LABOUR revived its hopes of a comeback against the SNP on Friday night, after winning a totemic battle to maintain its hold on Glasgow and scoring a string of victories across the country in council elections.
• Results: SNP 424 (+57); Lab 394 (+58); Cons 115 (-16); Lib Dem 71 (-80); Green 14 (+6); SSP 1; Others 201(-22)
• Labour win majority control of Glasgow
• SNP win majorities in Dundee and Angus
The victory in Glasgow was as convincing as it was surprising. Labour easily beat the Nationalists in Scotland’s largest city, exceeding its own expectations by winning majority control.
Together with an unexpected result in Edinburgh, where Labour beat the SNP to become the largest party, the results provided a massive morale boost for the party which, prior to Thursday, had harboured fears it could be wiped off the map by the SNP, in a repeat of last year’s Holyrood elections.
Johann Lamont, Labour’s Scottish leader, said: “This has been a very good day.”
It was also a good day for the SNP, who now have the most councillors and gained control of two local authorities.
Elsewhere in the UK, Labour made huge gains at the expense the coalition parties. David Cameron was facing unrest within his government, after Conservatives and Liberal Democrats lost hundreds of councillors across England and Wales.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said his party was “winning back the voters’ trust”.
In Scotland, Labour gained overall control of Renfrewshire Council, where SNP local government minister Derek Mackay used to be leader, as well as West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire. Labour also became the biggest party in Aberdeen, although it fell short of an overall majority.
Amid wild scenes of celebration in Glasgow, Ms Lamont claimed the result there showed her party was back on the road. “If last May was a tsunami, today is perhaps the first sign that the tide is going out on Alex Salmond,” she said.
Overall, voters polarised around the SNP and Labour. The SNP took control of Dundee and Angus. By contrast, there was a catastrophic collapse in the Lib Dem vote, epitomised by the failure of former Edinburgh city council leader Jenny Dawe to win a seat. She blamed the troubled trams project in part for her party’s misfortunes in the capital.
Across Scotland, the Lib Dems lost more than half their council seats and were wiped out entirely in councils such as Stirling and Clackmannanshire. It was also a disappointing result for the Scottish Conservatives. But the Greens boosted their tally by nine councillors.
All eyes, however, were on Glasgow where, going into the election, SNP MSPs had predicted victory for the Nationalists. Such a win would have cemented their superiority over Labour in one of its former heartlands, after it snatched seat after seat from Labour in last May’s Holyrood election. An SNP victory would also have provided the party with more momentum ahead of the independence referendum.
However, from the first result in Glasgow, it was clear the SNP had failed to make the crucial breakthrough, and, despite warnings Labour would at the very least have to go to other parties to form a coalition, it won 44 seats to the SNP’s 27.
Even though Labour’s number of seats fell by one, that was well above expectations. Party activists were, on Friday night, putting it down to improved organisation from last year, plus a strong positive message. They also claimed that the independence referendum had counted against the SNP.
Ms Lamont said: “We had a terrible result last year. We said then that we would learn the lessons. We recognised that people had lost faith in us. This is an important stage in the recovery. We had a fantastic, positive campaign focusing on the priorities of people, while the SNP just said they wanted Glasgow to become a stepping stone to independence.”
Glasgow’s Labour leader Gordon Matheson said: “Only yesterday [Thursday], the SNP were declaring victory before a single vote had been counted and now we have the most sensational result in the history of Glasgow city council.”
Labour was further buoyed by the result in Edinburgh where, again against expectations, it beat the SNP into second place, and will now have the right to try to form an administration.
Nonetheless, the SNP managed to win the largest number of seats across the country, and will be able to form majority councils of its own in Dundee and Angus.
With all the counts declared, the SNP had won 424 seats, up 55 on 2007, with Labour on 394, up 57 on the last time.
The numbers allowed Mr Salmond to claim victory. The First Minister said: “I think we can definitely say when all the dust has settled the SNP will have more councillors than any other party in Scotland. In that sense, we have won the election.”
However, other party figures conceded results had been below expectations. Glasgow SNP MSP Humza Yousaf said: “It was a disappointing night for us.”
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the party would make no apologies for setting ambitious targets in saying it wanted to win in Glasgow. “You always go into elections wanting to win. We gave Glasgow our best shot. We were ambitious and we have made progress,” she said.
She denied the SNP had been the victim of its own heightened expectations, given last year’s Holyrood success. “That is politics. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.
While the parties were focusing on the result, the elections showed up further evidence of public disinterest in local government, with figures showing that only one in three voters had bothered to show up. In Glasgow, despite the closeness of the race, turnout was 32 per cent, down from 43 per cent in 2007, when the election was held on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections.
The significance of Labour’s Glasgow and Edinburgh successes will be pored over prior to the referendum, probably in 2014. Labour said it was aware of the problems the party faces, and the lead the SNP has in the national polls, as the party sought to contain its own relief.
Among Lib Dems, there was the task of facing up to another huge reverse in their fortunes. Their total of 56 seats was down 74 on their 2007 result.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “This is a very distressing day. We have lost many, many strong community activists who have stuck up for their area for many long years.”
The fall suffered by the Conservatives was not quite so steep as that faced by the Lib Dems, but the Tories’ return of 115 seats was also down on 2007, in an election which marked the first test at the polls for new leader Ruth Davidson.
She put a brave face on the results and said: “We are now heading towards becoming the third party of local government in Scotland for the first time since 1992.”