Will Ruth Davidson be Apologizing to Voters After the Scottish Local Elections on May 4th?

The Conservatives in Scotland are likely to show large gains in the Scottish local elections next Thursday.  So why should Ruth Davidson end up have to make an apology?

Consider the reasons that are likely to be large gains next week.

First, is that in 2012 the Conservatives did rather badly. They lost 28 seats to 115 seats, less than 10% of the total. In first preference vote share they went down over 2% to 13.3%.

Second is that since the 2015 General Election, when they received 14.9% of the vote – worse than the 2012 local elections with no Independents – the opinion polls have shown a consistent rise in support. By May 2016, the Conservatives achieved 22% of the vote at the constituency level in the Scottish Assembly Elections. By early this year opinion polls are indicating around 25% support.

Third is that support has, if anything, risen further in the last couple of months. Polls conducted since the General election was announced show GE support at 28% (Survation/Sunday Post) and 33% (Panelbase/Sunday Times). Below is a summary from Martin Baxter’s Electoral Calculus Website

On that basis local election vote could be above the 21% of First Preference Votes I used to predict gains of 150 seats. The potential embarrassment lies in the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. Under STV – a basic alternative to proportional representation – very large council wards have three or four Councillors. If a Party wishes to maximize its seats, it must optimize the number of candidates. In a previous post, I looked at the the candidates per ward.

In only 41 wards do the Conservatives have more than one candidate. In optimizing the number of candidates they have assumed that in only a very limited number of wards will they receive more than a third of first preference votes. Much below that and two candidates would end up competing against each other for votes. This is the strategy of a party, with uneven support, who still expects to get less than 20% of the vote. The problem is that is so long since the Conservatives had this level of support they do not know where that support lies. So, retrospectively, the Conservatives will realize that in many wards they could have fielded an extra candidate. This could mean that they fail to become the largest party on a number of councils, due to the prudent approach. Given that the SNP is the strongest party with the most candidates, it is they who will gain from this prudence. Hence the reason that Ruth Davidson could end up apologizing.

If this happens, and the Labour party loses out from fielding too many candidates (through matching the number of seats held in most areas), it could lead to a campaign to abandon the STV system. The SNP will likely stoutly defend a system that seems progressive and benefits them.

Kevin Marshall