Scotland politics

Q&A: Scotland's 2017 council elections

Image caption Scotland's local authority elections will be held on Thursday, 4 May

Scotland goes to the polls again in 2017 - this time for local authority elections. Here, political experts John Curtice and Richard Kerley, who spoke to the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme, speculate on the winners and losers.


How are things likely to change from 2012?

In the last set of local authority elections in 2012, the SNP won the most votes, just ahead of Labour, while the Conservatives were a distant third. However Labour ended up on the administration (either alone or in coalition) of 20 of the 32 councils, to the SNP's nine.

Prof John Curtice, Strathclyde University polling expert, says: "Things could look very radically different indeed.

"We should remember back in May 2012 that the SNP - at least by recent standards - did relatively badly. They only just managed to emerge ahead of the Labour Party in terms of the popular vote, whereas in the 2011 Holyrood election, 12 months previously, they had managed to win an overall majority.

"If we look at what's been happening in local government by-elections during the course of the last 18 months or so, it confirms the message of the opinion polls that the Labour Party, which managed five years ago to hold on to Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and so on, these citadels are now all extremely vulnerable."


What are the prospects for the main parties?

John Curtice says: "On average Labour's vote is going down in local government by-elections by about 12 points, as compared with May 2012. That's in line with what you'd expect from the opinion polls, and therefore it looks as though Labour is going to lose very heavily indeed.

"Conversely, the SNP, having done rather disappointingly in May 2012, have clearly been making progress in local government by-elections.

"Although one should say, that progress seems to have been somewhat scaled back in the most recent by-elections, where we're beginning to also see evidence of the Conservative Party - which is of course revived in the last 12 months and managed to come second in the Holyrood elections - that's beginning to become evident in by-elections.

"So we may well see the Conservatives actually outpoll Labour in these elections. Now that would frankly be another disaster for Labour, and as it were the last notch of the Labour Party having much say in government in Scotland effectively disappearing."


How could the voting system affect the results?

Scotland's local authority elections use the single transferrable vote (STV) system, a form of proportional representation which has historically resulted in a lot of councils run by coalitions.

Prof Richard Kerley, of Queen Margaret University, says: "We already have a lot of councils with no overall control.

"It's worth bearing in mind that these elections are not carried out on the same basis as Westminster or the Holyrood parliament. People have a preferential vote, they have three or four councillors to elect in each of the larger wards and we know that can produce results that aren't always directly related to the opinion poll figures.

"If you look through the array of councils we have at the moment, there is a real mixed picture across the country of different arrangements. Labour-SNP, SNP-Conservative, Labour-Conservative, Labour-Independent, SNP-Liberal Democrat."


Could the results affect the services councils deliver?

Richard Kerley says: "In terms of the overall level of what different councils do, I would not anticipate there would be a great change in the mix of services. Councils have to do certain things, and what they have to do is increasingly constrained by central government.

"I wouldn't be looking at dramatic change. There would clearly be some policy change and programme change in some areas, if there were a shift to majority councils, but my expectation is there could be an even greater number of mixed-control councils."


Is 'voter fatigue' likely to be an issue?

Scotland has just been to the polls five times in three years, with European Parliament, Westminster and Holyrood elections adding to the Brexit and independence referendums. Turnout ranged from 33.5% in the 2014 EU election to 84.6% in the independence referendum later the same year, and back down to 55.6% for 2016's Holyrood elections.

John Curtice says: "Certainly turnout in the last local government elections was around the 40% mark, even though they are done by proportional representation it doesn't seem to do that much to encourage voters to the polls.

"Yes, in truth turnout is likely to be low. But remember, it tends to be even lower in local government by-elections, which we are using as a guide to what is going to happen - and to that extent I think they are the best guide as to what's likely to happen."


Will the SNP's recent electoral dominance continue?

John Curtices says: "If Scotland as a whole swings anything like in line with what has been happening in by-elections, we are talking about the SNP being in overall control, despite the use of proportional representation, of up to a dozen councils.

"It is in effect the one bit of the Scottish government firmament that they don't have control of - they dominate Scotland's representation at Westminster, they are the largest party at Holyrood, but in local government they are much weaker.

"They could end up running much more of Scotland's local government, they are likely to be the largest party in all our largest cities."


Could this affect how the SNP government treats councils?

John Curtice says: "Perhaps that will change the relationship between local and central government in Scotland.

"Hitherto, the Scottish government has been able to say to local government, we want you to do this, we want you to do that, in the knowledge that they don't have that many friends in local government in Scotland.

"If local government is primarily being run by the SNP, then cutting for example funding to local government is going to become more difficult for the Scottish government, because friends inside their own party are going to say, 'up with this we are not willing to put'."

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