Scottish Labour has become the closest challenger to Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP after the Scottish Conservatives plunged to their worst electoral result in a decade.
Labour enjoyed an unexpected win in West Dunbartonshire, taking overall control of the council, and won a swathe of seats elsewhere as it took the second largest share of the vote overall.
In another surprise, it fell one seat short of beating the SNP in Glasgow, Sturgeon’s home city, raising the prospect that the SNP may form a formal coalition there with the Greens.
Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, said: “This is the first positive and cheerful day for the Scottish Labour party [after 10 years of defeats] and I’m very confident by the end of the day we’ll be in comfortable second place in Scotland. Our eyes are now firmly set on the SNP.”
The results triggered sharp recriminations among Scottish Tories, who found themselves relegated to third as voters punished them over Partygate by abstaining or switching their support.
Embarrassed by defeats in wealthy areas such as Edinburgh and East Renfrewshire, the Tories enjoyed a rare glimmer of success in the Scottish leader Douglas Ross’s home area of Moray in north-east Scotland, gaining three seats.
Ross said: “It’s been a difficult night and in some areas it has been very disappointing. In too many parts of Scotland we’ve lost excellent candidates.”
He said the Partygate scandal and the cost of living crisis had dominated conversations with voters. “There’s absolutely no doubt that people have sent a message to the prime minister and the government, particularly around Partygate. That’s absolutely clear.”
The SNP remained dominant, winning control of Dundee by a single seat after five years in minority government, and taking 454 of the 1,227 seats available across Scotland, up 23 on the results in 2017.
Labour won 282 seats, up 20; the Tories lost 63 seats, falling to 214; the Liberal Democrats won 20 more seats, largely at Tory expense, taking them to 87, while the Scottish Greens recorded their best council elections result, winning 35 seats overall.
Sturgeon, the first minister and SNP leader, said her party was the “clear, emphatic” winner. Voters “trust the SNP and have faith in the SNP to lead the country forward at national and, crucially, at local level,” she said.
But Sturgeon endured a few moments of anxiety as the Scottish Greens, the SNP’s partners at Holyrood, enjoyed a surge of support in city and rural elections.
In Glasgow, the first signal that the SNP was in difficulty came when its group leader, Susan Aitken, was unexpectedly beaten in her ward on first preferences by a Scottish Green candidate, Holly Bruce. Aitken held her seat after second-preference votes were counted.
Across Scotland, the SNP remained the largest party in numerous authorities, including Perth and Kinross, Edinburgh, Stirling, and Angus, where the Tories shed seats. In Fife, the SNP gained five seats and the Lib Dems gained five, at the expense of Labour who lost four and the Tories who lost six.
The Greens were in buoyant mood after gaining their first seats on several councils including Shetland, East Lothian and Scottish Borders, and increasing their tallies in areas including Orkney and Highlands.
Party strategists believe they are reaping the benefits of their power-sharing deal with the SNP after last May’s Holyrood elections, which has made it easier to convince voters that a first preference for the Greens will not be wasted. In Glasgow, newly elected Greens included the city’s first trans councillor, Elaine Gallagher.
The elections were disastrous for Alex Salmond’s breakaway nationalist party Alba, as it failed to hold either of its two council seats and won only a smattering of votes elsewhere in its second electoral test. Despite fielding 111 candidates, it failed to make a single breakthrough.
Alba’s general secretary, Chris McEleny, who defected from the SNP, lost his Inverclyde council seat, receiving 126 votes. Another Alba candidate in Inverclyde, who had been elected for the SNP in the last election, also lost his seat. Both seats were regained by SNP candidates.
Labour’s victory in West Dunbartonshire, where it took 12 of 22 seats, has added significance because the proportional representation voting system used in Scottish council elections rarely allows one party to win an overall majority.
In the 2017 election, no party had overall control in any of Scotland’s 32 local authorities. Scotland’s three island authorities, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, are also dominated by unaligned independent councillors and so have no single party in power.
The Western Isles – Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in Gaelic – had the most significant developments of the island authorities when its unwelcome status as Scotland’s only all-male council ended with the election of two women, Frances Murray and Susan Thomson, both for the SNP.
Voters in North Uist elected the Western Isles’ first minority ethnic councillor, Mustapha Hocine, a popular Algerian-born teacher.
Eight women stood for election after a concerted campaign by the council and equalities activists to improve gender diversity. Catrìona Murray, a community activist who failed to win a seat, said the council and community still had a great deal of work to do to improve diversity.
She said the low proportion of female councillors would continue to dog the council and needed to be addressed. “I just don’t like the image it gives people of the Western Isles. It’s a mistaken image because women are electable,” she said.