Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

Local elections 2017: a changing of the guard?


Ahead of next month’s elections, Charlotte Maddix unpicks some of what’s in store for local government in Scotland. To find out more about the local elections across the UK, read our guide here.

In May, Scotland will once again be going to the polls. 2016 saw elections to the Scottish Parliament; in 2015, to Westminster; and in 2014, the independence referendum took place. This year, we’ll be voting in local elections for the first time since 2012.

Most Scottish councils are governed by finely balanced coalitions and minority administrations: in fact, not counting the island councils, only 5 authorities have majority administrations. These coalitions come in a rainbow of different colours and sizes, from Aberdeen – where 17 Labour councillors are in coalition with 2 Conservatives and 3 Independents – to Midlothian, where the SNP’s 8 councillors need the support of the lone independent councillor to face off against Labour’s 8 councillors.

This year, all eyes will be on Glasgow. Despite the SNP losing their majority in last year’s Holyrood elections, and doubts over the size of any post-Brexit bounce for the pro-independence movement, many think that Scotland’s largest city will finally fall to the SNP. October last year saw a council seat in a Labour stronghold area of north-west Glasgow go to the SNP in a by-election. There are other authorities where a handful of new SNP councillors would mean an overall majority for the ruling party of Scottish politics: Angus, Clackmannanshire, East Ayrshire.

Conflict between national and local interests is inevitable.

What will be the knock-on effects of a good showing from the SNP in May? Having a single party dominate Scottish politics is hardly a new phenomenon. Labour – which controlled a majority of councils during the 1990s – was supplanted as the predominant party by the SNP. How will the SNP cope with a Scotland in which local government is also dominated by the SNP? Conflict between national and local interests is inevitable. COSLA, the national representative body for local government, has shown that it is not afraid to call the Scottish Government out. The ability of the SNP to work with councils will be tested regularly in the years to come.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Conservatives are quietly hopeful. In these turbulent, post-Brexit times, the pro-unionist party – now the second biggest party at Holyrood – will be seeking to expand its share of council seats. However, it has a long way to go – 110 to Scottish Labour’s 379.

A further challenge for local politicians is that, for the first time in 10 years, local authorities are able to increase council tax. Politicians who choose to continue the freeze will be hoping to benefit from this move on election day. The situation has been complicated by the Scottish Green Party securing extra funding for councils in the Budget – meaning some administrations may find it more difficult to claim credit for a freeze.

Scottish local politics has a fiercely independent streak (beyond the obvious).

Scottish local politics has a fiercely independent streak (beyond the obvious). The islands councils – Orkney, Shetland, Eilean Siar – are all governed by independent councillors. The former 2 have not a single councillor from a mainland political party. Argyll and Bute, too, which incorporates some mainland, has 20 independent councillors out of 36 council seats. In fact, 1 in 6 councillors in Scotland is independent.  

The other big story this year is that 16 and 17 year olds will be going to the polls too. Results from the independence referendum showed that they are more likely to vote than the 18-24 age group – a pattern repeated in other countries that have lowered the voting age.

The last local elections saw just under 300 women elected – 24% of councillors. This is behind both England and Wales (at 32% and 26% respectively). While groups such as the Parliament Project and Women for Council (a cross-party group based in Inverclyde aimed at encouraging women to stand for election) do all they can to address the problem, it is certain that this will still be a major issue for Scottish politics following the elections.

Whatever the political balance on the morning of May 5th, there will be a changing of the guard across Scotland. The leaders of Edinburgh, Falkirk, Dundee, Stirling, Renfrewshire and South Lanarkshire are all stepping down. Senior councillors at many administrations have also said they’ll be retiring. The new generation of local politicians will have their work cut out for them. There is an appetite in some parts of Scottish society – particularly among those who are sympathetic towards independence but critical of the SNP – for more radical reform than is currently on offer. For a rethinking of how public services are funded and organised; for a fundamental change in how Scottish society structures itself. LGiU Scotland will continue to make its voice heard, supporting councils as they deliver services for communities and calling for stronger local democracy.

This article was originally published in LGiU’s C’llr Magazine – April 2017 edition.