Scotland politics

Scottish council election: Administrations take shape

Council services montage

At long last, the final outcome of the council elections is known.

The nation has hardly been on tenterhooks, but, the waiting is over nonetheless.

In the weeks since voters went to the polls, we now know who is in charge of Scotland's 32 local councils .

Compared to the position before the election on May 3, Labour now have a say in the running of five more administrations, there is little change for the SNP or the Conservatives while the Liberal Democrats have lost out in eight councils.

The collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote - the party lost more than half its seats - has led to unlikely alliances between sworn enemies.

"The Liberal Democrats were, of course, the hinge party with which everyone else in Scotland was hitherto willing and capable of doing a deal," said Prof John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde.

Now, the Scottish National Party and Labour are sharing control of East Renfrewshire, Edinburgh and Highland; Labour and the Conservatives are together in Aberdeen, East Dunbartonshire, East Lothian, Falkirk and Stirling; while Dumfries has an SNP/Tory coalition.

Labour has majority control of four councils: Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire, while the SNP won its first ever council majorities, in Dundee and neighbouring Angus.

But, as it is with skinning cats, so it is with statistics: there are many ways to judge electoral success.

This is especially true in a fragmented election for 32 local authorities conducted under a proportional voting system.

Consider the number of seats won by each party.

Note: Total number of seats in 2007 (and at dissolution) was 1222. Total number of seats after the 2012 election was 1223 because one extra seat was added in West Lothian. The table above calculates the result in Dunoon, Argyll & Bute (where the election was delayed by the death of a candidate) as one hold for the SNP and two holds for others, compared to both 2007 and dissolution.

The SNP are claiming victory based on arithmetic, but, in terms of expectation, Labour did far better than the nationalists.

After their stunning result at Holyrood last May, the SNP raised expectations for the local elections, particularly by targeting the Labour fortress of Glasgow which, in the end, they came nowhere near to storming.

It was, said Prof Curtice, "just a reminder that the SNP's political antennae are not perfect".

So does any of this have any bearing on the independence referendum, due in autumn 2014?

Not much, reckons Prof Curtice.

"While a popular SNP isn't a sufficient condition to win an independence referendum, it's almost undoubtedly a necessary condition," he said.

"The SNP's job has simply not been made any easier by any of this."

"High-wire act"

Ewan Crawford, of the University of West of Scotland, a former senior SNP adviser, thinks the party will recover quickly from any perceived setback.

He describes Alex Salmond's leadership as "a high-wire act" involving big predictions, most of which have come off.

Mr Crawford said: "The issue is, do you have the political skills to carry it off when it doesn't work out? And, at the moment, no one is in the same league as Alex Salmond."

Others believe the shine is coming off Mr Salmond's leadership, but, by the standards of a government a year in to its second term, he can still claim that electoral support is holding up well.

Mr Crawford says the SNP will now be scrutinising the local election data, trying to work out where people's second preference votes went and whether they can persuade Labour voters to think about supporting independence.

Because, of course, the nationalists are not in power simply to run a devolved Scotland.

They have a more dramatic ambition: independence.

And for all their claims of victory in May, they know they'll have to do better to win the referendum.