This was the election which was supposed to establish the SNP as Scotland’s new national party, replacing Labour as the default party of choice for Scottish voters. This was also the election which was expected show that last year’s extraordinary Scottish Parliament result was not a one-off and that the SNP could push on and defeat Labour in its town hall heartlands too.
But none of this has happened. Not all the results are in from Scotland’s councils yet but the overall picture is already clear. Labour has recovered from last year’s Scottish Parliament shocker and halted the SNP momentum — at least in its core key urban areas of west and central Scotland.
The SNP has not had a bad election: Alex Salmond’s party has continued to progress and picked up a couple of east coast councils — Angus and Dundee. But, crucially, it has not managed to take much ground from Labour across the western central belt, only from the Lib Dems.
Both Labour and the SNP have risen but Labour has done the better of the two — particularly given that Labour was expected to suffer at the polls this week at the hands of the SNP. The Tories have lost a few seats, continuing their general and slow slide downwards in Scotland but it is the Liberal Democrats who have suffered the worst. Not only did the Lib Dems lose their council leader in Edinburgh, Jenny Dawe, as their vote collapsed in the capital but one of their candidates in the city was beaten by a joke candidate who dresses as a penguin.
But, as has become the norm in Scotland, this election was a battle between the big two: SNP and Labour. The Nationalists gained Dundee, which was a top target, and they also took Angus. Both these represent good successes but they were tempered by the SNP’s failure to make the crucial last step to power in a number of other councils. In Perth and Kinross, the SNP needed just three seats to take control but didn’t manage to win any new seats this time round. In South Ayrshire, the SNP lost one seat and Labour picked up three. In Clackmannanshire, Labour won an extra seat while the SNP didn’t. Labour and the SNP both saw their votes go up but Labour seemed to do better in the marginal councils which both thought they could gain.
What appears to have happened is that Labour has managed to take more of that collapsing Lib Dem vote than the SNP. This has allowed Labour to consolidate its position in those areas of Scotland that the SNP was desperate to take. For instance, Labour won enough seats in West Dunbartonshire to take control of the council — a council that used to have no party in overall control. In East Dunbartonshire, Labour won two new seats to match the SNP’s eight seats. Labour also took control in Renfrewshire and overtook the SNP in both Aberdeen (where it won an incredible nine extra seats) and East Lothian.
If one council result summed up the overall picture it was Fife where Labour won 35 seats (up 11) and the SNP won 26 (up four). The Lib Dems were down 11 and the Tories were down one. Nationalists did well — but Labour did better. The Tories didn’t do very well, but the Lib Dems did far, far worse.
The most important councils in Scotland, symbolically and politically, are the ones running the big cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Edinburgh used to be run by the Lib Dems and the SNP, Glasgow by Labour. In a sign of Labour’s new-found dominance, the party is now the biggest party in Edinburgh and (before the final results were in) was heading towards an overall majority in Glasgow.
And, with a system of proportional representation being used, this is not just hard to achieve but represents a vital boost for Labour in Scotland, a party which has been on its knees since last year’s Holyrood elections.
As it is, Mr Salmond is still on the march but Labour leaders have shown that — at least in its traditional heartlands — a fightback has started at last.