Leaderdale and Melrose (Borders) By-Election, 11/03/2021

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 was postponed twice due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and may be re-scheduled again at short notice.

Ward Profile

Having started up in the Highlands, for the last ward in our batch due on the 11th of March, we’re taking trip to the Borders for the Leaderdale and Melrose by-election. Sadly, this one has come about due to the untimely passing of SNP Councillor Kevin Drum, who had only been elected for the first time in 2017.

Leaderdale and Melrose is one of 11 wards that make up the Scottish Borders Council, electing 3 councillors at an ordinary election. The Leaderdale portion of the ward consists of a string of villages along the Leader Water, most notably Lauder (no, I don’t know why the spelling is different) and Earlston. Melrose lies at the relatively built-up southern end, just next to Tweedbank.

The Borders as a whole used to be quite strongly Liberal. Former Liberal leader David Steel famously won a 1965 by-election in one constituency, and by the 80’s the party held both constituencies in the area. That was replicated in the Scottish Parliament initially. Historically, their main competition in the overall area were the Conservatives.

At Holyrood, the Lib Dems held the former Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale constituency until 2007, though with the SNP close behind for most of that time. The SNP picked up the redrawn (and current) Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale constituency in 2011. For Westminster, the ward lies within the Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk constituency, which was Lib Dem until 2015 when the SNP narrowly beat the Conservatives to it. In the 2017 snap election, the Conservatives took the seat, held it in 2019, and the Borders is now something of a stronghold for the revived party.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

Another boundary change-free ward, we can compare all elections since 2007 directly. At that first election, it elected a Lib Dem, an Independent (David Parker) and a councillor from the newly formed Borders Party.

With the Lib Dems in retreat in 2012, the SNP took their seat. The Borders Party councillor resigned less than a year into his second term, but the party held the seat at the resulting 2013 by-election, with Iain Gillespie triumphing over the Conservative’s (now-MSP) Rachael Hamilton. 

In 2017, the Borders Party seems to have wound itself up, as its councillors stood as Independents. Gillespie wasn’t successful this time around, as the Conservatives consolidated their significant growth in the Borders since 2012 to nab his seat. However, it was extremely close between him and the SNP, with less than 1% of the total vote separating them at the final stage.

Detailed 2017 Data

Looking at 2017 results broken down by polling district, most of them had a plurality of votes for Independent candidates. However only two, the districts covering Oxton and Tweedbank, had an individual Independent (Parker) out in front. The rest of them were Conservative leads, with the strongest support in district 05G which covers Darnick (couldn’t fit label on the map!)

For the SNP, support was strongest in Melrose, whilst the seat-less Lib Dems drew most support from the Earlston area, and the former Borders Party councillor from Gattonside.

Based on the second preferences for each party, we can see why it ended up so close between the SNP and Gillespie, despite an initial gap of nearly 6%. Voters for all other candidates were far more likely to give Gillespie a preference than they were the SNP, eating away at Drum’s advantage throughout the count, but never quite erasing it.

Candidates

We’ve got the usual Holyrood 5 plus two Independents contesting this one. Scott Redpath is a bit of a local Labour stalwart evidently, having contested the Selkirkshire ward at both the 2017 election and then in 2018 at the by-election. The other two returning figures are doing so under new banners.

Remember that Lib Dem councillor who lost his seat in 2012? That was none other than John Paton-Day. He also stood for the ward again in 2017 as a Lib Dem, but making a return here as an SNP candidate. A less dramatic shift comes from Green candidate Michael Needham, who stood as an Independent for Tweeddale West back in 2017. The full list of candidates is:

Jonny Adamson (Liberal Democrat)
Mary Douglas (Independent)
Jenny Linehan (Conservative)
Michael Needham (Green)
John Paton-Day (SNP)
Scott Redpath (Labour)
Karen Wilks (Independent)

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. 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. For this re-calculation, that was 2278 votes.

This one is slightly complicated by the fact that obviously Parker, 2017’s successfully elected Independent, will not be on the ballot. Similarly, the other strong but ultimately unsuccessful Independent, Gillespie, isn’t standing. Running the initial recalc, Parker would win over the Conservatives at 45% vs 36.1%. Removing him from the equation, Gillespie would have more narrowly triumphed at 39.3% vs 37.1%. So, I’ve removed both from the re-calc.

Stage 6 (final head-to-head stage); 

Conservative - 1947 (42.7%)
SNP - 1312 (28.8%)
Didn't Transfer - 1296 (28.5%)

This final version gives the Conservatives a pretty clear lead over the SNP. There are a lot of exhausted ballots here, which is what happens when you take out popular Independents for re-calculation purposes. That won’t happen to the same degree in the by-election, but I doubt it’d make much difference to the SNP’s chances given the general trends in the area. On the whole, I’m therefore minded to say the Conservatives go into this with the clearest advantage, but the prospect is always there for one of the two Independents to win a la Selkirkshire 2018.

Call: Likely Conservative, possible Independent

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