Analysis: Local focus alters big picture

RARELY can so much have depended on the outcome of an election about which so little is known.

RARELY can so much have depended on the outcome of an election about which so little is known.

Voters in Scotland go to the polls on Thursday to elect all 32 councils. It is the biggest test of Scotland’s political temperature since the Scottish National Party won its dramatic victory 12 months ago and set the country on a path towards an independence referendum.

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If the SNP can repeat last year’s success at a local level Salmond will feel emboldened as he approaches the task of reaching an acceptable accommodation with the UK government about the terms and conditions of that referendum.

If on the other hand, it appears that the Nationalists have fallen back, the Unionist parties could well conclude that the Nationalist gale is beginning to blow itself out, and the UK government could then opt to take a tough stance in those crucial referendum negotiations.

Yet which scenario will transpire is far from clear. This is the first time since the advent of devolution that local elections have not been held on the same day as a Scottish Parliament election. When they were on the same day, the relative standing of the parties in the local elections proved to be much the same as in the contemporaneous Holyrood contest.

But now the elections have been “decoupled” we cannot be sure the local results will reflect the current popularity of the parties at Holyrood. Maybe some voters at least will revert to their Westminster sympathies. If so, it will be the SNP that loses out. Even if most voters vote in the same way as they would in a Holyrood contest held now, it is far from certain that means the SNP will do as well as a year ago. The last poll of Holyrood support was taken as much as two months ago. Moreover, though little noticed at the time, it showed SNP support at just 40 per cent, five points below their tally last year.

Such a performance would still mean SNP gains – because the seats up for grabs were last fought in 2007 when the Nationalists only narrowly edged Labour out of first place. But it would not be enough to enable the Nationalists to seize the prize they want above all to claim on Thursday – winning overall control of Glasgow.

In truth, the SNP has not done itself any favours in inviting commentators to focus on the city. While Labour may well struggle to win back the overall majority it lost as a result of recent defections, the Nationalists will have to secure an even bigger swing than they managed last year to win this themselves. More likely is a council in which no one party has a majority and in which the Greens are the kingmakers.

Much easier targets for the Nationalists than Glasgow are winning control of Dundee and Perth, while Midlothian and Renfrewshire could be in their sights too. But having reached for the sky, maybe successes such as these will simply seem too close to Earth.

• John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University