YET again a set of local elections has served up a curate’s egg for the SNP – the results have been very good in some parts of the country and mildly disappointing in others.

But the crucial difference between now and five years ago is that, on this occasion, the good results have sufficiently outweighed the bad to ensure that Nicola Sturgeon can point to unambiguous net progress in terms of both vote share and seats. That progress is modest, and it falls short of opinion poll projections, but that shouldn’t be any great surprise given the past history in local elections of the SNP proving unable to quite match their poll ratings.

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What matters far more is that they have crept up to a new all-time high watermark in any local vote. That achievement should be enough to avert any repeat of the aftermath of the 2017 elections, when a media narrative quickly developed that voters had backlashed against the prospect of an independence referendum.

It must also be remembered that the SNP’s gains don’t tell the full story of the boost for the broader pro-independence camp because there is now much stiffer competition for the votes of Yes supporters than we’ve seen in previous years. The Greens secured impressive gains of their own, while the Alba Party made their local election debut and took a non-trivial number of first preference votes that in past elections would have mostly gone to the SNP.

Nevertheless, the gloss could have come off the results if just one more seat had changed hands in Glasgow, enabling Labour to resume their previously traditional status as the city’s largest party.

In truth, the result in any individual council shouldn’t be seen as bigger than the national picture and SNP leadership of Glasgow council may not have been under any real threat anyway. That’s because a deal with the Greens could have comfortably kept the current administration in place even if Labour had edged back into top spot. But a Labour “victory” in Scotland’s biggest council would have been psychologically important and undoubtedly would have dominated the headlines, so the SNP can regard themselves as having narrowly dodged a rather enormous bullet.

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There obviously is some cause for concern that there has been a significant SNP-to-Labour swing in Glasgow since 2017. Particularly bearing in mind that even the 2017 results proved enough of a springboard for Labour to unexpectedly reclaim one of the city’s Westminster seats in the following month’s general election, and to come remarkably close to winning some of the others.

However, the near-parity that now exists on Glasgow council between SNP and Labour may not be all that it seems. The Greens claimed some truly astonishing vote shares in a number of Glasgow wards, suggesting that the real tale is of an intra-Yes swing from SNP to Green which benefited Labour indirectly. Many, although admittedly not all, of the new Green voters can probably be expected to return to the SNP fold in future first-past-the-post elections where there is perceived to be a straight choice between SNP and Labour. The SNP’s underlying advantage in Glasgow may thus still be largely intact.

It’s notable that in the absence of a similarly large Green surge in neighbouring councils, Labour mostly failed to gain the same type of ground on the SNP. In North Lanarkshire Council, for example, the one-seat SNP advantage in 2017 has actually increased to four seats, meaning that it will be more challenging for Labour this time to retain power from second place. Especially now that their unholy allies in the Tory group have seen their numbers cut in half.

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A new landmark has been reached in the steady decline of the Tories from their peak under Ruth Davidson because for the first time in many years they’ve slipped back into third place. It’s no coincidence that some of the biggest increases in the SNP’s vote share were seen in Angus – a traditional SNP stronghold which swung heavily to the Tories under Davidson but had already decisively returned to the SNP fold in the 2019 Westminster election.

Kirstene Hair’s two-year tenure as Conservative MP for Angus looks like a decidedly odd historical aberration in retrospect. The picture is very different in the parts of the north-east where the Tories managed to remain competitive in the 2019 and 2021 parliamentary elections – indeed, in Aberdeenshire the Tories have actually increased their small advantage over the SNP by making a net gain of three seats.

Labour had probably hoped to use their long-dreamt-of return to second place to portray themselves as the true “winners” of this election. However, that’s been largely stymied by their narrow failure in Glasgow, and more importantly by the fact that they made slightly fewer seat gains across Scotland than the SNP or even the LibDems.

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At one point it looked like they would at least be able to claim the bragging rights of being the only party to beat the proportional voting system by taking outright control of a council, due to their unexpected majority in West Dunbartonshire. Ironically, this one of only four council areas that voted Yes in the 2014 independence referendum. But that feat was later matched when the SNP conjured up the very small boost in Dundee required to win a majority there.

It remains the case, however, that the SNP would probably prefer to be able to continue to present voters with a straight choice between independence and Tory rule. Any sort of Labour recovery may complicate that message somewhat, especially now that Labour have also opened up a modest but clear lead south of the Border.

The Alba Party had dual aims in this election. By putting up candidates in approximately one-third of wards they sought to establish that they had a respectable level of support across large swathes of Scotland. They also hoped for big localised spikes of support in a limited number of wards where they had high-profile candidates standing, and thus to gain the credibility of actually having a few councillors elected for the first time under the Alba banner.

The first objective was largely achieved – the typical vote share in the wards where they stood was perfectly creditable. However, no incumbent councillor or other well-known candidate was able to deliver a personal vote sizeable enough to grab a seat. Even in local elections it appears that most voters back a party brand rather than a candidate.

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With the benefit of hindsight Alba members may wonder whether the focus should not have been on what seems to have been the long shot of winning seats instead on maximising the party’s national vote share by running in the bulk of wards across the country. Even if that meant putting up so-called paper candidates.

Or, at the other extreme, there could have been a decision to give total priority to getting at least one or two councillors elected somewhere in Scotland, perhaps by having huge names like Alex Salmond or Tommy Sheridan stand as candidates and devoting the bulk of the party’s resources to their campaigns. But that would have been a very high-risk strategy.

There will undoubtedly now be speculation in some quarters that this second disappointing election for Alba will lead to the party’s demise. That outcome seems highly unlikely, however.

Although some new parties fizzle out very quickly, and although that often appears to happen simply as a result of poor election results, there are in fact always other factors at play. For example, Change UK’s flop at the 2019 European elections only led to the break-up of the party because the likes of Chuka Umunna had a very obvious alternative home to turn to in the shape of the LibDems.

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As things stand, there is no party of significant size that Alba members could join without abandoning their core principles, namely greater urgency on independence and gender-critical feminism. That could theoretically change one day if someone like Joanna Cherry becomes SNP leader, but until and unless that happens, Alba will almost certainly fight on, in much the same way that the Greens did in the years before they had any electoral representation.

Lastly, and by all means least, credit where it’s due must be grudgingly given to the LibDems – they were, surprisingly, the biggest gainers in the English local elections, and they weren’t all that far from repeating the same feat in Scotland.

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Their traditional relentless focus on local issues, no matter how mundane, seems to have paid dividends. They probably also benefited from being one of the parties most attractive for voters’ second, third or fourth preferences.

A good number of pro-independence voters genuinely seem not to have noticed that the LibDems are just as hardline on the constitution as the Tories and regard Alex Cole-Hamilton’s party as a safe, middle-of-the-road repository for a lower preference vote.

It remains to be seen, however, whether this is just a fleeting gap in the clouds or whether it’s a turning point that will finally see the LibDems start to make a recovery from their disastrous decision to enter government in coalition with the Tories 12 years ago.