Few winners in Scottish council elections

The Scottish council elections saw the Tories suffer major losses as their share of the first preference vote fell to 19.6%, with almost a quarter of their councillors being wiped out. Since 2007 the single transferable vote system for local government elections has been used in Scotland.

Despite the huge class anger over the cost of living crisis and Boris Johnson neither Labour nor the Scottish National Party (SNP), however, made significant gains. Turnout was also down, at just 43%. 

Scottish Labour – now led by the pro-capitalist right under Anas Sarwar, dubbed the millionaire tendency – gained only 19 seats and ended up with a vote share of just 21.7%, marginally ahead of the Tories. Labour now have 281 councillors across Scotland, to the Tories 216. 

Prior to the independence referendum of 2014 Labour was polling over 30% in council elections. The anaemic improvement this time was more down to the drop in the Tory vote rather than any enthusiasm for Labour, which put on just 22,286 votes compared to the last council elections in 2017. The Liberal Democrats also made some gains as a result of the Tory collapse, increasing their first preference vote by 29,572 and their seats by 20.

There are no indications then that Labour is recovering its electoral support among the Scottish working class. As elections analyst John Curtice pointed out in relation to West Dunbartonshire – the one council where Labour won a majority – “the increase in the party’s support was greater in middle-class wards than in working-class areas that were once its heartland”.

Despite gaining West Dunbartonshire, Labour are no longer the biggest party in North Lanarkshire or North Ayrshire. In both these cases they were the ruling administrations prior to the election. 

Sections of the left in Scotland lauded North Ayrshire’s Labour-led council and its ‘Community Wealth building’ which saw some limited social housing built and the council using its powers for more progressive policies overall. But Labour still implemented cuts and council tax rises and did not pursue a policy of fighting for no cuts, needs budgets. Even in Glasgow, where Labour came within one council seat of defeating the SNP, they were more than 11% behind in first preference votes. 

The damage done by years of Blairite domination of Scottish Labour, cuts-making councillors, and the 2014 independence referendum when Labour united with the Tories to oppose independence, has left the party as a toxic brand among huge numbers of working class communities. 

Yet despite winning the largest number of council seats, with 453 councillors, the SNP are also increasingly alienating their working-class base, particularly where they have been the ruling administration in councils. For example SNP support fell by 5% in Glasgow – mainly going to another pro-independence party, the Scottish Greens. Indeed the Green candidate topped the poll in the Langside ward of the SNP council leader Susan Aitken. Glasgow’s SNP-led council has faced strike action by thousands of council workers in cleansing and over equal pay recently. 

The SNP’s record of implementing Tory austerity continues to arouse the opposition of working-class communities. The SNP national share of the first preference vote was 34%, a significant drop when compared to the post-indyref general election in 2015 when they polled 50%. The Scottish Greens doubled their number of councillors in Scotland to 35, including ten in both Glasgow and Edinburgh where they could form coalitions with the SNP. Support for the Greens is most evident among sections of the middle class and some young people.

In part, the growing support for the Scottish Greens also reflects a section of pro-independence voters looking for an alternative. But the Greens, who have a record of passing on cuts and supporting pro-capitalist policies, are already in a governing coalition at Holyrood with the SNP. It is clear that any SNP-Green council administrations will, from day one, also be coalitions of cuts. 

Once again, as was the case in the Scottish parliament election in 2021, the national question was a major factor in voting patterns. 

Pro-independence parties polled around 44% of the vote, mainly for the SNP and the Scottish Greens – while the Alba party, launched in 2021 by the former SNP first minister Alex Salmond and standing 111 candidates, picked up just 12,335 votes (0.7%) and winning no seats. The share for Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats was just under 50%. 

The Tories ran an overt anti-indyref2 campaign as did, to a lesser extent, the other pro-union parties. Mirroring this, the SNP continue to use the desire for self-determination and independence among many workers and young people to shore up their vote while refusing to mobilise a mass campaign for the right to self-determination. 

SNP first minister Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to bring forward a plan for a second referendum, to be held in 2023. Currently there is 55% support for indyref2 being held in the next five years. Polling on independence is still around 50/50 for and against. 

The low turnout – with almost six in ten not voting, rising to two thirds in many working class areas – reflects the enormous dissatisfaction with the SNP leadership and the other pro-capitalist political parties in Scotland. None of them offer any solutions to the catastrophic impact of soaring living costs and continued cuts to services. 

It was for this reason that the Scottish Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) not only stood in this election but called on trade unionists and anti-austerity fighters to do the same. Scottish TUSC stood 16 candidates across nine councils including seven in Glasgow, the largest number of socialist candidates in the election, making the case for no cuts, needs-based council budgets, pay and benefit rises to tackle rocketing inflation, and public ownership of the profiteering energy companies. 

The first preference votes, while modest, increased in the seven council wards that Scottish TUSC had contested in Glasgow compared to 2017. TUSC also stood for the first time in a council election in Inverness, Aberdeen, Paisley and Dumbarton. The markedly higher number of second or third preference votes won was also significant, indicating the background support for socialist policies to tackle the economic and social crisis facing working-class people. 

The need to build a mass working class response to the deepening capitalist crisis is urgent. Fighting trade unions organising coordinated strike action over the cost of living crisis is essential, as is the building of a new mass working class party by the trade unions to give a second arm to that fightback. 

Socialist Party Scotland and Scottish TUSC will do all we can to drive forward that agenda and a socialist solution for the working class in the months ahead.

Socialist Party Scotland reporters