Scottish council election 2017 results

Updated 25 May to include an analysis of political control of councils.

This post is being written in a number of parts, as yet undetermined and as detailed council election results become available. This is because, unlike first past the post elections, understanding the outcome of an election using the single transfer vote (STV) system is more complex.

Arithmetically, it depends on returning officers (the chief executives of 32 councils in this case) publishing the full breakdown in each ward of voting for all rounds of a count. Under STV, if there are more candidates than seats, the candidate with the least number of votes is knocked out on round 1 of the count. The second preferences that their voters recorded are distributed to remaining candidates and this process continues until enough candidates receive the ‘quota’, the number of votes needed to ensure their election. It’s complicated, but explained here.

Only when all that data is published can you see how voters distributed their first preferences, i.e. for candidates and usually parties (a substantial number stand as independents in local elections). Those preferences are as near as you get in an STV election to seeing how people might vote in a first past the post contest. And with the general election only a month away, that might (I stress might) give a good indication of how Scotland might vote for the UK parliament.

The other thing the detailed data can tell you is how people distribute their preferences and whether pro-union and pro-separation voters tend to support similar parties, for example Labour voters making Liberal Democrat or Conservative candidates their second preference, or Green voters doing the same for SNP candidates.  If you want to see what this means in practice, check my blog post from last August on the failure of Robin Sturgeon (the first minister’s father) to win a by-election in North Ayrshire. Incidentally, he stood again this time and also failed to win a seat.

Politically, it is always some time under STV, at least in Scottish councils, before it becomes clear which parties/groups of independents will form the majority administration on a council. This is because STV tends not to produce an outright majority for any single party. So either the largest party attempts to govern without a majority or, far more common, two or more negotiate to form a joint administration.  This usually happens in the period between an election and the next meeting of the full council, typically two weeks after the election. Only at that point will we know which parties are in power in all 32 councils.

What follows has been added to this post on the date shown.

Part 1 – 6 May

The elections were held on Thursday 4 May and all counts completed yesterday. Here are the headline results as recorded by the BBC:

Other parties stood but won no seats. The ‘+/-‘ figures are changes from the last full council elections in 2012.

The small numbers in the ‘Council’ column reflect the point made above that few parties ever achieve an ouright majority of seats in an STV election. In 2012 this happened in only seven councils, one SNP, three Labour and three independent (the island councils – Rule No. 1 in Scottish politics: the islands are always different). This time round no council has an overall majority from a single party.

The pattern of seats held be each party is so obvious to hardly need comment but for the record may be summarised:

  • The SNP remains the largest single party although it has lost a small number of seats and overall control of the one council it had before. Although not shown in this table it now forms the largest group on the largest council, Glasgow. It has 37% of all councillors
  • The Conservatives have done very well, gaining 164 seats and overtaking Labour to become the second largest party in Scotland’s councils. It now has 22% of all councillors
  • Most of the Conservatives net gains have been from Labour, who lost 133 seats and now have 21% of all councillors
  • With much smaller numbers, the Lib Dems lost a few seats and the Greens gained a few
  • In what is a long-term trend, fewer independents, who represent a whole range of views and cannot be said to be a group, were elected and now make up 14% of all councillors

Regular readers of this blog know that my interest in politics is not so much to do with individual parties as the respective stength of pro-union (Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem) and pro-separation (SNP and Greens) parties. Adding those parties together shows the following result:

As I write this, I am pressed for time so will forgo any substantial analysis or comment on the figures. I merely contrast the first minister’s initial reaction to the election result yesterday evening:

… a clear and emphatic victory … [a] very, very good result …The SNP has won the council elections. We have more votes, more seats and are in the driving seat of more councils than any other party (BBC)

With my own first judgement yesterday evening:

Indy parties are on a slow downward slide … Two and a half years on from the referendum SNP are stalled. No breakthrough. Still a minority, slowly declining and clutching at straws (two separate tweets by @rogerlwhite).

I leave you to decide at the end of Part 1 of this post which is the more correct judgement.

Part 2 – 8 May

Two days after Part 1 of this post, Elections Scotland have released a much wider range of results data than the raw count of candidates elected. This is their summary table of (a) Seats won (the same figures presented in Part 1) and (b) how first preference votes were cast:

council elections 2017 elections scotland analysis

First preference votes are the closest you will get under the STV system to a guess at how the same people might vote in a first past the post election, in this case the UK general election being held exactly one month from today. Combining the pro-union (Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem) and pro-separation (SNP and Greens) parties in the same way that I did in Part 1 produces this result:

  • Total first preference votes for pro-union parties – 52.3%
  • Total first preference votes for anti-union parties – 36.3%.

The remaining 11.4% first preference votes were cast for either independent candidates or smaller parties. No analysis is available of whether they were pro-union, anti-union or indifferent.

This rough and ready guess at how votes might be cast in Scotland on 8 June needs to be qualified in at least two ways.

First, the general election turnout will be considerably higher: the local election turnout was almost 47%, in the last general election it was 71%. We cannot know what it will be on 8 June and how those extra votes might be distributed between parties.

Second, the percentage of votes cast for any individual party in a first past the post election will not equate to the number of seats won. In 2015 the SNP received precisely 50% of the votes but won 95% of the seats.

However, as sundry nationalists attempting to engage me in debate about the subject on Twitter fail or choose to ignore, I am not interested in the success of individual parties. I am concerned to measure the likely appetite for independence.

On the basis of these figures and the other data I’ve presented recently (including opinion polls – see the tail-end of a previous post) it seems that there just aren’t the sufficient numbers for the SNP to try and activate the second referendum they recently got Holyrood to approve by a small margin. Expect continued bluster, demonisation of pro-union parties  and grievance-mongering on the subject, but no action.

Part 3 – 25 May

As I write the final part of this post, what with the general election and the atrocity in Manchester, the results of council elections seem small beer. But I did promise to add a note on the political control of councils once they had all held their first post-election meetings to appoint provosts, leaders and committee chairs. It’s taken a while for them to do so and three weeks after the elections four still haven’t. This final section will be updated when those last four have sorted themselves out.

Here is a table showing control of the 29 councils that have made this first political decision:

council elections 2017 political control

All results are taken from the COSLA web site.

The detail of these sorts of figures can be over-analysed but here are a few general conclusions.

  • As I’ve said before, the STV system makes it very difficult for a single party to obtain an overall majority of seats in any council and, sure enough, none have this time (previously the SNP controlled Dundee and Angus by themselves). The three island councils, as in so many things, are different and they all have a majority of independents.
  • Of the remaining 25 councils for which we have data, coalitions (including a ‘partnership working arrangement’ and ‘joint leadership’) control 15.
  • All groups are involved in coalitions. Two – Conservatives and SNP – are not in coalition with each other anywhere.
  • Despite a ban by the Labour party on their councillors entering into coalition with any party that espoused austerity (widely interpreted as ‘not with the Tories’) two Labour groups are in joint administrations with the Conservatives – Aberdeen and Perth & Kinross. It is believed that both are suspended from the party at present but whether their suspension continues is to be seen. The decision to suspend has certainly made waves locally and may impact on Labour’s general election showing in those two areas.
  • The remaining ten councils have ‘minority’ administrations in which the largest party has decided to try and run the council themselves, either because they think they can or they couldn’t reach agreement with anyone else to share control: six of these groups are SNP, four Labour. One of two things usually results from these situations – either political instability or a much consensual approach to ensure decisions can be made.
  • If you compare the ‘TOTAL’ row in this table with the figures taken from the BBC website in Part 1 of this post, you can see that the number of councillors a party has nationally does not necessarily equate with the number of times they share political control. For example Labour has 21% of all councillors but shares political control in 41% of councils, and independents have only 14% of seats but share political control in 52% of councils. This is because smaller groups are often valued as partners for the numbers (and stability) they can bring to the politics of a council.

Two final thoughts.

First, don’t necessarily expect stability in this overall picture. Councillors sometimes change allegiance (more so than national politicians), and there is an inevitable attrition rate as some resign or, sadly, pass away and by-elections are held.

Second, perhaps the most interesting political point of all: how will all councils, whether or not the SNP share political control in them, relate to a Holyrood government that puts them under increasing financial pressure, and if recent history is any guide, seeks to exert increasing control over their activities? Watch this space.


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7 Responses to Scottish council election 2017 results

  1. wujeanty says:

    Without wishing to give the SNP any tips, it is Angus I would be freaking out about if I were them. Angus is Ground Zero of the nationalist movement – indeed, such is the lock that the party has had on seats in Holyrood and Westminter, they’ve been able to field a steady stream of utterly useless candidates (take a bow, Andrew Welsh, Mike Weir, Nigel Don, Graeme Day, Mairi Evans) without much concern that they won’t get elected. But despite massive resources and a huge ground game, they took a real shellacking yesterday, including getting battered by the Conservatives in such nationalist hotbeds as Brechin and Forfar – the latter, of course, being the former fiefdom of Arthur Donaldson. Simply put, if Angus turns its back on the SNP, they, and Scottish independence, are finished. Thus, the result to watch for in the General is how Mike Weir does – he got a whopping 54% last time with a majority of 11,000. If the Conservatives can whittle that down to the low thousands or hundreds (or even somehow win), I think I would be prepared to stick my neck out and say that the SNP’s goose is truly cooked.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sam Duncan says:

    In normal circumstances, I’d agree that the first preferences are the best indication of GE voting intention, but these aren’t normal circumstances. We expect there to be a lot of tactical pro-Union voting next month, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who stood in the booth on Thursday knowing that his first preference didn’t stand a chance, that this didn’t really matter under STV, it’s more of a gesture of support than anything else, and in June I’ll hold my nose and cast my vote for the most likely challenger to the SNP, however distasteful I might find him or her otherwise.

    The question is how strong this effect will be. Will the shock of these Conservative wins send people for whom the Tories were a second, third, or fourth preference running back to the devil they know? I suspect if that was going to happen, last year’s Holyrood results would have prompted it and we’d have seen the effects this week, but STV muddies the waters somewhat and I think it’s still a legitimate question.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A mcbain says:

    Right enough,being the biggest party in all 4 major cities & also 19 other councils means little if Angus falls . Eh not so sure about that theory


  4. I had a go at putting the first preference votes into the election predictor on Electoral Calculus. In the absence of any further data, I allocated the 10.5% who voted for independents amongst the parties in proportion to their actual votes. This gave the following split by party:

    Conservative 28.3%
    Green 4.6%
    Labour 22.6%
    Liberal Democrats 7.6%
    SNP 36.1%
    Others 0.8% [actually 0.9% but a rounding error would then cause the numbers to total 100.1%]

    I assumed that the Greens would get 0.7% of the vote, which is a somewhat arbitrary three times their national share of the vote in the three out of 59 constituencies that they are standing in. I gave the rest of their votes to the SNP to produce the following results:

    Conservative 28.3% = 11 seats
    Green 0.7% = 0 seats
    Labour 22.6% = 1 seat
    Liberal Democrats 7.6% = 4 seats
    SNP 40.0% = 43 seats
    Other 0.8% = 0 seats

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger White says:

      Thanks for that. As you might see on Twitter , I’ve taken the liberty of tweeting your prediction. My only sadness is it misses one or two deserving cases!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Duncan says:

      Interesting. I honestly didn’t expect the Tories to be in second place on first preference alone. Or for the SNP FP to be so “low”, by recent standards (although I think you’re right that the Green vote will probably bolster it in practice). Perhaps my fears of STV creating the illusion of the unionist vote rallying round one party, with it fragmenting again next month, are unfounded.

      It’s still frustrating that a combined unionist vote of 58.5% would only result in 16 seats, but back when the election was called the feeling was that a loss of 10 was the absolute worst-case for the SNP. Although I’m naturally a pessimist, it’s beginning to look more like their best.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Albert says:

    The fact that SNP more or less matched their 2012 results is good news from a Unionist point of view. 2012 was before the huge increases in SNP support of 2015 and if the Council election results of last week are replicated in the General Election it could result in less than 40% for separation. Any less than 40% and demand for Indy2 would surely fail.

    Liked by 1 person

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