Helensburgh and Lomond South (Argyll & Bute) By-Election, 18/03/2021

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

Ward Profile

The third of our batch of 18th of March by-elections, and the second Argyll & Bute ballot, is Helensburgh and Lomond South. I’m sorry to say this one has arisen from the sad circumstances of Lib Dem councillor Ellen Morton’s passing. Morton had served as a councillor in the area since 1999, originally for the Helensburgh North ward. Despite the name, most of the area of that ward was brought into the current ward with the move to STV in 2007, when she was easily re-elected.

In her time on the council, she served a spell as Depute Leader. She wasn’t the only Morton to serve on the council as her daughter Aileen joined her in 2012, as a councillor in the neighbouring Helensburgh Central ward. The younger Morton served as Leader of the Council from 2017 until the end of September 2020.

Helensburgh and Lomond South is one of 11 wards in Argyll & Bute, and elects 3 councillors at a full election. The ward effectively follows two main roads to Helensburgh, one from Dumbarton and one from Balloch/Luss, with the former being home to most of the population via the village of Cardross and a large chunk of the Craigendoran suburb of Helensburgh. A portion of Helensburgh north of the train line and east of Luss Road is also included, and covers most of the area of Morton’s 1999 Helensburgh North ward.

As part of the wider Helensburgh and Lomond area this ward has, alongside the entire council area, been part of the Argyll & Bute Westminster constituency since 2005. The Lib Dems won that constituency in 2005 and 2010 before the SNP took it in 2015, holding it ever since. Prior to that, it had been part of the Dumbarton constituency, which was consistently Labour. At Holyrood, it has been part of the Dumbarton constituency the entire time, which remains one of just a handful of Labour constituencies in Scotland.

In a certain sense, the wider Helensburgh and Lomond area is a bit of an outlier from both the Argyll & Bute Council and the Dumbarton constituency, being more Conservative leaning than Argyll & Bute as a whole, and more Liberal leaning than Dumbarton as a whole.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

The ward hasn’t seen any changes since it was created in 2007, so all comparisons are nice and neat. At that first election, the ward elected Ellen Morton as the Lib Dem, plus a Conservative and an Independent councillor, with Lib Dems leading in first preferences votes. The Independent unfortunately passed away just weeks after being elected, with the Lib Dems winning the resulting by-election.

In 2012, the Lib Dems actually had just over half of the votes and could in theory have held onto both Morton and their by-election gain. The SNP gained a seat here by coming just one vote short of quota, so it came down entirely to transfers from Morton, and not quite enough votes transferred from her to her party colleague to see him over the line.

The exact same pattern of seats and councillors held in 2017, though the Conservatives came out with the first preference vote lead and the SNP weren’t a hundred miles (or votes) away from being overtaken by an Independent for the last seat. It’s also notable this ward is therefore a relative rarity in still having the SNP outside the top two in 2017.

Detailed 2017 Data

In polling district terms, the Conservatives had a clear lead in every district. As is not uncommon for them they did best in the postal vote, with the north of Helensburgh their best in-person result. The Lib Dems were strongest in the North East of Helensburgh, whilst the SNP excelled in Cardross.

Though neither won a seat, Labour showed particularly strong support in Craigendoran, and Mike Crowe (the stronger of the Independents) had his support base in Cardross.

Second preferences here were pretty favourable to both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, who were mutually supportive, and not so much to the SNP. We can take it as a given then that the SNP won’t be in the top two for the single councillor re-calc coming up. The Lib Dems were basically everyone’s most popular next preference, except for UKIP voters, though there were very few of them.

Candidates

Whereas the Bute by-election was short of party diversity, this one has no Independents but full representation for the Holyrood 5 as well as… the Workers Party. That’s George Galloway’s most recent outfit, and whilst local elections come with the requirement to live or work in the relevant council area, I must admit to being bemused that with two Glasgow by-elections, the one they found a candidate for was… Helensburgh.

Anyway, most of these are fresh faces, with two exceptions. Labour candidate Jane Bruce Kelly contested the Mid Argyll ward in 2017. More interestingly, following on from the previous week’s Leaderdale and Melrose by-election, we have the second instance of an Independent-turned-Green, with Mike Crowe having contested this ward as such back then. The full list of candidates is:

Henry Boswell (Liberal Democrat)
Paul Burrows (Workers Party)
Math Campbell-Sturgess (SNP)
Mike Crowe (Green)
Jane Bruce Kelly (Labour)
Gemma Penfold (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 1475 votes.

Stage 7 (final head-to-head stage); 

Conservative - 1379 (46.8%)
Lib Dem - 990 (33.6%)
Didn't Transfer - 580 (19.7%)

In the re-calculation, the Conservatives would have held their lead very easily throughout the transfer process, finishing with a clear lead over the Lib Dems. Were the Lib Dems still benefitting from their Brexit Bounce, I’d be inclined to say they were in with a shot here. However, that bounce has long since dissipated, and if we look back at the 2019 General Election they continued to lose votes in Argyll and Bute. I’m therefore inclined to say that the Conservatives are the most likely winners here.

Call: Likely Conservative

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