A guest today from Dan Phillips. Dan’s a press photographer by trade but a political obsessive at heart. A small ‘l’ liberal, he blogs at liberalsellout.wordpress.com. The blog has taken to dissecting the local elections in Edinburgh of late and this is his latest post in this vein.

If you had ‘broken’ an electoral system thanks to your unprecedented popularity, you’d have a spring in your step too. Just as in the rest of the country, the SNP have high expectations in Edinburgh.

The overflowing confidence brought by May 2011 has led the SNP to field more candidates than any other party in Edinburgh – 26 in all. That may also be why their leader Steve Cardownie felt he could declare that “the Greens are submitting this motion now because they won’t be here after May” as he and the Lib Dems slapped down their motion for a public petitions system.

You cannot blame the Nats for this confidence. And having been cautious in 2007 by only standing one candidate in each ward, net gains are the only probable outcome. In fact the Lib Dems owe many of their seats in Edinburgh to nationalist hesitancy in 2007: in Portobello the SNP’s Bridgman was elected in the first round with 1000 votes spare, whilst the Lib Dems scraped in on the fourteenth round, not even making the quota.

But there’s an interesting characteristic to the SNP vote. Those 1,000 votes in Portobello largely didn’t transfer, and that pattern is repeated across Edinburgh. If you take the four wards where the SNP and the SNP alone won in the first round it’s possible to determine the political peccadillos of the nationalist voter. There’s over 10,000 in the sample, not a bad survey:

With over half not transferring this confirms what is known from the “both votes SNP” Parliament campaign. Those that vote with the cause are really quite attached. And with the Nats standing two candidates in nine wards this will further choke the transfers other parties may hope for.

And by translating those May 2011 parliament gains whilst also using 2007 as a measure for their safest seats, the SNP have, in Cardownie’s words, ‘used an almost scientific’ approach. They won’t get both elected in all of these wards, but they don’t in my view also risk electing none in Leith, Leith Walk, Craigentinny, Portobello, Liberton, Sighthill or Forth. Where this strategy does make some risks is in both Inverleith and Drum Brae/Gyle. They may have won Edinburgh Western last year, but only just.

But as we all know, people vote differently in different elections. And with a low turnout expected, it could even be different people voting entirely. There’s also very different factors at play. It’s not ‘Salmond for First Minister’, it’s ‘Cardownie for Council’. That soft Lib Dem vote that fell into the warm cuddly Alex embrace doesn’t have the same incentive to vote for them this time as the council has been ‘run’ by a Lib Dem-SNP Coalition. Will they even vote at all?

Of course 26 does not a majority make. If they elected all of them they’d still be 4 short. And given that many of those gains will be made at the expense of the Lib Dems, will the unhappy relationship at the heart of the current coalition really stand the strain?

Therein lies the problem for our nationalist pals. If the Lib Dems shrivel to a shell of councillors they won’t be able to bridge the majority gap even if they wanted to. The mocking of the Greens appear to make them a no-go for the Edinburgh SNP, leaving them with either the Tories or Labour. Having only just backed the living wage getting into bed with the only party definitely opposed to it would be perverse when Labour are there. Perhaps that is why Cardownie said to the Edinburgh Evening News that “the other [option] is to operate as a minority administration and proceed policy by policy with the support of different parties at different times”. Should a victorious SNP be able to repeat Salmond’s 07-11 government and navigate minority adminstration via concession this could be more stable than a hopelessly divided coalition. If, however, they don’t prove to be as shrewd as their Holyrood counterparts, they may find themselves in office but not in power.