasgow and Edinburgh, and we’re seeing significant breakthroughs in other parts of Scotland, getting our first councillors onto local authorities where those Green voices will bring fresh ideas to the table. 

“In Glasgow, we topped the poll in Hillhead, and achieved our first ever councillors in Dennistoun in the East End and in Pollokshields and Govan. It’s brilliant to have broken through in Orkney and Highland, and to have retained our presence on Stirling and Aberdeenshire councils.

“Amid a backdrop of poor media interest in local government, a Tory prime minister calling a general election in the middle of the campaign and other parties’ shameless attempts to make a local election about national issues, we’ve made real progress. 

“All our candidates and activists have done us proud and our newly-elected and re-elected councillors will be keen to get cracking, helping their communities.”

So what does this mean for councils across the country? The very nature of the local government voting system (single transferrable vote), means very few councils returned a one-party majority and the bulk will see their town halls ruled by a variety of colourful coalitions. As soon as the results were announced, negotiations between the parties began and it is not always necessarily the largest party in the council who will be in charge. For example, in Aberdeen City Council, despite the SNP having the most councillors, the city’s Labour group defied its national executive and formed a coalition with the Conservatives and the independent group. Scottish Labour had previously vowed it wouldn’t form an alliance with the Tories and subsequently suspended the Aberdeen group from the party.

Prior to the vote, Nicola Sturgeon ruled out any SNP coalitions with the Tories. Asked a week before the election whether the SNP would be willing to go into coalition with Tories in some councils, she replied: “No. The SNP national executive committee took the decision on Saturday that we wouldn’t have coalitions with the Tories after these elections and the reason for that is simple. 

“We are looking at a Tory party that is moving further and further to the right.

“The Tory party has been taken over by its right wing. I don’t want those right-wing Tories taking over council services.

"We’re facing a Tory party that is increasingly in thrall to its own right wing and I don’t want to see a Tory party obsessed with austerity, with cuts, in control of local services.

“I’m being frank with the people of Scotland, I don’t think it’s in the interests of local services for the Conservatives to run them so I’m arguing in this campaign for votes for the SNP to put the SNP in the strongest possible position coming out of these elections to protect local services and to protect Scotland from the impact and the implications of Conservatives running these services.”

Inevitably, having two elections so close together has resulted in a lot of speculation about what the council election might mean for June’s general election. 

Without a doubt, the SNP faces the toughest task – the party has to defend its 2015 success of winning 56 out of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. 

Scottish Labour hailed the news that the SNP received 32.3 per cent of the first preference vote in the local election as an indication that the party is losing its hold on Scotland. In 2015’s general election, the SNP received half of the Scottish vote.

James Kelly, Labour’s general election campaign manager, said: “It’s official – the Sturgeon surge has turned into a Sturgeon slump with the threat of a divisive second independence referendum hanging over Scotland.

“How can Nicola Sturgeon claim to speak for all of Scotland having secured less than a third of the vote? 

“In 2015, the SNP secured half of the Scottish vote, and these official figures show that has now plummeted by 18 points.

“It is clear that more and more people are getting sick and tired of the SNP’s obsession with dividing us again.

“Labour believes that together we’re stronger. That is why the only way that people across Scotland can reject this Tory government and reject the threat of a divisive second independence referendum is to vote Labour on June 8.”

However, while the SNP didn’t manage to increase its share of first preference votes from 2012, the two figures – the 32 per cent from the 2017 local government elections and the 50 per cent from 2015 – are not directly comparable.

Most importantly, council elections in Scotland use STV while the general election operates the first past the post voting system. 

Writing for BBC Scotland, Professor John Curtice pointed out that one in ten votes in the council election were cast for independent candidates. He added that “council elections are often still genuinely local rather than partisan battles”, while independent candidates will not do that well in the general election.

He said: “But even if everyone who voted independent on Thursday would have voted SNP in a general election (a highly improbable supposition in itself), that clearly cannot account for all of the difference between the two performances.

“The share of the first preference vote is, in fact, exactly the same as it was five years ago, when the last round of local elections was held.

“Although it marked the first time that the SNP had managed to outpoll Labour in local elections, the outcome of those elections was, in truth, widely regarded as something of a disappointment for the nationalists.

“What was no more than a one-point lead over Labour in the local ballot boxes had seemed like small beer after the SNP’s success in winning an overall majority at Holyrood a year earlier. Still, that disappointment did not stop the SNP winning half the vote in 2015, and so perhaps it will not do so again.

“Maybe we are simply discovering that voters in Scotland are just not so keen on voting for the SNP in local elections – much indeed as was the case for Westminster elections until the party’s 2015 success.

“But, equally, it could be a sign that the party has lost ground. After all, three years – and an independence referendum – elapsed between the 2012 local elections and the 2015 general election.”
The Conservatives also have their eyes on more seats on June 8. Ruth Davidson said: “We will demand that politicians of all parties focus instead on the things that matter: restoring excellence to Scotland’s schools, and getting our economy back to health.

“As we turn to the election on June 8, we know Nicola Sturgeon is still refusing to listen – only last week she said independence would be at the ‘heart’ of the general election campaign.
“If you want to send the SNP a message, then today’s result shows that, no matter where you live in Scotland, a vote for the Scottish Conservatives will ensure your voice is heard loud and clear.”

However, SNP campaign director Derek Mackay said the SNP “won the local elections emphatically”.

“Results across the UK show that now more than ever Scotland needs strong SNP voices to stand up to Theresa May who is set to impose more cuts and put thousands of jobs at risk,” he added.

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