Isle of Bute (Argyll & Bute) By-Election 18/03/2021

If you feel a bit stumped by any of the information here, or wonder how it’s possible to get this level of depth, you can check this little guide to how I preview By-Elections.

NOTE: This by-election may be re-scheduled at short notice due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Ward Profile

The 18th of March is going to be a busy day for by-elections, with a whopping four different ballots. These are double-dips in two councils, and there is consistency of cause in each of the pairs. I’m very sorry to say that both of the Argyll and Bute by-elections have come about due to the deaths of sitting councillors. In the Isle of Bute’s case, the vacancy follows the passing of Independent councillor Len Scoullar. First elected in 1999 to the then Bute South ward, Scoullar had also served as Provost since 2013.

Isle of Bute puts the “& Bute” in “Argyll” as one of 11 wards in the council, and elects 3 councillors at a full election. Obviously, the ward covers the island of the same name, and is centred on the former burgh of Rothesay which accounts for about two-thirds of the population. Almost all of the remainder lives along the coast either side of Rothesay, with only Kilchattan Bay as an outlier in terms of substantial villages.

For both parliaments, the ward is part of an Argyll & Bute constituency. At Holyrood that constituency was Lib Dem in 1999, before flipping to the SNP in 2007. The Westminster equivalent held onto its orange tint somewhat longer, only going SNP in their 2015 landslide.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

The island hasn’t grown or shrunk at any point, and therefore the ward also hasn’t experienced any boundary changes since it was created. At the first election in 2007, it elected two SNP councillors alongside Len Scoullar, whilst a second Independent, Fraser Gillies, was unsuccessful. In 2012 all incumbents were re-elected, and Gillies didn’t make another run at it.

Although Scoullar had done very well in both of the previous elections, in 2017 his vote more than halved, and he placed barely ahead of Gillies who had re-appeared for another run at the ward. He likely lost a lot of his previous vote to a new highly successful Independent, Jean Moffat. However he still held his seat, albeit narrowly. He saw off the SNP by just 7 votes at an early stage and the Conservatives, whose share nearly doubled versus 2012, by 33 votes at the final stage.

Detailed 2017 Data

As I do the polling district breakdowns treating Independents separately, the SNP come out as the leaders in every polling district. If we sum up the total for Independents however, the SNP only have a lead in the AA95 district in the north of the island, primarily covering Port Bannatyne.

For the Independents, Moffat did best in central and southern Rothesay, where Gillies wasn’t far behind. Scoullar himself actually did best on the postal vote, though for in-person votes his strongest area were the districts covering Ascog, Craigmore and Kilchattan Bay which align with his old FPTP ward. This was also the case for the Conservatives.

It isn’t particularly surprising in a ward with lots of Independents to see that those Independents fare very well in terms of second preferences from every voter. Their direct second preferences are generally, with the exception of Scoullar’s, a bit more favourable to the SNP than Conservatives. However, that doesn’t mean third and fourth preferences which would come into play following Independent eliminations would follow the same pattern.

Candidates

Perhaps given the island nature of this ward, we have a slightly less varied list of candidates than we’ve grown used to. Alongside two Independents, only the three largest Holyrood parties have opted to stand candidates. Independent Fraser Gillies and Conservative Peter Wallace are taking another run at the ward, having stood here in 2017. The full list of candidates is:

Kim Findlay (SNP)
Fraser Gillies (Independent)
Dawn MacDonald (Labour)
Liz McCabe (Independent)
Peter Wallace (Conservative)

2017 Re-Calculation and Prediction

As ever, to get the best comparison between the original vote and a single seat by-election, we need to dig a bit deeper and re-calculate a result for electing a single councillor. Remember that in a single seat election under STV, a candidate needs 50%+1 of the valid votes cast (a quota) to win.  For this re-calculation, that was 1239 votes.

Due to those successful Independents, this is yet another case where if we just do a basic re-calculation they win, which is no use to us. Moffat would win that one by 46.6% to the SNP’s 30.1%. Scoullar himself would have more narrowly beaten the SNP 37.5% to 34.5% if we took Moffat out of the equation. So, we need to do one without them. (At this point, I’m very thankful I cracked the way to do these re-calcs automatically, because otherwise this would be painful!)

Stage 6 (final head-to-head stage); 

SNP - 890 (35.9%)
Conservative - 850 (34.3%)
Didn't Transfer - 737 (29.8%)

Look at those knife edges! There are only 40 votes (1.6%) between the SNP and Conservatives here – but at the previous stage there were only 15 (0.6%) between the Conservatives and Gillies. There’s also a really massive pile of exhausted ballots which is what happens when you take popular Independents out of the running, but which would be less of an issue in a by-election. Though the SNP are up and Conservatives down in general polling since 2017, wards like this are where we’re likely to see the least impact from that, so both are clearly in with a good chance.

Throw in Gillies’ near-success on this measure in 2017, and the fact he’s back on the ballot paper definitely makes this a three-cornered contest. Running yet more re-calculations from 2017, Gillies wins a head-to-head against the SNP 38.0% vs 34.1%, and more emphatically against the Conservatives at 36.1% vs 29.8%. This shouldn’t be a surprise, looking at where those parties second preferences went in that chart.

Call: SNP-Conservative-Independent Tossup

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