Labour in for a bigger thumping in Scottish Local Elections 2017 than polls suggest

The Labour Party are likely to suffer a bigger defeat in terms of seat losses than their drop in vote share. Under the Single Transferable Vote system if multiple candidates are on the ballot paper, then they split the vote. If there are more candidates on the ballot paper than is warranted by level of support (and number of candidates is greater than one), then too many candidates can result in less seats won. Recent opinion polls suggests Labour’s support is around half the level of 2012, yet in the councils where they are currently well represented, candidate numbers are about the same as existing Councillors, with multiple candidates in many wards. The Labour Party will suffer because they were not sufficiently ruthless in the face of cu

For local council elections Scotland adopted the Single Transferable Vote system in 2004. This May sees the third set of elections using the new system, the others being in 2007 and 2012. Under this system the local wards have a number of seats available. Just over half of wards have three council seats, with the rest having four council seats. But the majority of seats are in wards with four seats. There are up to five main parties (SNP, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Greens) and Independents fighting for those seats. The problem with trying to win a majority on a council is that the Party must try to win at more than one seats in every ward. But each voter only gets one vote, so multiple candidates of each party are competing for first preference votes with each other as well as candidates from other parties. If a Party believes that support is low in the area then they put forward just one candidate. If support is well over half of the electorate, then the Party might put forward three candidates, knowing that at least two candidates are likely to get elected. If the Party gets this wrong, and fields too many candidates, then its vote will be split. Most commonly fielding two candidates instead of one is a gamble. If got wrong the Party could either end up with either no seats instead of one. or one instead of two. This means a realistic prediction is necessary to optimize the number of seats. Elections Scotland has now published a candidate list for the forthcoming May elections. I have summarized the candidates per ward in figure 1.

The top section is a count wards where there a particular number of candidates. For instance in 27 wards the SNP have 3 candidates. The Green Party only has 1 candidate in each of 218 wards.

The middle section has the maximum council seats that a party can win, and the percentage of the 1223 council seats in Scotland. For the Independents the maximum seats is based on the assumption of only 3 seats per ward. Allowing for four or more candidates in four seats wards would make the theoretical maximum slightly higher.

The lower section gives the number of wards out of 354 with candidates and without candidates.

The results are surprising at first, particularly for the SNP who in the Scottish Parliament elections 2016 won 48.8% (63/126) of the seats, yet can win 51.3% of the seats available. Even allowing for about 14% of the vote in Local Elections going to Independents (source : Table 6  Lincoln Report on Report on Scottish Council Elections 2012) this appears to lack ambition. But comparison of the candidates to seats gained last time and position in the opinion polls in Figure 2 clarifies where the big anomalies lie.

The lower section of Figure 1 has been replaced by two more sections in Figure 2.

First is the seats won 2012 and the ratio of the maximum seats that can be won (identical to the number of candidates for the Political parties) to those seats won. In 2012 the SNP won 425 seats and in 2017 has 627 candidates. It therefore has a maximum seats to 2012 seats ratio of 1.48.

Second is the approximate value of recent opinion polls (less 14% to allow for the Independents)¹ and the ratio of maximum seat share to opinion polls share.

When comparing the figures between the parties the Liberal Democrats and the Greens do not really figure in the issue of having too many candidates. The comparison is between the three major parties.  It is here that the Labour Party clearly stands out. They have only got 15% more candidates standing in the local elections than Councillors elected in 2012. But, based on current opinion polls they have far more candidates standing as opinion poll ratings would suggest is ideal to optimize seat wins. The MSS / Polls ratio is partly exaggerated by the very low standing in the polls. But given that standing they should be adopting a similar strategy to the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. That is to only field more than one candidate in a ward where there is a reasonable expectation that the additional candidates will not compete against each other and lose seats. So why has Labour decided not defy the realities of the voting system? A strong reason is suggested in Figure 3.

In Figure 3 I have selected the 16 councils where Labour have (a) Candidates for at least a third of the seats available & (b) At least 10 Candidates. This is half the 32 councils in Scotland, but with 75% of Labour Council Candidates in 2017 and 82% of the seats Labour won in 2012. Numbers of candidates by council for the elections in May 2017 are compared with the seats won in 2012.

The number of candidates closely matches the seats won in 2012. This shows an expectation of winning significantly less seats in 2017 compared to 2012. However, it does suggest the reasons for adopting this strategy could be

  1. To promote the idea that Labour can still be the major party on the council, and be capable of a majority on 7 of these councils. This is especially important for Glasgow and North Lanarkshire, where Labour are currently in the majority.
  2. To help prevent second preferences being given to other parties.

However, if the Labour share of the vote on May 3rd is well below the 31.4% achieved in the local elections 2012, I predict the policy of aligning 2017 candidate numbers to seats held will result in a percentage of seats won will be significantly below the vote share. It is in those councils where Labour are currently strongest, the this disparity will be the widest. Top of the list of failures is likely to be North Ayrshire Council, where there are 17 candidates against 10 seats being defended. 

 Kevin Marshall

 

 

Notes

  1. I have assumed for General Election polling SNP 47%, Labour 15%, Conservatives 25%, Lib-Dem 6% and Green 4%. From the University of Strathclyde Scottish Opinion Poll Tracker the latest poll is for March 17. The figures are SNP 47%, Labour 14%, Conservatives 28%, and Lib-Dem 4%. Using these figures would make the Labour Candidate numbers even more out of line with the SNP or the Conservatives.

 

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5 Comments

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