Scotland: local elections, national issues

Submitted by cathy n on 13 May, 2017 - 11:19 Author: Dale Street

In the Scottish council elections, the Tories did well, Labour did badly, and although the SNP won more seats than other parties, it failed to maintain the electoral momentum unleashed by the 2014 referendum.

The boundary reorganisation carried out after the 2012 council elections makes it difficult to compare the number of seats won in 2012 with seats won in 2017.

Labour losses can be calculated as 112 or 133. The SNP tally can be calculated as an increase of around 30 seats or a loss of seven seats. And whatever the precise figure for Tory gains (somewhere around 164), it was enough for them to overtake Labour as the second largest party in terms of council seats.

The Tories did particularly well outside of the Central Belt. What seems to have happened is that ‘traditional’ Tory voters who switched to the SNP in previous years as the best way to defeat Labour are now returning to voting Tory.

For a time SNP policies which benefited the middle classes and the better-off – such as the council tax freeze and no tuition fees for university education – had maintained the support of ex-Tory switch voters.

But Sturgeon’s announcement of plans for a second referendum, combined with her ongoing transformation into a latter-day Alex Salmond, have now resulted in large-scale desertions.

Although last week’s elections also saw a limited revival of the working-class Tory vote, especially in and around Glasgow, the SNP’s limited successes were mainly in the Central Belt.

They failed to win an absolute majority in Glasgow, for example, despite the resources they had poured into their campaign in the city. But they won enough seats to become the biggest party after 40 years of Labour rule.

And they overtook Labour as the largest council group in Edinburgh, but only because Labour lost more seats (nine) than the SNP (two). The Tories, on the other hand, increased their number of seats by seven.

The irony here is that the SNP vote held up or even increased in areas and sections of the electorate which have been the prime victims of SNP policies –falling literacy and numeracy standards, the growth of child poverty, major cutbacks in FE places, and cuts in council funding and local services.

(The Westminster block grant for the current financial year increased by 1.4% in real terms. But the SNP government in Holyrood cut local authority funding in real terms by 2.5%.)

Labour, the SNP and the Tories all claimed that they were fighting the elections on local issues. In fact, for all parties, the issue of a second referendum on Scottish independence was central, overtly or covertly, to the elections. It was also certainly the main issue on the doorstep.

The centrality of the issue of independence is also reflected in how political commentators have chosen to ‘analyse’ the results: unionist parties – 605 seats, up by 28, 57%; independence parties – 450 seats, down by 2, 43%.

Although some voting patterns are clear from last week’s election results, they provide little clarity about the possible outcome of the general election in Scotland in four week’s time. There was a low turnout in the elections, and Scottish council elections are based on Single Transferable Vote, not first-past-the-post.

Over the next four weeks Scottish Labour needs to make clear that the key question which should determine how people vote in the general election is not “who will stand up for Scotland?” but “who do you want to form the next government: the Tories or Labour?”