We finished up 2018 with two by-elections at opposite ends of the country – one in the Highlands and one in Dumfries & Galloway. Both of these are large, rural wards but with quite different political histories.
Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh was up first on the 6th of December. The largest council ward anywhere in the UK, this by-election was prompted by the resignation of Lib Dem Councillor Kate Stephen, who had won the fourth and final seat in May 2017. Knowing that the Highlands quite like an independent turn and having witnessed a remarkable 22% leap in the Liberal vote in neighbouring Caol and Mallaig in April, I heavily favoured a returning independent to win but thought another Lib Dem surge possible. Despite coming ahead in first preferences last time, I wasn’t convinced the SNP would be able to pick up the transfers.
Well I ended up eating a little bit of crow, as the SNP quite comfortably won. It turns out when you’re an out of ward Lib Dem (their candidate was from Skye), you don’t get to ride any waves. Similarly, it does seem Richard Greene lost his seat last May for reasons other than simply the Tory surge knocking him out. So it was third time lucky for Alex MacInnes, after not making a seat in this ward last year, and missing out in Caol and Mallaig in April. The full first preferences were;
- SNP – 1318 (33.1%, +7)
- Con – 1037 (26%, +7.6)
- Ind (total) – 753 (18.9%, -6.9)
- Ind (Greene) – 622 (15.6%, +3.9)
- Green – 359 (9%, -2.2)
- LD – 320 (8%, -5.4)
- Lab – 174 (4.4%, -0.7)
- Ind (Davis) – 131 (3.3%, +3.3)
- UKIP – 16 (0.4%, +0.4)
- Libertarian – 8 (0.2, +0.2)
Greene did indeed increase his vote, but not by very much, whilst the Lib Dem vote share cratered, dropping them into 5th place behind the slightly deflated Greens. With both the SNP and Conservatives surging a bit, that took us through a long slog of round by round transfers (this was a hand count) to get to the final head-to-head stage between the two;
- SNP – 1798 (45.1%, +11.6)
- Con – 1374 (34.5%, +34.5%)
- Didn’t Transfer – 813 (20.4%, -6.9%)
That substantial lead secured the seat for the SNP. At just over 20%, that’s the biggest pool of non-transfers of any by-election this year, so quite a large chunk of voters in the ward didn’t much fancy either party. The SNP did pick up more preferences overall though, increasing the gap between them and the Conservatives from 7.1% at stage 1 to 10.6% by this final stage.
Moving down to Dee and Glenkens, even after having had to eat crow for the Highlands I was absolutely confident in predicting the Conservatives would hold this Dumfries and Galloway seat. The presence of Colin Wyper, who’d been elected as an independent in 2012 to one of the preceding wards with a huge vote, seemed to throw a spanner in the works, but I’d heard from a local source he’d attempted to withdraw and wasn’t campaigning so wrote him off.
This time I was indeed absolutely spot on, with Pauline Drysdale coming very close to winning the seat on first preferences for the Conservatives. The SNP also significantly improved on their 2017 performance, as Wyper didn’t pick up anywhere near as many votes as the combined independents last year. The full first preferences were;
- Con – 1682 (45.9%, +12.4)
- SNP – 1024 (28.0%, +8.4)
- Ind (Total, different candidate) – 569 (15.5%, -18.6)
- Green – 342 (9.3%, +3)
- UKIP – 46 (1.3%, +1.3)
With a different independent and no Labour or Lib Dem candidates this time around, every party that did stand saw an increase in their vote. With very few votes for UKIP and the fact the Greens are on the opposite end of the Holyrood spectrum from the Conservatives, this had to go all the way to a stage four head-to-head before they picked up the transfers to actually seal the win;
- Con – 1956 (53.4%, +2.8)
- SNP – 1357 (37.0%, +6.2)
- Didn’t Transfer – 350 (9.6%, -9)
This gave the Conservatives an even more comfortable win than was calculated for a single councillor last year. The SNP did close the gap slightly, the margin between the two going from 19.8% to 16.4%.
That brings us to the very end of 2018’s 10 council by-elections – but not to the end of posts about them. In the next few days, I’ll be looking back at the whole year to see how (and if) these disparate by-elections fit into a national picture.