Local Elections in Scotland: Much more than Brexit and the Scottish constitutional question

Important local government elections are taking place across the UK today.  In Scotland, the results will tell us much about the state of the parties and views on our ever-present constitutional question.  Media speculation has focussed on the likelihood that the SNP will sweep to power over Glasgow City Council. This would be an historic but long-expected loss for a once-dominant Scottish Labour Party administration recently beset by scandal and whittled down by high-profile resignations and defections.  At the same time, the Conservative Party – recently energised in opposition to a second referendum on Scottish independence – will be seeking to make significant headway in an electoral landscape from which it had long seemed consigned to the fringes.


Local councillors in Scotland have been elected under the transferable vote (STV) system since 2007, when it was introduced by the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition which led the devolved Scottish Government from 1999 to 2007. This method of proportional representation tends not to produce large single-party majorities at local government level, leading to a plethora of Labour-SNP, SNP-Conservative, Labour-Conservative, Labour-Independent and SNP-Liberal coalitions.


Elections held under STV are notoriously hard to predict through straightforward polling methods. Overall seat counts can be deceptive when characterising party political influence at local government level. For example, while the SNP emerged as the largest party during local authority elections in 2012, Labour remained part of the administration on 20 out of 32 council areas, over the SNP’s nine. Non-party affiliated cabinets administer much of the country: on both Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council, all current councillors sit as independents.


Scotland’s urban centres are by no means exempt from localised electoral peculiarities. The SNP and Labour have governed Edinburgh City Council through an uncharacteristically cordial arrangement since 2012. While the SNP might well overtake Labour as the largest party on the Council, it is unlikely that that the city’s governance will see dramatic changes. Furthermore, it is difficult to see long-standing, locally-recognised Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors failing to retain their seats.


This round of local elections in Scotland will be analysed in terms of the SNP leadership’s pursuit of a second independence referendum, the prospect of a significant Scottish Tory revival and what it says about the current state of the Labour Party. While constitutional and General Election questions will undoubtedly be of interest and certainly play a role in the outcome of these elections, it is important that the quirks of local politics are not subsumed within the twists and turns of UK politics, Brexit and the Scottish constitutional question.


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