On the doorstep: What are the issues at stake in the council elections?
Since the last council elections in Scotland, we’ve had one European election, one Holyrood election and two general elections. We’ve left the EU and suffered a global pandemic that has forced us to accept unthinkable encroachments on our civil liberties.
The Scottish Tories, Scottish Labour, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Greens have all elected new leaders.
In fact, in the last four years, Labour and the Tories have managed to squeeze in two new leaders.
And - at the time of going to print - we’ve had at least one new Prime Minister.
The Scotland of 2022 is very different from the Scotland of 2017.
Nowhere is that difference more marked than in the country’s city halls and town houses, where local authorities have been asked to do so much more with so much less. And as we recover from the pandemic, deal with the cost of living crisis, and reform how we deliver care, it’s the councils who will be at the forefront.
But will that be on the minds of the voters when they head to the ballot box in May?
In terms of gains at that last council election, the Tories were the victors, adding 164 new councillors to their tally, replacing Labour as the second-largest party in terms of council seats.
In fact, only they and the Greens gained any councillors, the SNP lost a handful, while Labour haemorrhaged elected representatives, losing a whopping 133.
For the Tories, their success in 2017 came after a campaign centred firmly on the constitution and stopping SNP plans for a second independence referendum.
That saw them energise voters in a way they hadn’t before. It saw them winning in areas that you simply wouldn’t expect Tories to win.
“When you stand as a candidate for the Conservatives in the east end of Glasgow you don’t expect something like this to happen,” Thomas Kerr, the newly elected councillor for Shettleston told press at the time.
Overall, the SNP won 32 per cent of the first preference votes, roughly the same share as the previous election in 2012, that was despite putting on 107,221 extra votes.
However, a hike in turnout - up to 46.9 per cent from the 39.6 per cent recorded in 2012 - seemed to be partially down to voters coming out to vote against Nicola Sturgeon and the referendum.
The Tories took 25 per cent of the vote up from 13.3 per cent, while Labour took 20 per cent, down from 31.4 per cent.
That meant the Conservatives finished as the largest party on six councils and were joint largest alongside the SNP in Stirling.
While Labour lost overall control of the four councils where they previously had held a majority.
2017 was a stellar year for the Scottish Conservatives.
The local government ballot took place a month before Theresa May’s unexpected snap general election, where the beleaguered Prime Minster accidentally threw away her majority.
The only thing saving her from utter humiliation was Scotland, where the Ruth Davidson campaign machine helped elect 13 MPs, dethroning SNP behemoths Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond.
But what now?
“They are defending a high water mark,” polling expert Mark Diffley told Holyrood. “Against which they may struggle, even before factoring in current woes,” he added.
Boris Johnson’s popularity - already fairly low in Scotland - continues to plummet as the partygate scandal and its fallout rumbles on.
He’s alienated much of his colleagues in Scotland with Douglas Ross and the Holyrood group calling on him to resign.
The danger for the Tories is that even some of their most hardcore voters won’t be enthused this time, they might just stay at home.
Diffley, says the current polling suggests support for the Tories could likely fall to under 20 per cent: “The Scottish Tories came out against the Prime Minister early, but the issue is still live and may well still be when the elections take place. This makes it tricky for the Scottish Tories partly because the Prime Minister is a drag on their support and partly because they are fighting an election, albeit a local council election, with the backdrop of a Tory Prime Minister who they think is unfit for office.”
Edinburgh Conservative councillor Joanna Mowat is still positive that voters in her ward, know they’re voting for her, rather than Johnson.
On the doorstep, it tends to be local stuff, she told Holyrood. And she’s confident her record and the record of her Tory colleagues in the city will stand them in good stead.
“I’m trying to think if I’ve had anything negative about the national picture at the moment. I don’t think I have. It’s roads, it’s pavements, it’s litter, it’s ‘the city’s dirty’.”
Does she think the partygate will have an impact on her vote?
“It’s really difficult to say, partly because I can’t see the future. There’s a number of branches on the path and it depends which one we go down.
“People, certainly when you say ‘I’m delivering for your local Conservative councillor for the local council elections’, they’re not coming in and having a go.
“I think a couple of people may have mentioned it, but it’s been a bit of a, you know, raised eyebrows, shrug of shoulders, ‘that must make life difficult for you’. Not really negative.”
Mowat, she says, knows negative: “I’ve been doing this for a very long time and I have been through negative. You don’t survive the 1997 general election and not know what negative feels like on the doorstep. It’s nowhere near that.
“I’ve always found ever since we’ve had devolution, that the Scottish electorate and the Edinburgh electorate is actually remarkably sophisticated about knowing what they’re voting for. But it’s never helpful when there’s a big story about your party elsewhere.”
In fact, all the local councillors Holyrood speaks to say, it’s local issues that will determine the election.
“In Southside Central, particularly Govanhill, local communities are raising issues around overflowing bins, lack of recycling services, bin collections, infestation, fly-tipping, litter and poverty,” says Glasgow Labour councillor Soriya Siddique.
“The constitution has come up on the doorstep, though a lack of local services dominates,” she adds.
“Communities want the First Minister and the SNP to listen to their concerns.”
Labour’s defeat in Glasgow at the last election was historic. It was the first time they’d not been in charge of the city since 1980.
However, it wasn’t the result the SNP were hoping for either, winning 39 seats, four short of the 43 seats needed for overall control.
The last few years haven’t been easy for Susan Aitken and her administration. Changes to Scottish Government funding cost the city an annual £270-per-head, according to Scottish Parliament library figures.
The SNP has also lost another five councillors and been embroiled in rows with unions over cleanliness and community groups over proposed library closures.
There are some in Labour who think they could win the city back.
“We are campaigning for better funding for Glasgow, better services for Glasgow, a better quality of life and life chances for our fellow Glaswegians. We are campaigning for every vote at the next council election and a Labour administration that will put Glasgow and our fellow Glaswegians first,” Siddique says.
But the SNP, if not confident, believe its record, certainly when it comes to ending Labour’s 12-year equal pay scandal, will stand it in good stead.
Green Councillor Jon Molyneux, who’ll be defending his Pollokshields Ward, says he thinks it unlikely that any party will return a majority in the city. He doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
“It’s hard to see anybody getting the majority again. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but we’re confident that we will elect more Greens in the council, that we will break into new areas where we’ve not elected councillors before, and we’ll be able to extend our influence in the chambers. And if that happens it makes it harder for any other party to have a majority.
Molyneux says that the lack of a majority over the last five years has led to improved decision making.
“We’ve been able to make progress on a number of issues because no one party has been able to do everything their way.
“We’ve still been able to support the things that are good and positive and moving the city and the council in the direction that it needs to go. Where there’s been decisions made that have not been in our interests, we’ve opposed those and we’ve won concessions.”
In Aberdeen at the last election, the SNP was the largest party but was kept out of power by a coalition between the Tories and Labour
The deal between the two parties proved controversial when then Labour leader Kezia Dugdale suspended her nine councillors.
It was only late last year that the party’s executive committee got round to doing something about it, saying the councillors could stand again in this year’s elections.
The SNP’s Christian Allard thinks the episode hasn’t endeared Labour to Aberdonians.
“They have got to explain why for four years they aligned themselves with the party of Boris Johnson.”
“I think they we will be the one paying the price, the Labour Party, for what they have done, and that’s of all their own making, nobody else,” he adds.
Last month, Anas Sarwar was asked if he would support coalitions between Labour and the Tories.
He said such matters would be decided by the party’s Scottish executive committee, but that his “strong view” was that the Labour should not be looking “at coalitions with any political party, but rather looking to maximise Labour representation and winning individual arguments on their merits.”
There’s still some time to go before the elections on May 5, notably most administrations have to set their budgets and get them passed.
But there’s also the question of candidate selection. Allard says there was a huge interest in standing for the council among local SNP members in his city.
“We engage so much about democracy at branch level, but we have a lot of candidates a lot of people came forward, and it’s fantastic. It’s what democracy should be all about. So we have to really sort that out soon enough to make sure we get the best people to represent the people of Aberdeen.”
Selection seems to have been an issue for his party in Edinburgh, with Lord Provost Frank Ross and planning convener Neil Gardiner both forced to take part in first and second vetting interviews.
Many other sitting SNP councillors got through to the approved list without being interviewed at all and selection contests are still to be announced with much jockeying for places going on.
Meanwhile, most of the other parties seem to have candidates already in place.
There is also the great unknown of the new parties. This could be the last chance for Alex Salmond’s Alba to make an impact
Thanks to a slew of defections they have 16 local councillors, however, the party has been polling consistently at around two per cent ever since last May’s election.
That may not be enough.
It’s also worth noting that in 2017 almost 200,000 people gave their first preference votes to independent candidates, who won 168 seats across the country.
Low turnout and the Single Transferable Vote means the result of the council elections is hard to predict, but what is a near certainty is that at some point in the coming weeks you should expect a knock on your door.•