It’s not possible to deal with the local election results in Scotland in the same breath as those in England and Wales, argues Susan Moore. There are some organisational reasons for this to which we will return later. But the most important reason is political.
As we argue elsewhere, the Tories in England and Wales fought the local and mayoral elections over Brexit. With a post-EU referendum move to the right in British politics they know this is a strong suit for them. But they also were aware that there were sizeable majorities for Brexit in many of the areas that were going to the polls.
Of course that was not true in Scotland where politics has increasingly diverged from those in the rest of the UK. In the referendum in 2014, 45% of the population had voted in favour of an Independent Scotland with majorities in four council areas, while in the EU Referendum last year there was a Remain majority in every single one of the 32 local authority areas. The SNP has been the dominant force in Scottish politics for a decade and has been in government in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood since 2007 and won 50% of the vote and 56 out of 59 parliamentary seats in the 2015 Westminster UK general election.
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson was well aware of the opposition to Brexit and ensured that these elections were instead fought under the banner of ‘Save the Union’ ie opposition to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s proposal to hold a second independence referendum, with local issues or Brexit barely being mentioned. In this she was adapting the tactics used in England and Wales to the political situation in Scotland.
It seems that under this banner, Davidson has been able to resurrect the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, which since Thatcher used Scotland as the testing ground for her hated poll tax in the 1980s had been a dying breed, holding just one seat at Westminster in 2015 after having previously been completely wiped out in 1997.
SNP consolidates, Tories surge, Labour slumps
While the figures show that the SNP easily won the most votes again, with an unchanged 32.3% of first preference votes across the country, the Tories rose by 12 percentage points and finished second on 25% overtaking Labour who slumped to third place and an overall 20%. Given that the SNP have been in government at Holyrood for ten years it was significant that they remain far and away the largest party.
The overall percentages however do not give the full picture. The turnout was significantly higher at 46.9%, up from the 39.6% in 2012, and the electorate had also been enlarged by the extension of voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds in council elections for the first time.
Furthermore the changes in voting were not uniform across the country. The SNP lost significant shares of the vote in council areas in the North East of the country, losing the majorities they won in 2012 in Angus and Dundee and falling over ten percentage points in Aberdeenshire and Perth & Kinross. While these areas have been significant bases of their support for decades, many rural voters have traditionally been more conservative inclined and the SNP’s reliance on these areas in the past has led to them being dubbed ‘Tartan Tories’ by many.
However, despite these losses in more rural areas, the SNP significantly increased their share of the votes in the urban heartlands that were previous Labour bastions in the Central belt and particularly Clydeside, with an increase over eight percentage points in Glasgow and nearly ten percentage points in West Dunbartonshire.
The Tories rose universally and the electoral system for Scottish local government is such that they were rewarded with a significant clutch of new council seats, won mainly at the expense of Labour. While much has been made of them winning seats for the first time in deprived areas of the likes of East Glasgow and North West Paisley, this is because the wards in Scotland now cover larger and more mixed areas with three or four seats per ward, while the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used reflects a more proportional outcome particularly when parties get to around one fifth to one quarter of the vote.
For Scottish Labour, under the leadership of Kezia Dugdale, the results were miserable, losing 11 percentage points overall with a loss of over 20 percentage points in previous strongholds such as Inverclyde. Due to the vagaries of the electoral system, Labour had been lucky to win majorities in four councils in 2012, all of which have now been lost. the symbolic loss of Glasgow the largest council and a Labour stronghold for over 60 years while seemingly inevitable was particularly hard for Labour supporters.
Scottish Labour seems to be ignoring the Tory surge and focusing instead on Sturgeon’s apparent stagnation. But the reality is that Scottish Labour’s unionist opposition to independence seriously limits its support amongst more left leaning and younger voters, while those who fall for the unionist argument have increasingly drawn the conclusion that they might as well vote for the real deal and the Tories.
However Labour did not suffer the meltdown in seats that results of less than the 15% they have been attracting in current opinion polls would have brought about, and in some areas managed to hold sufficient seat numbers to still have a significant local government presence. This indicates that although Scottish Labour has not experienced the Corbyn revolution that has occurred elsewhere, nevertheless Labour remains a significant force in some working class communities.
While the leadership of Kezia Dugdale as merely the latest in a long line of mediocre unionist Scottish Labour leaders on the right of the Party remains a severe problem, Jeremy Corbyn’s policies have significant support in Scotland and the tendency of some on the left to completely dismiss the Scottish Labour Party is perhaps premature.
It is deeply ironic that the STV electoral system has protected Labour seats and enabled Tories to gain significant strength, as the apparatuses of both parties have strongly opposed any moves towards PR systems for Westminster elections. For Labour in particular, opposition to PR for Westminster remains an Achilles heel alongside their ingrained unionism.
The Scottish Green Party (independent of the party in England and Wales) did well overall and notably increased its seats on Glasgow and Edinburgh councils, where it won 8.7% and 12.4% of the overall vote respectively. As in the Scottish Parliament, the Greens now hold the balance of power in Glasgow and are likely to continue with their policy of informally backing a minority SNP administration.
Independents are a significant force in Scottish councils and dominate the three councils based on the Islands, with significant but declining representation elsewhere.
For the left, the elections were almost universally poor. The Scottish Socialist Party stood in over a dozen seats but barely broke the 1% barrier. The breakaway groups from the SSP stood as the Scottish Trade Unionists and Socialists Coalition (TUSC) and Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity group scarcely did any better with Sheridan’s now tiny grouping continuing its practice of deliberately targeting several wards where SSP candidates were also standing. However, a former SSP councillor was elected on behalf of the newly formed but localist West Dunbartonshire Community Party, while in Glasgow socialist activist Cathy Milligan, standing as an independent but on behalf of the Castlemilk Against Austerity group, won 744 votes (8.5%) with backing from socialist groups such as RISE and SSP activists. TUSC also managed to win over 5% in a ward in Dundee but these were on the main very isolated events. With a five party system in many areas (UKIP have been irrelevant but Independents are a force), it is hard for small left groups to breakthrough.
General Election consequences
There is a danger in over-extrapolating the local election results into predictions for the General Election, as Scottish Labour has already done by claiming to be in contention in seven Westminster seats. Some media pundits leapt on the results claiming that the Tories are en route for a dozen or more Westminster seats. This ignores the fact that local issues undoubtedly play a part in local elections, that independents play a significant role in Scottish local elections but not in Westminster elections, and that the STV election system used cannot be automatically assumed to be convertible into votes in the forthcoming Westminster First Past the Post elections. Tactical voting to keep pro-Brexit Tories out will be significant and paradoxically the Tory growth in the local elections may backfire as non-Tories fall in behind the best placed candidate to defeat them on 8th June, mainly to the benefit of the SNP. The Scottish Green Party have already responded by saying they will stand only three candidates in the 59 seats in the General Election compared to the 32 they stood in 2015, and the SSP Conference declined to stand any candidates and called for a ‘maximisation of the pro-independence’ vote.
The other main consequence of the Scottish council elections is that all of the 29 mainland councils have no party in a majority. Coalitions will be formed to run the administrations over the coming days and weeks. In many councils, either SNP minority or SNP-Labour coalition administrations are possible.
But council funding is in a dire state with services being slashed across the country. While the SNP Scottish Government in Holyrood puts forward anti-austerity rhetoric and claims to have tried to protect council spending, the reality is that budgets will be devastated over coming years. The so-called ‘Barnett formula’ means that council and NHS budgets in Scotland are tied to the spending of the Westminster government. The threat of a Tory government in Westminster continuing to slash public spending should encourage SNP, Labour and Green councillors to defy austerity and form anti-cuts coalitions at a local level. In North Ayrshire, for example, where control has previously flip-flopped between minority SNP and Labour administrations and where local Labour is more supportive of Corbyn, the rhetoric of a recent ‘No Cuts’ council budget should be put to the test and a stable Labour-SNP administration should defend local services against both Holyrood and Westminster cuts. At a local level the left must build anti-cuts and anti-austerity groups to put pressure on councils and councillors.
However the only way Scotland can have the freedom to implement the anti-austerity and progressive policies clearly embraced by the majority of the population and desperately needed at local level is by carrying through the battle for Independence in the general election and beyond. A big demonstration in support of independence is planned for the weekend before the election and the Scottish Socialist Party will be leading the way in trying to put the issue of a Socialist Independent Scotland to the fore of the coming weeks of campaigning.