Local elections: a useful bellwether?

Ahead of the Local Elections in Scotland on May the 4th,  Luke Skipper takes a look what this could mean for the General Election in Scotland.

In the mania that has ensued after the Prime Minister called a snap election, many have forgot about the local elections across Scotland. In what has so far been a General Election campaign defined by repetitive slogans and dodging the press, the local election results will be poured over by the media as an indicator of things to come. But should the local elections serve as a bellwether for the General Election in Scotland? Well as my old boss used to say, ‘jein’ – a wonderful German word for yes and no.

Scottish local elections are conducted using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system which, while not without its faults, elects councillors broadly in line with the public vote. As it distributes people’s multiple votes in a preferential way, fewer are ‘wasted’.

Council wards in Scotland have 3 or 4 councillors so if there is a fairly even spread across the main parties they could each expect to get elected. There is a danger then in looking at how well a party did in wards in particular Westminster constituencies and assuming a direct read across. It is better to see who got the most ‘first preference’ votes as that is all any voter gets in a First Past the Post System (FPTP). The fact that a party is going up in the polls and has won some of the final seats in a mixed member ward doesn’t indicate they will take the Westminster seat.

Also be wary of councils that elect a lot of independents as a predictor. This is especially prevalent in the Highlands and the North-East of Scotland. Parties may be keen to show momentum by either claiming a huge percentage increase in seats (by taking them off independents) or by being in coalition with them. Independents often play king-maker and if there are sufficient numbers of them they can help a party with fewer councillors than the ‘winner’ to form an administration.

On the other hand, in some ways local elections can predict the fortunes of the parties in the upcoming General Election. First of all they are a great indicator of the health of the party’s ‘machines’. As turn-out is notoriously low for local elections, (although it may be a little higher given heightened interest) it will show which parties have identified their voters and who have the people in place to get them to the polls. It will also be a good test of whether the various parties ‘hard core’ vote has held up as these people will make up a lot of those voting tomorrow.

The biggest contest to watch will be Glasgow. According to Professor John Curtice, the Labour Party will need to hold every seat they have in Glasgow to retain control of the council. Very few people think this will be the case. The more commonly held view is that it will be a disaster. The reality will more likely be that both the SNP and the Conservative party do well in Glasgow and many other council areas across Scotland.

It will then be a case of spinning who has more momentum. At the moment the Tories, buoyed by an increase in Westminster polling, control that narrative at present. However, if the SNP essentially cement their dominance in the final area in which they do not have it in Scottish politics, this could well change.