Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives made sweeping gains across Scotland yesterday in a local government election that saw the SNP emerge as Scotland’s largest party and Labour slump dramatically.
Nicola Sturgeon hailed the SNP’s victory as “clear and emphatic” after a contest that was notable for a remarkable Tory surge ahead of next month’s general election as the party profited from the anti-independence referendum vote.
The result now sets up a Westminster poll on 8 June in which independence will be the number one issue, with voters casting ballots according to their view on Scotland’s constitutional future. A miserable day for Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale saw her party lose its traditional power-base of Glasgow City Council for the first time in almost four decades and fall behind the Conservatives.
The SNP maintained its position as the largest party in local government as it returned 431 councillors, a slight increase on the 425 returned in 2012.
But the most progress was made by the Conservatives who more than doubled their councillors to 276, a result that will act as a major morale booster with the UK due to go to the polls in a general election in less than five weeks time.
Labour, which once dominated Scottish municipal politics, returned 262 councillors in a result that was a dramatic fall from the 394 seats won five years ago and which does not bode well for the party as it defends its solitary Scottish seat in next month’s Westminster poll.
A total of 172 independent councillors were elected, along with 67 Liberal Democrats and 19 Greens.
Last night Ms Davidson claimed it was “crystal clear” that only the Scottish Conservatives were capable of standing up to the SNP.
“We have gained seats in councils all over Scotland today. We are now in a position to lead Scotland’s fight back on June 8 in the general election too,” Ms Davidson said.
“We will speak up for the millions of Scots who have had enough of the uncertainty and division of the last few years. We will stand up for everyone who doesn’t want a second referendum on independence.
“We will demand that politicians of all parties focus instead on the things that matter: restoring excellence to Scotland’s schools, and getting our economy back to health.
“As we turn to the election on June 8, we know Nicola Sturgeon is still refusing to listen – only last week she said independence would be at the ‘heart’ of the general election campaign.”
She added: “If you want to send the SNP a message, then today’s result shows that, no matter where you live in Scotland, a vote for the Scottish Conservatives will ensure your voice is heard loud and clear.”
Despite emerging as the largest party, the SNP was not in a position to win an outright majority in any of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.
In many local authorities across the country rival politicians will be engaged in wheeling and dealing as they attempt to do deals that will enable them to run their councils.
Although the SNP managed to replace Labour as the largest party in Glasgow, the Nationalists’ hopes of taking overall control of the city were not realised.
The SNP returned 39 councillors, four short of the 43 required for a majority.
The SNP lost its majorities in its strongholds of Dundee and Angus but was out in front in Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
Ms Sturgeon claimed it was a “fantastic” result for the SNP. “The SNP has won the election in Scotland and won it loud and clear,” the SNP leader said.
“Thanks to the support of people across the country, the SNP has secured the largest number of councillors, the highest share of the vote - with an increase on the last result in 2012 and is the largest party in the most council areas.”
The SNP leader claimed the election would act as a “springboard” for the SNP as it heads towards the general election.
“Results across the UK show that now more than ever, Scotland needs strong SNP voices to stand up to a Tory government that is set to impose more cuts and put thousands of jobs at risk,” she said.
“It is clear from these results that the only party who can be that strong opposition to the Tories – in Scotland and across the UK – is the SNP.
“Where Labour let Scotland down by losing so many seats to the Tories, the SNP showed that the Tories cannot take Scotland’s votes for granted.”
When asked if a greater proportion of the Scottish public voting for pro-Union parties next month would alter her view that another independence referendum should be held, Ms Sturgeon told the BBC that it wouldn’t.
Ms Sturgeon has argued that the result of last year’s Scottish election and a Holyrood vote in favour of another referendum has given her a mandate for asking the independence question again.
Ms Dugdale claimed the swing to the Conservatives was down to anti-independence voters flocking to them at Labour’s expense.
Speaking on the BBC News Channel she attempted to put on a brave face saying the results were “disappointing” but “not particularly a surprise”.
“The polls have consistently shown Labour around 15 per cent. The reality, though, is we’re topping the tables in at least four areas across the country – Inverclyde, East Lothian, Midlothian, North Ayrshire.
“In fact across many of our towns and cities across Scotland, it’s Labour who are the strong opposition to the SNP.”