The Scottish Labour Party captured overall control of Glasgow, Scotland's largest council

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Scottish Nationalists remain strongest party
but Labour captures Glasgow in local polls

By Brian Baker, City Mayors’ Chief Correspondent

6 May 2012: The Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish National Party (SNP) benefitted from the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote in Thursday’s (3 May 2012) local government elections. Between them, Labour and the SNP won 818 local council seats out of 1222 in the 32 unitary authorities. The Nationalists made 57 gains, one less than Labour. The Scottish Conservatives lost 16 seats, while their coalition partners in London, the Liberal Democrats, lost 80.

SNP Leader Alex Salmond claimed his party had won the contest by securing the most Councillors, 424, and by becoming the largest party in 10 local authorities. But it was Labour who defied some predictions and did best in the high profile urban centres. The attempt to oust Labour from office in Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, was the SNP’s big objective in the campaign. Not only did they fail to achieve this but Labour improved its position and moved from largest party running a minority administration to overall control.

In Dundee the Nationalists made sufficient gains to take overall control. This is the first time the SNP has had overall control of a city. In contrast, Labour became the largest party in both Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Gordon Matheson has been under criticism from colleagues since taking over as Leader in Glasgow following the shock resignation of Steven Purcell in 2010 but his position will now be greatly strengthened and it is unlikely he will be ousted in the near future.

The Glasgow result was also a boost for new Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Ms Lamont had been instrumental in the campaign tactic to produce local manifestos for each area as part of her bid to re-connect Labour with electors.

Over in the Scottish capital Edinburgh, Labour Leader Andrew Burns emerged from the election as the likeliest council leader. Labour has 20 councillors and the SNP have 18. Jenny Dawe, who had been leader for the last five years, was one of 13 Liberal Democrats to lose their seats in Edinburgh. The party went from 1st to 5th in the political group pecking order on the city’s 58 member council in their worst election in the modern era. Dignified in defeat, Jenny Dawe told reporters at the election count that “We haven’t put our policies across well enough but we will re-group. We fought the election on local issues but people were more concerned about national ones.”

Ms Dawe is critical of the SNP Government’s Council Tax freeze which it has strong-armed local authorities to accept for the last five years. “I have always opposed it. I think Council’s should raise more of their money themselves and should take responsibility for deciding how it should be spent.”

There is a possibility of a ‘grand coalition’ of Labour and the SNP or of a multi-party ‘rainbow coalition’ in Edinburgh.

Andrew Burns said after the last result had been declared that “I am ruling nothing out but we will only enter into an agreement with others after careful consideration. We need certainty on a lot of issues. The 2007 coalition agreement here (Lib Dems and SNP) had flaws from the outset and that created problems.”

The Green Party may be pivotal in talks and in running Edinburgh in the next five years. They increased their vote share across Scotland and went from 9 to 14 council members. They are now the third largest political group in Glasgow and with six Council members in Edinburgh could be attractive partners for an administration led by Labour or the SNP.

Cllr Maggie Chapman, re-elected for the Greens in Edinburgh with a much increased vote, told City Mayors at the Meadowbank Centre count that “in the new council we want financial clout devolved as far as is possible to local areas. Transparency in how the Council functions is an absolute must.”

The traditional strength of candidates contesting local government as Independents in the north of the country was again in evidence. Those of the major political groups which put up candidates in the Island authorities fared less well there than five years ago.
This was the first stand-alone local election in Scotland since the 1995 initial elections to the then new unitary local authorities. It was also the second to use the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system. Most of the parties are content with the system.

Maggie Chapman says ”We favour STV for all elections as we think it helps people to see the benefits of voting. I am disappointed with the turn-out in this election though. We have to re-connect people with politics. Next time l want us to achieve well over 50 per cent.”

With a turn-out across Scotland of close to 40 per cent and over 48 per cent in the highest scoring authority, East Renfrewshire, and 43 per cent in Edinburgh, participation in these elections was less than two percentage points down on 1995 and at a rate which would have delighted many in England.

Whilst the Conservatives had a much better election in Scotland than they did south of the border, they began from a low base so losing 16 of the 131 Council seats they had before the contest was not a good result.

New Scottish Conservatives Leader Ruth Davidson put a positive spin on it. “We are now the third largest party in local government in Scotland having overtaken the Liberal Democrats for the first time since 1992. We are the largest party in the Scottish Borders and in South Ayrshire where we are likely to lead the administrations.”

The most high profile local issues of recent years do not appear to have been a big factor in the voting choices. There was nothing distinctly different in turn-out or support in Aberdeen which had the acrimonious Union Terrace Gardens referendum in March or in Edinburgh which has had ongoing controversy about the flawed delivery of the Tram system. Outgoing council leader, Jenny Dawe, said she had not found the tram issue to be mentioned much on the doorsteps.

After the chaos and failings of the 2007 election when the ballot papers were confusing and the electronic counting system didn’t work the election in 2012 was conducted smoothly. After the 142,000 spoiled or discounted ballot papers of 2007 much effort was put in to making things robust and enabling everyone to cast their vote.

There were between 1.5 and 2.0 per cent discounted this time, which satisfied the Electoral Commission which said afterwards that 2 per cent is what might be expected in an STV election.

The momentum which the Scottish National Party had a year ago when they won an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament and were able to secure a referendum on independence, likely in 2014, has stalled.

As Alex Salmond and other SNP leaders were emphasising on 4 May the party is remarkably popular for one which has been in government in Scotland for five years and they did better than in the 2007 Council elections.

But the SNP did not poll as well as in 2011 and whilst they will take confidence from having another good electoral contest the pro union forces in Scotland will also be encouraged to think that several people in the Scottish population may now be having concerns about the direction of travel in Salmond’s Scotland.

Local council elections affected by
debate on Scottish independence

4 April 2012: On 3 May this year, Scotland will be asked to elect new local councils. It will be the first opportunity for Scottish voters to express an opinion since the announcement that there will be a referendum on independence from the rest of the UK. The country has 32 local unitary authorities which all have broadly similar powers and responsibilities. The elections in May will be for every council seat.

The last local government elections in Scotland were held on the same day as Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2007. Although the parliamentary elections led to Scotland’s first Scottish National Party administration at Holyrood, the polls are remembered for all the wrong reasons. The management of the two elections was dreadful there were chaotic scenes during the vote-counting process. Many people lost their democratic right because the voting papers were confusing. Subsequently, it was agreed to hold the elections for local government on a separate date.
Part of the cause of the difficulties was that local government was being determined by the single transferrable vote system (SVT) for the first time. It led to most of the 32 councils being run for the last five years by combinations of political parties. That will probably be the dominant feature again this time around. Across Scotland In 2007 the Scottish National Party (SNP) did best, narrowly ahead of Labour with Liberal Democrats (LD) third and Conservatives fourth.
There has been a real kaleidoscope of political combinations in charge of the administrations in the last five years. There have been six SNP/LD coalitions, several coalitions of independents with two of the four main parties, an almost all-party coalition in East Renfrewshire, one of Scotland’s most successful areas, and single party minority administrations by the SNP, the Conservatives and Labour. Only five councils have been run by a single majority political group and three of these were by independents. Most candidates run as independents in the islands around Scotland.

Nominations closed at the end of last month and the 1,223 seats will be contested by more than 1,800 candidates. The SNP leads the way with 600, closely followed by Labour with well over 500. In Scotland's largest council, Glasgow, 225 candidates will contest 79 places.

The political parties are likely to have a better understanding of tactics of STV this year. In 2007 there were some councils in which the parties fielded either too few or too many candidates to maximise their success. All of the districts in the STV arrangement are multi-member with voters expressing their selections numerically…1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. Some urban divisions have four places. Voters in these will have double the number of choices to the two they make in the Additional Member System for Scottish Parliament elections.

If the voting patterns of the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2011 were repeated, the SNP will be the leading party across most of Scotland. But local issues are likely to be more important this year and with the referendum campaign stuttering into life and emphasising polarities it is possible that some voters will switch back from the SNP to the unionist parties (Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) this year.

Local issues include the tram project debacle in Edinburgh, the recent narrow and divisive referendum on proposals to change the much loved Union Street Gardens in the centre of Aberdeen and the Dalgety Bay radiation saga in Fife. At a time of high unemployment and sluggish growth, economic factors will also be on voters’ minds.

Issues, which are less likely to be potent, are the cost of council services as the local tax has been frozen for several years and is likely to remain so for much of the next local government term and perceptions of feather-bedding and over-staffing. The cuts coming down the line from London have led to staffing levels at all 32 councils being reduced in the last two years.

Some councils have again begun building social housing for rent, whilst others have been involved in various versions of Scottish Government led public private procurement schemes to build and re-build schools. The perceived quality of education at local schools is likely to be a determining factor for most voters with children in the 5-17 age group.

Independents will continue to hold sway in the remote Island communities and may well continue to hold the balance of power in rural mainland areas.

Smaller parties such as the Greens will hope to do well under the STV system. Some did in 2007. Various brands of left wing socialism will be on offer for residents who are drawn to more complete change in society. The best known of these candidates is Gail Sheridan, famously acquitted in a trial for perjury which followed on from a high profile libel case against the Murdoch media empire. Sheridan, a former British Airways stewardess and partner of Solidarity party founder Tommy Sheridan, contests a place in Glasgow.

As for the four principal parties, three have new national leaders in Scotland and local candidates will be hoping these people will help rather than hinder their cause. The Liberal Democrats’ Willie Rennie is a former Westminster MP, Labour’s Johann Lamont has been in the Scottish Parliament since its 1999 inception and the Conservatives’ Ruth Davidson is a former aide to ex-leader Annabel Goldie. At 33 Davidson is young and is also openly gay.

The Conservatives were the largest party in just one of the 32 authorities in 2007 - South Ayrshire - best known for its golf courses. If the party’s new leader can preside over any improvement it will be a promising start to her tenure. It is possible that the referendum climate and a perceived absence of fresh ideas from Labour will result in modest Liberal Democrat recovery and some Conservative gains. But such are the differences between urban and rural Scotland and between the regions that the May local elections will offer only pointers to the parties’ national standings.

Most of the interest from beyond Scotland’s borders will be in the share of the vote which the pro-independence parties achieve. If the SNP are reasonably close to their 2011 share they will look towards the referendum, likely in autumn 2014, with renewed energy and optimism. If the pro-union parties achieve even a modest improvement they will be encouraged to think that Scots can be persuaded to stay in the UK.

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