NOTE: This by-election has been postponed due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
Clackmannanshire absolutely loves a March by-election, so it does. There was one in the North ward in 2018. Then we had one in the Central ward last year. Now it’s East’s turn, as Conservative councillor Bill Mason has resigned for health reasons, having first been elected in 2017. There are only 5 wards in Clackmannanshire, so we’ve got time before the 2022 elections to get the other 2 in – though it’d need to be a double whammy next year to keep to the March pattern. As an aside, you can see all three generations of BBS mapping styles via Clacks by-elections.
At a full election, Clacks East elects 3 councillors. The ward includes the historic county town of Clackmannan itself, although it’s long since been overtaken by Alloa as the centre of the Wee County. Most of the rest of the population live in the other main town of Dollar or in Pool of Muckhart in the northeastern corner.
Clacks has typically been a Labour-SNP battleground, but the Conservatives have been doing well recently, and have had substantial strength in the East ward for ages. For the Scottish Parliament, it’s part of the Clackmannanshire and Dunblane constituency, which has been held by the SNP since 2003 (as Ochil until 2011). For Westminster it falls under Ochil and South Perthshire, which has changed hands repeatedly. Labour held it until the SNP surge in 2015, the Conservatives then took it in 2017, and it went SNP again last year.
The ward has had a very minor boundary change since it was created in 2007, expanding to take in a tiny bit of Alloa. That’s a negligible enough change for us to say it compares neatly with previous elections. In all three elections since STV was introduced in 2007, the ward has elected one apiece from the SNP, Conservatives and Labour. In 2007 and 2012, although the Conservatives did multiple times better here than in any other Clacks ward, the SNP had a lead in first preferences. In 2017, with the Conservatives growing to win a seat in every ward, corresponding growth in this one gave them the overall lead.
It’s new faces all round for the three parties that currently have seats on Clacks council, versus some recent electoral veterans from the other two. For the Greens, Marion Robertson will be a dab hand by now, having contested this ward in 2017 as well as both of the other Clacks ward by-elections since then. John Shier Biggam stood for the Lib Dems in South in 2017 plus the Central by-election last year, so he’s on par with Robertson in terms of having popped up in 3 of the 5 wards since 2017. It’s just the Holyrood 5 for this one, with full list of candidates as follows;
- John Shier Biggam (Liberal Democrat)
- Denis Coyne (Conservative)
- Carolynne Hunter (Labour)
- Stephen Leitch (SNP)
- Marion Robertson (Green)
As ever, to get the best comparison between the original vote and a single seat by-election, we need to go beyond the surface and re-calculate a result for electing a single councillor. The top chart shows the first preferences in 2017, transfer flows are in the bottom chart. Remember that in a single seat election under STV, a candidate needs 50%+1 of the valid votes cast (a quota) to win.
- Conservative – 1782 (51.0%)
- SNP – 1241 (35.5%)
- Didn’t Transfer – 473 (13.5%)
That Conservative lead in first preferences grows through the transfers process, resulting in a relatively rare case of a re-calculated winner reaching quota without needing to eliminate every other candidate. Although we’re now quite far away from 2017 and the SNP re-took the Westminster constituency in December, I’m still inclined to call this in the Conservative’s favour. The shift in first preferences is more likely to be from Labour to SNP rather than from the Conservatives. Whilst that might help close the first preference gap a bit, it might also just mean the remaining Labour voters are those more likely to transfer to Conservatives. Bear in mind as well that due to the demographics of their supporters, the Conservatives tend to get a slight bump in their share of the vote just by losing fewer votes to the lower turnout in by-elections. All that said, I’m going for “leans” rather than “likely”, as an SNP victory here wouldn’t be a massive shock.
Call: Leans Conservative