2018 in Review: Council By-Elections

A year is a long time in politics, and 2018 has felt longer than many as Brexit rumbled on, and on, and on… and on. But local politics doesn’t stop for big national or international issues, and this was a reasonably busy year for council by-elections. We had 10 of them across Scotland, stretching from the Borders right up to almost the very top of the Highlands. I’ve covered each of them in detail and as the year finishes up, it seems an appropriate time to look back over them as a whole.

To begin with, let’s be clear about what this post and the figures in it are not – they are not nationally representative. Local issues and local personalities can make a big splash. That’s why big swings in a ward that elected independents in 2017 doesn’t necessarily mean surges in support for the parties benefiting – it could be the “natural” partisan spread which was disrupted by a popular independent.

Beyond that no matter how they were distributed, 10 out of 354 wards is never going to accurately capture national opinion. Of the 10, 5 could be classified as rural, 4 as small town (town or cluster of towns less than 20k population) and only 1 as a large town (above 20k) – but at least half of Scotland’s population lives in and around large towns and cities.

Another major point is that, particularly in terms of “gains”, STV is a more complex game than First Past the Post. The party that caused the vacancy isn’t necessarily the “winner” from 2017 – for example, both Highland by-elections arose by vacancy of the last councillor elected. It’s rather different to “gain” a seat from a party that won 40% of the vote and came first overall in 2017, than to “gain” from a party that won 15% of the vote and won the last seat in 2017. I’ve therefore tracked both who caused the vacancy and who would have been the 2017 winner for a single councillor.

Gain vs Caused Vacancy
Gain vs 2017 Single Councillor Winner

So comparing against the cause of vacancy (what is commonly reported by others as a simple “gain”) will give us the actual change in the number of councillors as a result of these 10 by-elections;

  • SNP – Defending 3, held 2, gained 2, lost 1 (Net +1)
  • Conservative – Defending 3, held 2, gained 1, lost 1 (Net nc)
  • Labour – Defending 3, held 1, lost 2 (Net -2)
  • Lib Dem – Defending 1, gained 1, lost 1 (Net nc)
  • Independents – Defending 0, gained 1 (Net +1)

But comparing against the re-calculated 2017 winner for a single seat will give us a better idea of the actual voting shifts across the 10;

  • SNP – Defending 3, held 2, gained 2, lost 1 (Net +1)
  • Conservative – Defending 4, held 3, lost 1 (Net -1)
  • Labour – Defending 1, gained 1, lost 1 (Net nc)
  • Lib Dem – Defending 0, gained 1 (Net +1)
  • Independents – Defending 2, gained 1, lost 2 (Net -1)

Obviously independents aren’t really “defending” in the sense that it was different independent candidates, it’s just for consistency in how data is presented. What looks like quite a bruising year for Labour isn’t actually so poor when you take into consideration things like their Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay “defence” being on the basis of 17% of first preferences in 2017. That very seat is what tips the Conservatives into a net loss by this measure, as they were expected to (and did) win it, but missed out on the Selkirkshire ward they were defending from 1st.

What about the result in terms of votes?

  • Conservative – 32.6% (+4.9)
  • SNP – 32.1% (+0.8)
  • Labour – 14.2% (+0.2)
  • Independents – 11.2% (-5.5)
  • Lib Dem – 4.9% (nc)
  • Green – 4.7% (+0.3)
  • Others – 0.3% (-0.7)

Since not every party contested every ward in either 2017 or this year’s by-elections, it’s also worth looking at how each party did just across the wards it contested both years (the swing figures will not sum to 100%);

  • Conservative, 10 wards – 32.6% (+4.9)
  • SNP, 10 wards – 32.1% (+0.8)
  • Labour, 7 wards – 18.5% (+1.1)
  • Independents, 6 wards – 17.6% (-5.4)
  • Lib Dem, 6 wards – 8.2% (+1.5)
  • Green, 8 wards – 5.3% (+0.1)

So overall it would appear pretty much everyone, particularly the Conservatives, gained at the expense of independents and minor parties by both measures.

That helps emphasise both points I made earlier; firstly, that quite a few votes are redistributing not necessarily on the basis of changed minds but instead changed ballot papers. If Jane McBloggs, popular and hardworking local Independent Councillor isn’t on the ballot again by virtue of still being a councillor, her votes have to go somewhere.

Secondly, the heavily rural and small town character of these by-elections gives the Conservatives a leg up in that headline figure as well. Although they did undeniably well to increase their vote in all but one of these by-elections, for Coatbridge South (the only large town by-election), they only came in at 15%. Had there been by-elections in places like Inverclyde, Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, or Dundee, we’d have seen more results like that, counterbalanced by much better results for Labour.

Bear in mind too that the Conservatives tend to do better in postal votes due to the age profile of people who vote by post, and that those voters are more likely to turn out for by-elections. That adds another little bit of advantage for them. I know I’m really laying this on, but it’s important to keep all of these things in mind.

If we’d had a year of by-elections across major urban centres, at this point I could well have been cautioning against reading the results as evidence of the Conservatives sliding to Labour’s benefit. Likewise if half of Northeast Fife resigned, the ensuing Liberal Democrat wave there wouldn’t indicate an orange tsunami about the engulf the nation.

Part of what I’m trying to do in this project – somewhat futilely I’ll admit, because it’s hard getting folk to hold still on social media – is drill the message of regional and local Scotland into people’s heads. This is politically diverse country, and it isn’t wise to try and craft council by-election results into overarching national narratives, or to assume that national trends hold true locally.

In a conclusion sure to satisfy no-one, every party can find something to be pleased about in their by-election performances this year – they might just have to gloss over various complexities. That may be it for my coverage of councils in 2018, but the review of the year will continue later this week with a look at Scottish Parliament polling!

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