Local government touches the lives of all Scots. With responsibility for schools, social work, care services, transport, street cleaning and local economic growth, councils spend some £18bn a year running essential services.
Yet in recent years, councils’ track records and the political parties’ manifestos have faced little scrutiny. Why so? Perhaps because we still view Scottish politics, at national and local levels, through the constitutional prism.
Thursday’s council elections will be no different. The constitution overshadows local services on the election addresses. The Scottish Conservatives are calling on voters to use this election to “send a message” to Nicola Sturgeon that Scotland does not want a second independence referendum, while she herself will see any increase as an indication that Scots do want constitutional change.
So what will the outcome be? National polls show the SNP still has a commanding lead, but the Scottish Conservatives are gaining ground and may spring a few surprises.
Glasgow is key to understanding the likely result. Against expectations, Labour kept control in 2011 holding off a strong SNP challenge. To win, the SNP needs to secure 43 of the 85 seats, which will be a challenge as it currently has only 30. Labour is fielding just 43 candidates and would need every single one of them to win to retain control (same story in Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire). It looks likely that the SNP will become the largest party but will need the support of another to secure an overall majority, which is likely to be the Green Party whose leader, Patrick Harvie, has supported the SNP government at Holyrood.
The position in rural Scotland is likely to differ. The Conservative revival at the 2016 Scottish Parliament election could continue and a strong showing is expected in Perthshire, the Scottish Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and the north east.
The Tories are also expected to do well in Scotland’s capital. Edinburgh strongly voted No at the 2014 Independence referendum and while the SNP currently shares the administration with Labour, its campaign has been hampered by recent contributions by its council leader, Cllr Frank Ross. Cllr Ross, it emerged, had forgotten to record his ownership of a Highland hotel in his register of interests, while in the local media he berated other parties as not really being Scottish and using the term only as “a branding exercise” to win votes.
So, in reviewing likely outcomes, we can only really say that overall it’s likely to be mixed. While the SNP may do well in Glasgow and the west, the Conservative party may experience its best performance for many years. Scottish Labour, however, currently with the second largest number of councillors –394 to the SNPs 425 – will not have its troubles to seek. Its poll showing has not recovered since its Holyrood meltdown in 2016 and it may be vying for second place with the Conservatives.
One thing is certain: there will be little analysis of what the results mean for local services, but much discussion of what the outcome means for June’s general election and the prospects for indyref2.