2019 In Review – Council By-Elections

With the General Election out of the way and Christmas looming, it’s time for Ballot Box Scotland to neatly wrap up the year’s council by-elections. We had a total of 14 of them across the country this year, though thanks to a rare double-seater they elected 15 new councillors. If last year’s by-elections were too heavily rural to draw much in the way of national conclusions from, then this year’s were overly urban. Per my (somewhat arbitrary) classifications, the wards contested this year were 5 City, 3 Large Town, 3 Medium Town, 2 Semi-Rural and 1 Rural. Bear that in mind when it comes to vote shares.

Another caveat that always comes with council by-elections in Scotland is that thanks to STV, what is a “gain”(/”loss”/”hold”) in terms of actual seats on the council isn’t necessarily one in electoral terms. Those very First Past the Post concepts carry over poorly to the Single Transferable Vote. Therefore I’ll compare both in terms of seats and in terms of notional 2017 winners in each ward. There’s a link in the ward name in the table below to the preview post for that ward which shows the working for those 2017 winners.

One final caveat – Independents. There were a few by-elections this year where folk on social media got very excited about big swings for their party, whilst conveniently glossing over the absence of popular Independent councillors from the ballot. When someone who pulled 15-20% of the vote last time isn’t on the paper (since they’re still a sitting councillor), of course other parties gain votes. How much of the swing is therefore just “natural” partisan balance re-asserting itself and how much is “new” support isn’t easy to determine.

So, if we first look at things in terms of change in councillors (Terminology differs for Independents as they aren’t directly comparable);

  • SNP – Vacated 5, gained 4, held 5 (Net +4)
  • Conservative – Vacated 3, gained 1, held 2, lost 1 (Net nc)
  • Labour – Vacated 3, held 1, lost 2 (Net -2)
  • Independents – Vacated 4, won 2 (Net -2)

Comparing instead with the notional 2017 winner for a single seat;

  • SNP – Defending 7, gained 2, held 7 (Net +2)
  • Conservative – Defending 2, gained 1 (Net +1)
  • Labour – Defending 4, held 1, lost 3 (Net -3)
  • Independents – Expected 2, won 2 (Nec nc)

The SNP will be happy with their performance on both measures, whilst the Conservatives also have cause to be content. Labour on the other hand fare poorly either way, despite the more urban nature of this year’s contests. It’s much the same story for those parties if we then compare the overall votes won across all 14 wards (changes versus the total result in those same wards in 2017);

  • SNP – 37.0% (+3.0)
  • Con – 21.9% (+2.1)
  • Lab – 17.2% (-6.9)
  • Lib Dem – 10.3% (+5.8)
  • Green – 6.6% (+1.3)
  • Independents – 5.6% (-6.4)
  • Others – 1.4% (+1.0)

As per the caveat mentioned up top, we can’t read too much into the big dip for Independents. It’s also difficult to compare exactly because not every party contested all of these by-elections. If we just take directly comparable wards for each party (won’t sum to 100%, each party’s figure is independent);

  • SNP (12 wards) – 38.5% (+2.9)
  • Con (12 wards) – 22.8% (+2.2)
  • Lab (11 wards) – 18.9% (-7.4)
  • Lib Dem (8 wards) – 12.8% (+7.0)
  • Green (8 wards) – 10.2% (+2.6)

However you work it out we can say it was a pretty pleasant time for four of the Holyrood parties, and an utterly grim one for Labour. Remember, these were mostly urban wards, and across the whole of them Labour had come second in 2017. Even as someone quick to say “don’t hook your national theories on local by-elections”, I was looking at those results before the general election and thinking they boded ill for Labour, and that feeling was vindicated.

For the two largest parties, those increases include some genuinely very large swings such as Inverness Central for the SNP and Bridge of Don for the Conservatives. They did go backwards in a handful of places (2 for the SNP, 4 for the Conservatives) but generally not by huge amounts. For wards with more modest gains I’d be inclined to suggest that’s largely down to the lower turnout for by-elections – we know that the general demographic of Conservative voters overlaps with the folk most likely to vote, for example, which gives a small boost.

Although the Lib Dem bounce back was substantially reduced by General Election polling day, they may be heartened by such strong performances across these by-elections – especially that narrow 2 vote loss to the SNP in Dunfermline Central. If replicated in 2022, it would suggest they could pick up a good number of the seats they lost post-2010. But that’s a big “if”, with the party severely damaged by the loss of their leader last week and the ultimate defeat for Remain.

The Green figure looks quite impressive for a smaller party, and they did increase their share of the vote in 7 of the 8 wards they contested both years. However, the Leith Walk by-election where they came a close second after transfers (the closest they’ve ever been to winning a single seat) makes up well over half their total vote across these by-elections. Although there’s nonetheless potential for growth in seats indicated here, in general at council level the Greens out-Lib Dem the Lib Dems in having very concentrated support, which one of this year’s by-elections happened to hit upon.

Next year already has a handful of by-elections definitely coming up, plus the likelihood of four more should those councillors newly elected as MPs opt to resign their council seat. Remember that there’s always a list of upcoming by-elections and the current composition of councils on the dedicated page. I’ll be back tomorrow with a look at the Parliamentary situation – it’s been a busy time for BBS for the past couple of weeks thanks to the General Election so these are running quite close to Christmas, but I want to get them all done before then and before the end of the year so I can enjoy a break!

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