Two by-elections in March this year, in somewhat similar places – in small, historically industrial council areas, that once were heavily Labour but have leaned SNP for the past few years.
Not even the Beast from the East could stop democracy – though the Council did ask the Electoral Commission – as some of the most hardy voters in Clackmannanshire North braved the snow to vote on the 1st of March. Following a classic “more time with the family” resignation by SNP councillor Archie Drummond, I reckoned both Labour and the Conservatives were in with a chance of picking up the seat. The SNP certainly had the advantage but weren’t necessarily miles out in front depending on just how preferences would flow between their challengers.
Although everyone else seems to have retreated in the face of a Tory advance (a bit more on that shortly), it was the SNP’s Helen Lewis that won the seat;
SNP 769 (37.0%, -3.3)
Con 658 (31.7%, +7.7)
Lab 493 (23.7%, -3.0)
Lib Dem 84 (4.0%, -1.1)
Green 74 (3.6%, -0.3)
If we look at the last two candidates standing after transfers, and compare with the same point in the count last year;
SNP 980 (47.2%, +5.6)
Con 784 (37.7%, +37.7)
Didn’t Transfer 314 (15.1%, -5.9)
A lot fewer exhausted votes than would have been the case for one councillor last year, almost all of which piled up with the SNP. The Tories may have firmly shunted Labour into third this time, but didn’t prove any more likely to take the seat on transfers.
By the way, when I said “some of the most hardy” earlier I wasn’t kidding. The headline turnout itself is extremely low, but a look at the number of in-person votes emphasises how badly the snow affected turnout. Last May, postal votes accounted for around 21% of the total votes cast in this ward. For this by-election, postals were a whopping 47% of the total. That acted as a further boost for the Conservative’s result in this by-election, as they received 35.4% of postals and 28.3% of in-person votes. I’d always caution against taking one council by-election as indicative of any great national trend; in this case a mere pinch of salt here will do you about as much good as it would have in the snow.
The by-election in Penicuik on the 22nd has been the most interesting I’ve covered so far for a few reasons. Prompted by the passing of Labour councillor Adam Montgomery, it was the first by-election I’ve looked at so far where the “defending” party hadn’t come top in first preferences. It was also the first so far where the party that did come top in first preferences wouldn’t have won the election if it was for a single seat – that would have been Labour! This is the kind of stuff that makes talk of “gains” and so in in STV a lot more complex than it appears on the surface.
That run of “firsts” continued even into the count, as if you look at the above chart you might notice that despite the SNP not making quota, there was no round 4 that eliminated the Conservative and transferred their votes. Most council elections in Scotland are machine counted due to the complexity of STV. Councils can, however, opt to count by hand for by-elections, which is what Midlothian did here. A strict interpretation of electoral law doesn’t seem to require an elimination and transfer to take place when the winner has become clear like above, and therefore it isn’t done in a hand count. In a machine count it’s done automatically by the software as that’s the normal STV process. So unusually for Scotland, no quota-making round 4 here! You learn something new every day.
Anyway, the actual results now;
SNP 1663 (35.0%, -0.2)
Con 1433 (30.2%, +4.0)
Lab 1310 (27.6%, +2.0)
Green 344 (7.2%, +1.5)
The vanishing Lib Dems saw every party except the SNP increase their vote, and just like in Clacks we also saw the Conservatives leapfrog Labour. Looking at that final stage 3 breakdown;
SNP 2237 (47.1%, +7.8)
Con 1788 (37.6%, +37.6)
Didn’t Transfer 725 (15.3%, -3.3)
In this case, the Conservatives were substantially behind where Labour were in an equivalent count last year, whilst the SNP gained quite significantly.
I said above not to read too much into one council by-election, but we can perhaps begin to read into the four we’ve had so far. The SNP, who have won 3 of the 4, are struggling to make quota without the elimination of absolutely every other candidate first, but nonetheless remain far out in front. We may be past “Peak SNP” but we’re certainly not at “Post SNP”. Meanwhile, although the Conservatives prove capable of displacing Labour in terms of first preferences in some of their old heartlands, comparatively few other voters want to transfer their vote to them. The Scottish Tory Revival shows no signs of receding, but it definitely flounders a bit when you’re reliant on the goodwill of everyone else to get you over the finish line.
This month was also notable for the by-election that wasn’t. Missing from Holyrood since his suspension from the SNP over harassment allegations in November, Aberdeen Donside MSP Mark McDonald defied expectations that mounting pressure would force a resignation. He did resign, but only from the party, vowing to stay on as an independent MSP. His constituents could be forgiven for wondering whether he jumped before he was pushed, and what kind of behaviour could be said to be unacceptable for an SNP MSP but fine for an independent. There are still 3 years until the next Scottish Parliament election, so that position may yet prove untenable.