Local elections 2022: How are council coalitions worked out and what may happen across Scotland?

As political parties count the cost of another election, the real work of constructing working councils begins at local level.

Scotland’s voting system – single transferable vote – lends itself to coalition working and all but demands parties work together to bring forward policies.

This was a change from the old first past the post system and was brought in after the 2003 election as a key aspect of the deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

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Following Friday’s results, there are only a handful of councils where the overall political make-up is certain.

Dundee, the SNP’s heartland, is controlled by the SNP as a majority administration, while West Dunbartonshire will be controlled by Scottish Labour.

Independents, who dominate in the islands, will also have control of Na h-Eileanan Siar, Orkney and Shetland councils, though it would be wrong to suggest all independent candidates sing from the same political hymn sheet.

How does it work?

Councillors across Scotland will now spend the next few weeks attempting to work out their best route to power, if that is what they choose.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with SNP's Zen Ghani, Roza Salih (second right) and Susan Aitken (right) at the Glasgow City Council count at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, in the local government elections.

While majority leadership is the simplest approach, running a council on a minority basis has also been a popular choice for councils.

Other options include straight coalitions with other parties to reach a majority, or joint leadership agreements such as the one seen in Fife since 2017.

How long can parties take?

There is no time limit on how long local groups can take to agree deals with other parties.

The process can often take weeks, with Edinburgh’s SNP/Labour deal in 2017 agreed after a month of tense negotiations between the two groups.

Often the deals will also need the sign off of the party’s group of councillors and, in some cases, the party’s executive committee before being agreed.

Once a deal is agreed, all the councillors will vote for a Provost or Lord Provost who acts as the ceremonial figurehead of the council, as well as the leader and depute leader of the council, and appoint committee convenors dependent on the council’s structure.

If the council cannot agree on a Provost or vote in favour of a leader, it effectively cannot function.

What was the state of play before the election?

Before the election, the SNP was involved in the leadership of 15 of Scotland’s 32 councils either as a minority administration or in coalition with another party.

Nicola Sturgeon’s party ran Glasgow and Dundee as a minority, as well as leading a minority coalition administration in Edinburgh with Labour.

After the vote, it will now run Dundee as a majority administration, as will Labour with West Dunbartonshire

Labour also ran six minority councils, including East Lothian, West Lothian and Midlothian, Inverclyde and North Lanarkshire.

Conservative councillors ran seven councils, either as a minority administration such as in Perth and Kinross, or in coalition with independents or the Liberal Democrats.

Lib Dems formed part of coalitions in Aberdeenshire, Angus, Argyll and Bute, East Dunbartonshire and Highland councils before the vote on Thursday.

Some parties, particularly the SNP who are the biggest party in 21 of Scotland’s councils, will seek to run minority administrations.

Expect Labour to do the same in East Lothian and Inverclyde, while the Conservatives may choose to do so in Moray.

What are the parties saying?

The SNP has said it will not work with the Conservatives at any level of government, while the Tories have returned the favour to the SNP.

A spokesperson for Scottish Labour reiterated what leader Anas Sarwar told voters before the election, stating “there will not be any formal coalitions with any party.”

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have indicated they are open to coalitions, but leader Alex Cole-Hamilton suggested after the election that it would be difficult for the party to enter agreements with the Conservatives or the SNP.

The Scottish Greens, however, have said parties should “seek out the common ground and try to work together where they can”, adding this would be the approach at local level.

Key councils to watch

Aberdeen

Political drama ruled in Aberdeen in 2017 when the Labour group decided to join forces with the Conservative group, sparking their suspension from the party.

This time, the SNP are much closer to a majority and will look to form an administration with the Liberal Democrats, their ally throughout the years of Labour/Tory rule.

However, if the three unionist parties decide to work together there is also a majority administration to be created, but Labour’s stance on coalitions makes this unlikely.

Edinburgh

Potentially the most interesting council in terms of who may run it.

The Scottish capital’s council is one of the country’s flagships and was controlled by an SNP/Labour minority coalition.

Together, the natural partnership of the SNP and the growing Greens would hit 29 councillors, three short of a majority in the 63-seat council.

Meanwhile, an alliance of Labour, Lib Dem and Green would equal 35 in total, comfortably over a majority.

While Labour leader in the city, Cammy Day, has indicated talks will continue, it is unlikely to see a repeat of the past five years and his hands are tied by his party leader’s stance on formal deals.

A grand unionist alliance of Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour would also hit 34 seats, but would be a struggle for any party to pass internally.

Highland

Run by a combination of independents, Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors, the country’s largest council by size could see a switch to the SNP.

The SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens all saw gains last week at the expense of independent councillors, with the Liberal Democrat gains not enough to secure a majority alongside the remaining independents.

What the independent councillors decide to do and how many of them the SNP – now the largest party – may need depending on Green support could see the council swap hands.

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