Scottish Local Government Election Roundup

By May 16, 2017Indigo

Two weeks on from the local authority elections, who’s running Scotland’s councils?

Nearly two week since the results of the council elections were counted the new landscape of local government in Scotland is only just becoming clearer. Most councils are working towards tight deadlines, with the first meetings due to be held this week. Almost no authority saw a party come out of these elections with an overall majority, (the three that did will be run by groups of independents) meaning that negotiations for governing coalitions are a necessity across the board.

In general, administrations will have been agreed before the first meetings. That said, a uniquely complicating factor in these negotiations is that parties are still very much in General Election campaign mode. Agreeing to work with your rival at council level makes it difficult to differ in bitterly contested constituency battles for Westminster seats.

The SNP is the largest group in 16 councils, including the country’s four largest cities: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. However, the party lost overall control of Dundee and Angus councils and dropped to second place in Aberdeenshire. The Scottish Conservatives gained a total of 164 councillors and is now the largest group in six local authorities.

Labour suffered the loss of 133 councillors and lost its majority in four council areas, including Glasgow which it had controlled for 37 years. However, the party remains the largest in Inverclyde, Midlothian and East Lothian. The Lib Dems also suffered losses for the third local election in a row, though it made significant gains in its target areas which will reassure activists in East Dunbartonshire and Edinburgh.


In the Capital the SNP are the largest party on the council for the first time, having secured 19 seats but fell short of its target of 25. The Tories moved in second on 18, up seven on their 2012 result. Labour fell from 21 to 12, the Greens increased to eight and the Lib Dems to six. The SNP, Conservatives and Labour each have new groups leaders after making changes almost as soon as the votes were counted on the Friday. Adam McVey replaces Frank Ross as the SNP group leader, while the Conservatives replaced Cameron Rose with Iain Whyte. Following the retirement of Andrew Burns, Cammy Day will lead the Labour group.

With no majority, the SNP and Conservatives quickly set about trying to woo the other parties in coalition talks. Labour at one point looked set to approve an agreement with the SNP although Labour’s Scottish executive committee, which has to approve all deals, failed to give the agreement the go-ahead. The Conservatives emailed each Labour councillor with proposals for a “pan-unionist” coalition with the Lib Dems but Cammy Day has indicated this is a non-starter. So far the outcome remains unresolved.


The SNP won 39 seats in Glasgow, four short of a majority. Winning 31 seats, Labour came second, relinquishing control of the council for the first time in nearly 40 years. The Conservatives increased their number from a single councillor elected in 2012 to a total of eight in 2017. The Greens increased from four to seven representatives while the Lib Dems lost their only sitting councillor in the city.

SNP group leader Susan Aitken has confirmed that the SNP intends to form an administration, although a formal coalition looks unlikely.  Should the Tories and Labour team up to oppose the SNP it will need the support of the Greens in some capacity, either issue-to-issue or via a more substantive agreement.


Coalition talks also continue in Aberdeen, although a deal is reportedly close. The SNP increased from 16 to 19 seats and the Conservatives went from three to 11 while Labour halved their total to nine. Labour’s group leader Jenny Laing retained her seat while finance convener Willie Young was one of the election night’s most high profile casualties.

The city’s four Liberal Democrats have confirmed they will not join any coalition, preferring to stay in opposition. The SNP have struggled to convince Labour to join a coalition and talks continue between Labour, the Conservatives and Independents to form a minority coalition. As part of the talks, the next administration may be headed up by a co-leader system, shared between the Conservatives and Labour.


Bucking the trend across Scotland’s cities, a coalition has been agreed in Dundee. Losing overall control of ‘Yes City’ was one of the darker clouds for the SNP on election night after it secured 14 seats, one short of a majority.  Labour were second on nine, the Tories have three, the Lib Dems two, while one independent was elected. The SNP have agreed to form an administration with Independent councillor Ian Borthwick after holding meetings with each party. Group leader John Alexander will continue to hold regular meetings with Labour and the Lib Dems to secure cross-party support.

Do the local results tell us anything about the General Election?

Nationally, the picture is a little clearer. Turnout was 46.9% (1,927,149). Boundary changes mean direct comparisons with 2012 are difficult, and most comparisons are based on notional 2012 results. As the table below shows, while the SNP secured a hefty majority of seats across Scotland, the party was just 7 percentage points behind the Tories on first preference vote share.

Party Seats First preference vote share (4 May 2017)
SNP 431 32.3%
Scottish Conservative 276 25.3%
Scottish Labour 262 20.2%
Independent 168 10.5%
Scottish Lib Dem 67 6.8%
Scottish Green 19 4.1 %

Given the proximity of this round of local elections it’s tempting to try to use the results to make predictions about how the cards will fall on 8 June. The SNP achieved 50 per cent in 2015 and won 56 seats. So, despite coming out on top in the local government ballot, their vote share could spell a slow-down in the party’s hitherto stratospheric electoral momentum. The Conservatives on the other hand will be buoyed by their performance at local level in particular by their apparent ability to pick up Labour support.

On the other hand, direct comparisons between elections are always risky. The SNP has a history of underperforming expectations at local level. While a repeat performance of 2015 is seriously unlikely, their polling is unlikely to fall as far as 32 per cent. Independent councillors and local issues tends to distort party popularity (John Curtice notes that one in ten votes cast in the local election was for an independent candidate) and turnout is usually much lower. Moreover the Greens are standing in just three Westminster seats and this should offer the SNP a boost overall. For the same reasons the Conservatives should be wary of over-confidence.

Where the local election results might predict general election constituency outcome is where parties have shown they are in rude health in specific regional strongholds. The Conservatives repeated a strong performance in the North East of Scotland, suggesting that their support in that region maybe be solidifying following the successes of 2016. While the Lib Dems had seen a so-so performance in May, their concentrated support base in places like Edinburgh West will give them a confidence boost. Similarly, Labour’s strong showing in East Lothian will make the area a key target for the party if it is to make progress on 8 June.

Eilidh Dickson

Senior Account Executive

16 May 2017