Scotland’s voters went to the polls last Thursday to elect councillors to our 32 local authorities. And while the results are very important to every Council individually it is the indications they give us for national politics that the media will focus on.
The headlines: it was a very good result for Labour, a good result for the SNP, an ok result for the Tories and a disaster for the Liberal Democrats.
The Labour Party came into these elections with the most to lose. It controlled only two councils: Glasgow and North Lanarkshire, although of course the Single Transferrable Vote makes coalitions the norm. Labour was fighting these elections on the back of the worst results in living memory at the Scottish Election. And it was forecast to lose further ground to the SNP, which had confidently predicted that it would win Glasgow outright and remove the labour majority in North Lanarkshire.
The new Labour leader Johann Lamont will be very pleased at the voters’ verdict. Labour did much better than expected, gaining around fifty seats and giving her something to build upon in the coming months.
Glasgow was always where the most attention was going to be placed. At one time it would have seemed absurd to contemplate anything other than a Labour victory in Glasgow. But in the new two-party Scottish political world the Nationalists were legitimate challengers.
An SNP victory in the city would have been the party’s biggest win ever. It would have been used to signal both the death of the traditional Labour party in its heartland and a sign that an independence referendum could be won. So the SNP threw everything it had at Glasgow in an attempt to achieve that historic victory.
But late on Friday afternoon as the final ward declared its result Labour had already secured a majority. With 44 Labour councillors to 27 for the SNP it was a comprehensive victory in the end.
Labour also maintained its majority in North Lanarkshire. And the party won overall control in Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire too, as well as making significant gains in Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
For the SNP this was another good night. Despite its failure to win in Glasgow the party did gain overall control in both Dundee and Angus Councils and it increased its total number of councillors by more than fifty. It has more elected members than Labour does and can therefore make legitimate claims to be the overall winner on the night.
But the SNP is not a party that simply wishes to govern under the current political system. Its purpose is an independent Scotland and its focus is the referendum to come. And, judged against an overall objective of persuading a majority of Scots to back independence, there was no breakthrough in these elections.
Tory leader Ruth Davidson was, frankly, on a hiding to nothing. Her party started from a very low level and could only go one way: further down. The coalition government’s record impacted all across the UK, with the Conservatives suffering massive losses in England and Wales. A slight drop in the overall number of councillors in Scotland was not a disaster, and that’s probably the best Davidson could have hoped to achieve.
For the Liberal Democrats this was another dismal showing. It seems that Scottish voters, like their counterparts south of the border, will continue to punish them for its participation in the coalition government at every opportunity. Willie Rennie’s party went into the election with 151 councillors across Scotland and ended up with just 71. And that number has already decreased by one – a newly elected Highlands councillor left the party almost immediately after being elected!
The biggest losses were in Edinburgh, partly perhaps because of the party’s association with the disastrous tram project. But it suffered awful results across the whole country with losses leaving the party unrepresented in a number of local authorities.
This disaster will clearly be laid at the door of Nick Clegg rather than Willie Rennie. But it is difficult to see any recovery in the Lib Dems’ fortunes while the Westminster coalition remains in power.
The party’s night was summed up nicely in one Edinburgh ward where an independent candidate in a penguin suit polled more votes than a Lib Dem. But then given the options, I can see why that happened. In fact given the choice between Nick Clegg and a real penguin I know which most voters would probably p-p-p-p-pick.
The use of STV means that a whole number of Councils fall under the heading of No Overall Control. There will be many delicate negotiations ahead as the political parties try to make alliances or to persuade Green or independent Councillors to come on side. It may be a while yet before many voters know exactly what the administration in their area will look like.
A word on the turnout. Despite dire predictions of less than one in three voters bothering to turn out, the final figure averaged at about 40% across the country. This is still not great of course, and does show that many voters either simply don’t care about local elections or see little point in voting one way or another. It is incumbent on politicians from all parties to look at this issue and to re-engage with the people they all represent.
The next test of Scottish opinion is likely to be a referendum rather than an election. There is much still to be agreed on the practicalities of exactly what question, or questions, will be on the ballot paper.
But what is clear is that Scottish politics has now has very much become a two-party system. The SNP and Labour dominate a landscape that sees all other parties relegated to also rans.
And that is the context against which the independence referendum campaign will be fought.