Reading the local runes

This week Scotland goes the polls to elect over 1,200 councillors with responsibility for running key services including local schools, collecting refuse and fixing potholes in our streets.

Despite the vital importance of what councils deliver for citizens across the country and the fact they spend around £12 billion each year, local elections are often seen as the poor relation with less media interest and polling and, it has to be said, low voter engagement, just 47% voted in the 2017 local elections.

The parties go into the election with different levels of expectation and knowing that they are at the mercy of what concerns and frustrates voters far beyond local performance in keeping the streets clean.

So, what are the big stories likely to be on Friday morning as we survey the results? In terms of changes of political control in of councils the likelihood is that perhaps there will not be too much shift. The vast majority of local authorities in Scotland are run either by minority administrations which fell short of overall majorities last time or by coalitions between different parties; this is largely because of the proportional voting system used in local elections which requires voters to rank candidates in order rather than choosing a single candidate which is used primarily in other elections and because of the proliferation of independent candidates who tend to be more successful in local elections more than in national ballots.

Nonetheless, there are likely to be some significant stories and developments. The most noteworthy result may well be the re-emergence of Labour as the second party in Scotland. Most recent polling recent polling conducted for local and national electoral support suggests that Labour is likely to do better than the Conservatives at an election in Scotland for the first time since 2015, allowing the party to make the symbolically important claim to be Scotland’s second political force. A poll conducted by Survation at the beginning of the campaign shows Labour capturing 23% of first preference votes, putting the party at five percentage points ahead of the Conservatives and a steady improvement on their 2017 performance where they achieved 20%.

If Labour look like doing well next week, it is the Conservatives rather than the SNP who look likely to suffer. The 2017 local elections were a high water mark for the Tories, gaining 25% of first vote preferences and 14 more councillors than Labour. Next week looks like it will be much tougher with most recent suggesting a fall to 18% of first preferences.

The movement of votes between Labour and the Conservatives highlights an increasingly important phenomenon in Scottish electoral politics in that party support is more closely linked than ever to constitutional preferences. This means that voters are unlikely to switch from Labour or the Conservatives to the SNP or the Greens and vice versa. This is important in trying to predict second and third preferences in local elections as these also tend to depend largely on whether the voter is pro or anti-independence.

It is clear from polling that the SNP will be the single biggest party after Thursday’s vote; indeed the recent Survation poll suggests that they will achieve 44% of first preference votes, representing a 12-point increase from 2017 and representing party’s best ever performance at local elections. It is difficult to predict whether this will allow the party to assume overall control at any councils including Glasgow where it currently is the largest party but without and overall majority.

For the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, all eyes will be on votes collected through second and third preferences, with Greens likely to benefit from second preferences form SNP voters and the Liberal Democrats from Labour and Conservatives voters. Polling suggests that first preference votes for these will be between 3% and 6% so it will be these second and third preferences which will determine how well these parties are represented in Scottish local government after the election.

The political control of councils may not change radically after these elections but they may herald a more profound change in Scottish politics nationally.

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5 May 2022

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