The deal-making: Scotland's councillors get to work
The votes have been counted, but the real winners are just emerging
It was, depending on who you listened to, either “a great day” (Labour’s Anas Sarwar) or “very disappointing” (Douglas Ross of the Conservatives).
After six weeks of ardent campaigning, an overnight wait and a day of counting, Scotland’s 1,892,215 votes had been tallied and 1,223 seats had been won. The results were clear: the SNP’s vote was up, as was that of the Greens and the Lib Dems. Labour had moved into second place and the losses suffered by the Conservatives were deeper than predicted. Fewer independents were returned, and Alba lost all 13 of its seats. “The SNP has won the election, and we’ve won the election by a country mile,” declared a triumphant Nicola Sturgeon as the day ended.
But poll results are only a part of local government elections, with the real winners decided by administration-forming negotiations in the days to come. Throughout the contest, party leaders had been pressed on likely partners. Sarwar insisted his party would not form official coalitions with the SNP or Tories, while the Lib Dems said these were a fact of political life, and then there was speculation on whether or not the SNP and Greens would continue their Scottish Government partnership at council level.
In West Dunbartonshire, one of two regions to return a majority administration, Councillor Jim Bollan of the West Dunbartonshire Community Party was contemplating the new shape of Scotland’s politics.
With almost four decades in elected office, Bollan has seen administrations come and go, and now the SNP group that had been in power across Alexandria, Dumbarton and Clydebank had been swept away by a rising tide of Labour support that gave that party an outright majority and made West Dunbartonshire the first part of Scotland where the new leadership was clear.
A former Scottish Socialist Party councillor and subsequently an independent, Bollan formed his local party with another solo politician who failed to secure re-election, and Bollan is now the only council member who is neither part of Labour nor the SNP. “In 38 years it has changed so much,” Bollan says. “It was Dumbarton District Council I was first elected to, which was much smaller and you had an opportunity to really influence people’s lives, but then the restructures started and central government got more and more of a say.”
Centralisation is an issue that worries Bollan, both in economic and democratic terms. He’s critical of big party campaigns “about national issues that were only in the gift of Westminster and are not relative to local councils”, and he’s thinking a lot about what it means for communities like his in Renton. “Smaller parties are a lot closer to the communities they represent,” he says. “They don't have millionaires backing them but Labour and the SNP do and it's becoming more and more difficult to compete. As the smaller parties get less and less, the bigger parties will be challenged less. They take their bidding from their HQs.”
There are few councillors like Bollan from minor parties now – John Jo Leckie of the British Unionist Party in North Lanarkshire is one, Sally Cogley of The Rubbish Party in East Ayrshire is another – and, at 149, there are also 15 fewer independent councillors in Scotland, but these voices can swing decisions and help parties form administrations. There also remain four councils where they dominate: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Orkney, Shetland and Highland. In the latter, new Lib Dem councillor Molly Nolan is getting her head round her success. She had a weekend away to take stock after her result was declared, and she’s delighted by her party’s increased presence. “We made huge gains, we increased our group by 50 per cent and became the biggest Scottish Liberal Democrat council group in the whole country,” the 24-year-old says. “There was a lot of bouncing around the count hall.”
The Lib Dems also made notable gains in Edinburgh and swung to a total of almost 90 councillors country-wide. That’s against a broader backdrop of huge gains in England and a more moderate increase in Wales. Nolan, who works for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP Jamie Stone, says Scottish voters are “pushing back at the idea that it’s the SNP or the Conservatives and nothing else”, particularly in “places that are forgotten by the Scottish Government”. And she dismisses the idea that her party, which has traditionally been a strong presence in the Highlands, isn’t plugged into local concerns. “The SNP and the Greens really do have a central belt bias,” she counters. “They struggle to understand the issues.”
Nolan is part of a new tranche of younger councillors. At 24, she’s the same age as Luna Martin, the first Green to make it onto Argyll and Bute Council, and she’s three years younger than Eunis Jassemi, who won for Labour in Glasgow. A week later, he is still “buzzing” about the result, which saw Labour put on 20 seats nationally but miss out on the prize they’d eyed – a majority on Glasgow City Council. That result came down to the last count of the day, Maryhill ward, and saw the SNP hold on as the largest party by just one councillor. “I would love to be in administration, but at the same time we made great progress,” says Jassemi. “We are one seat behind the SNP. The scrutiny is there; they really can't move now – it's going to be the Labour group that are going to hold the SNP and Greens to account.”
“People were genuinely fed-up,” he says of local voters, “including moderate Tories. One person told me that Anas is someone who is honest, plain-speaking and goes after the SNP. That was a constant theme.”
Jassemi, who works for Martin Whitfield MSP, celebrated his win by going litter-picking. “I was keen to get out there; I’ve still got that energy,” he says. “I’m reaching out to people, I want to get my diary filled-up.
“My friends have said being a councillor isn't a sexy job but councillors are the front line in providing that help to communities. I want to see a long-term strategy that will get us onto a 21st century path.”
Part of that, Jassemi agrees, means ensuring greater representation for minority communities. There has been a drive to ensure our councils more closely represent our national demographics, but with female members at just 35 per cent, that is still a long way away. According to campaign group Women 50:50, it will take until 2037 to get as many women onto councils as men, such is the slow rate of progress. And while diversity mechanisms have been adopted by some parties in some areas, our governance remains predominantly white.
The SNP’s Fatima Joji didn’t stand on an all-woman or BAME shortlist, but her joy at being the first BAME woman elected onto Aberdeenshire Council was shared on social media in pics posted by her election agent, who caught her “jumping around and being silly”. Joji has run for Holyrood before and attracted “a lot of attention” from trolls, much of it racist. That didn’t happen this time, but the Robert Gordon University and Birmingham University graduate and women’s equality campaigner was asked three times “to prove I have the qualifications I said I have”, something she attributes to sexism.
Now representing Westhill & District, Joji says getting less flak this time shows how “there’s never much attention given to council elections, which is ironic considering the power councils have”. She wants to do the job because she “cares too much”, she says. “If we always elect the same demographic, that affects policy. I see an opportunity for us to enrich our policies. We are seeing people with different ideas and experiences; we are going to see a council that’s more progressive with our views and values. Hopefully we are going to change the way we think.”
That’s also what returning Scottish Greens councillor Jon Molyneux is after. Nationally, his party almost doubled its tally from 16 to 35 thanks to breakthroughs in new territory like East Kilbride and stronger returns in areas where there were seats to defend. That includes Glasgow, where Molyneux’s now 10-strong group has outgrown its old offices in the marble-walled City Chambers. “We don’t all fit any more,” he says.
The election is the first fought by the Greens since the party moved into government in a deal with the SNP. Focus groups had told the Greens that they had to connect local and national issues if they were also to gain ground at council level. “We did that really well,” Molyneux says of the “very intense” campaign. While others went out to celebrate, Molyneux settled for a glass of rum at home – his wife’s book group was on and he had childcare duties. “We saw some really, really significant swings in wards where we already had a Green councillor. People want to keep their Green councillors because we care about local issues, we listen, we engage. We want to keep the momentum going. We will be able to have a great deal of influence.”
In Dundee, Heather Anderson isn’t worried about how much of a say the SNP will have after achieving a majority. “We broke the machine; you are not meant to get a majority so it was a huge achievement,” Anderson says. “John Alexander [the SNP’s group leader] is massively relieved.” Anderson, one of the MEPs elected in the last European elections before Brexit, became a Scottish Borders councillor in 2017, but has since relocated and represents Dundee’s Coldside. “We’ve been looking forward to this election,” she says of the SNP’s Association of Nationalist Councillors, to which she belongs. “A year ago, we were saying ‘we need to get on with this’. I don’t think any of us thought it would turn out as well as it has.”
As well as a seat on the administration, campaigning earned Anderson severe shin splints. “I worked myself to a standstill,” she says. “We worked incredibly hard.
“A few of us have been saying to each other, ‘we’re going to be councillors when we have the referendum, and we might still be councillors when we get our independence’.”
Summing up the election outcome, Professor John Curtice has said that the progress made by the SNP and Greens and the Tories’ slip to third place “does not seem like a recipe that will help facilitate the party mount a robust defence of the Union”.
Gail Macgregor, re-elected for the Conservatives in Dumfries and Galloway, isn't sure about that. First elected in 2007, Macgregor was latterly the resources spokesperson for local government body Cosla and now enters a new council term as the leader of 16 Tories in a region where the party’s vote not only held up, but increased. “Perhaps because we are closer to the border, Dumfries and Galloway feels really connected to the rest of the UK,” she says. “I could listen to John Curtice for hours, and commentators will always try to contextualise things around the independence/unionist agenda, but this isn’t an issue that comes up on the doorsteps here; it was all about roads and the poor state of infrastructure and schools.
“On not one occasion did partygate or Boris come up on the doorstep,” she said, “none of these national factors. People are really, really strongly tuned into what is happening here.”
A Labour-SNP deal kept the Tories out of administration last time, something Macgregor says has motivated voters too. “When you’re elected as the largest party by a fair margin, and our vote sits at around 38 per cent, that’s a significant mandate that we simply weren’t allowed to progress. People were fed-up with an SNP-Labour administration that didn’t recognise that we were the largest party.”
Back in Bollan’s region, new Labour councillor Gurpreet Singh Johal is preparing for the work that administration entails. It’s his connections to the community that swung the vote for him, as well as support from party activists, he says, and that will remain his focus. A solicitor, Johal is well-known for the the FreeJaggiNow campaign, which he set up to advocate for his brother, Jagtar Singh Johal, who has been detained in India, pending trial, for more than four years.
The family live in Dumbarton’s Oxhill district, where they’re celebrating this new-found success. “My grandfather gave my wife money and sent her to Glasgow to buy Indian sweets,” Johal says. “He was like, ‘go and get them now’. When I came home, he came straight to the door saying ‘well done, well done’. They’re so pleased.
“It’s not even hit home for me yet. Councillor is a big thing. So many people here voted for me, it’s been so nice. Even on polling day, people were coming up to me outside polling stations, like, ‘can we ask how your brother is?’ I’m the first BAME councillor for West Dunbartonshire, but the people have voted for me regardless of my religion or anything else. It’s not about me being ‘the Sikh’, I’m treated as one of their own. My aunt was saying to me, ‘haven’t you got enough to do?’, but they have been so supportive to me. I want to give something back to them.
“The community and the party put their trust in me and I will do my utmost not to let them down.”