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What does the latest poll mean for the May elections?

11/03/2012

Seeing as the latest YouGov poll didn’t address the question of the May local elections. one might imagine the answer to that question to be ‘very little’, but I was intrigued when James addressed the question yesterday – to the extent that I got my statistical hat on.

I’ve had a go at making projections for the May Council elections based on results in Council By-Elections over 2011, and came up with a few conclusions:

  • The SNP are looking at a potential 100 extra Councillors;
  • Labour and the Tories will hold onto what they have;
  • LibDem representation in local government representation could be halved;
  • The Greens and Others face a difficult election, with the Greens possibly losing their seats in Edinburgh;
  • Independents will still control the three Island Councils;
  • The SNP could end up controlling four Councils – Aberdeenshire, Angus, Dundee City and South Lanarkshire;
  • Labour’s control of Glasgow and North Lanarkshire may well be even harder to end than many think.

Then came the reflections James made on the YouGov poll published this week. And it’s hard to disagree with the unease that James sets out: the SNP Constituency lead down to four points, with a six-point lead (and sub-40% share) on the Regional vote. And a twelve-point Labour lead for Westminster.

James raises the point :

Does Holyrood or Westminster voting intention offer the strongest clue to the likely outcome of the local elections? Given the results in recent years, it might seem obvious that the answer is Holyrood, but of course the last three sets of local elections have all taken place on the same day as Scottish Parliament elections.

All true, of course. This is the first set of stand-alone local elections since 1995, and there are all sorts of variables in play.

However, it might yet be possible to at least make an educated guess if we compare this poll not to the 2011 results (a comparison which causes an element of disquiet) but to the 2007 results, which co-incided with the last set of local elections. Then, we see a swing towards both the SNP and Labour, but the SNP’s gain is around double that enjoyed by Labour. Let’s run the simulation again:

  • The SNP could gain more than 130 Councillors,putting it within touching distance of the 500 mark;
  • Labour will be looking to gain at least forty Councillors;
  • Instead of breaking even, the Tories could lose 35 seats;
  • The LibDem decline could be even worse with at least 100 seats at risk;
  • There’ll still be fewer independents, and the Greens could still end up with fewer Councillors than they had, but the losses won’t be as bad and Greens will remain in City Chambers in both Glasgow and Edinburgh;
  • The Independents will still run the Islands;
  • The SNP should have five Councils in their sights: Aberdeenshire, Angus, Dundee City, Moray and Renfrewshire;
  • Glasgow and North Lanakrshire could remain solid for Labour (though the intervention of Glasgow First and the Herald’s report today that Labour are worried about their chances in North Lanarkshire call this into question) and could actually be joined by South Lanarkshire.

Of course, there are variables that no model can predict: the entrance of the SNP to the elections in the two Northern Isles Councils, and also defections. The defections of Martin Ford and Debra Storr to the Greens in Aberdeenshire spring readily to mind (Martin Ford could well cost the LibDems a further seat; Debra Storr was what we might call the ‘second-preference’ LibDem in her ward so will need to have spent the years since her departure from the Liberal Democrats building the much-needed personal vote).

But more than that, there’s the intervention of Glasgow First. On paper, Glasgow Labour’s travails look like the party is eager to hand control of the City Chambers to the SNP, but the splinter group of rebel councillors makes mathematicalprojections far more difficult than it otherwise would be: ordinarily, despite the wins in Glasgow last year,the SNP got its Council seats by just making the quota or by gaining transfers and exceptions where few and far between (though Baillieston is the most obvious example). So it would stake staggering swings against Labour for them to make the gains needed to actually win the Chambers (though it’s certainly possible for the SNP to hoover up votes and seats from disaffected LibDem voters and that looks like what will happen in May).

But with Glasgow First entering the fray, there are four possible outcomes for the SNP:

The best-case scenario: the in-fighting in Glasgow Labour turns voters in their droves to the SNP, who get the big swings needed, and can nip in for extra seats on the transfers after Glasgow First fail to get anywhere themselves but do stop Labour reaching the quotas needed – the result being outright SNP control;

The next-best scenario: the SNP make around ten gains on 2007 and the Glasgow First group make enough gains to prise Chambers out of Labour hands and see a SNP/Glasgow First administration take control, perhaps needing the support of the Greens.

The not-great scenario: following the old adage of Glasgow voters having been willing to vote for a monkey in a red rosette, it transpires that they were at least more interested in the rosette than the monkey and the rebel Councillors have only ever won seats because of their party affiliation rather than their personal qualities, so Glasgow First do nothing – Labour hold on but now have the SNP breathing down their neck;

The worst-case scenario: far from attracting dissatisfied Labour voters, Glasgow First turn into the SSP of the 2012 campaign and pull in voters who were going to vote against Labour anyway, but would have otherwise opted for the SNP – Labour loses a couple of seats tops and it’s the SNP who end up having to deal with the GF advance.

In truth, I don’t think either of the extreme scenarios are likely and I’ve noticed that when parties dosplit like this, it’s the rebels who tend to do well at first: Dennis Canavan and Margo MacDonald spring readily to mind, as does the group of former Labour Councillors in West Dunbartonshire who sought re-election as Independents following a split in the Labour Group just before the polls in May 2007 and then opted to support the SNP in administration. So the ‘next-best’ scenario looks like the most plausible, with ‘not-great’ emerging as a big possibility. In any case, the Leadership would be wise to keep expectations in check. Instead, all we hear is Glasgow, Glasgow, Glasgow.

And what will that mean?

The SNP could well get its 130 extra Councillors.

And take control of the five Councils: Aberdeenshire, Angus, Dundee City, Moray and Renfrewshire.

Maybe it could snatch one or both of the Lanarkshires from under Labour’s nose.

It could win its largest-party target in Edinburgh and consolidate its new-found first-place in Aberdeen. It could go from third to first in the Borders, and in South Ayrshire.

It could win exactly half the seats in Clackmannanshire, East Ayrshire, Falkirk, West Dunbartonshire and West Lothian.*

But if we don’t get Glasgow, all those good things will suddenly become a ‘disappointment’ in the papers the morning after the count.

Of course, it’s possible that Glasgow is indeed there for the taking: when Labour had a ten-point poll lead, canvassers were getting very different results and even they looked pessimistic compared with the actual result at the end – maybe the data in HQ points to the big swing needed, but Glasgow is just one Council out of 32, and while it might be the Big Story, it’s not the only story.

Focusing on Glasgow is a massive gamble. It might yet pay off, but when I place a bet, I try to think about the stake I’m wagering before I think about the winnings I’ll get. Obviously, this is a time for optimism and momentum, but I remember overhearing a delegate at the end of the 2007 Spring Conference in Glasgow, observing that “If we don’t win now, we’ll all be scunnered!”

Words as wise now as they were then.

* UPDATE: Turns out this isn’t correct: the Bathgate ward is getting an extra Councillor, andas this stage, it looks like Labour will be the chief beneficiary of that, so the SNP will have 16 seats out of 33, rather than 32 as now.

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8 Comments
  1. One of the things we should take heart from is that none of the other parties have even started yet. I’ve not had a single leaflet through the door from any other party. Yet I know that we have done the whole ward. A fair amount of Edinburgh has had their 1st leaflets delivered already. Aside from that there seemed to be a lot of emphasis on these elections at conference. From what I’ve seen the council elections have barely been mentioned at the other conferences. Lamont didn’t even mention it once. I’m not being complacent as I am out doing stuff for the party at least twice a week at the moment, but don’t worry Will, we’re going to walk these cooncil elections πŸ˜‰

    • Well, that’s true – the fact that we’re the only ones talking about the elections is a bonus… I guess the others are too busy panicking about the Autumn of 2014 that the small matters of the local elections this May and the Euro elections a couple of months before the referendum arepassing them by. More fool them! If the work’s going in it’ll pay off – but I’ll be biting my nails till the end. πŸ˜‰

  2. Andrew : Like you, I haven’t had any leaflets from the opposition parties, but I haven’t had any leaflets from the SNP either! Maybe it’s because it’s a predictable ward (ie. almost inevitably 2 SNP, 1 Labour).

  3. irishobserver permalink

    This is a very good analysis. However, you make no mention of Perth & Kinross. I would have thought that this would have been in the top 5 SNP targets along with Aberdeenshire, Angus, Dundee City and Moray. You likely have more knowledge than me of Renfrewshire. Also the SNP should, in my view, become the largest party in Argyll & Bute as well given their expanded candidate list this time out. A recent defection of a sitting Independent to the SNP in Clackmannanshire South may assist the party in actually winning the council outright rather than just securing half the seats.

    • Thanks for the comment, irishobserver – as for P&K, my hunch is that the SNP will remain the largest group and increase their strength on the Council, but the Group will most likely be just short of a majority. As for Argyll & Bute, I agree that the SNP will be the largest Party, and a key factor to look out for there is the highly fragmented nature of the Independents now, with three different groupings. As for Clackmannanshire, I’ll keep my expectations in check andkeep my prediction at nine out of 18. πŸ™‚

  4. irishobserver permalink

    Very good. Thanks for the response. I look forward to seeing the finalised candidate lists in the respective wards tomorrow and then look forward to seeing gains on May 4 from across the sea.

  5. Gaz permalink

    There doesn’t appear to be any narrowing of the 2011 gap in West Lothian. Any returns I have seen show the SNP well ahead of the returns from last year. This seems to be true in both highly polarised SNP/Lab areas and more eclectic areas.

    The 4 gains the SNP needs to take outright control appear to be in our grasp. If the election were tomorrow I suspect the SNP would take as many as 19 or 20 seats. Plenty water to flow under the bridge yet though!!!

    • Thanks for the on-the-ground take, Gaz – I have to say, I did a quick rerun of the figures once the candidate lists were published and on the national picture alone, it’s looking good for the SNP to win a majority in West Lothian, as well as Perth & Kinross. All to play for yet, mind!

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