Thorniewood (North Lanarkshire) By-Election, 19/09/19

We’re getting a double helping of Lanarkshire by-elections this summer, though fortunately this North Lanarkshire contest is for happier reasons. One of two Labour councillors in Thorniewood, Hugh Gaffney, resigned his seat to focus on his work as MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. Gaffney was elected to the ward for the first time in May 2017, and elected as MP the next month.

That follows a year on from his colleague Lesley Laird doing the same in Fife, which itself was a somewhat eyebrow raising year on from a third Labour MP, Ged Killen, resigning his just-won council seat a mere two weeks after being elected as an MP in South Lanarkshire. It should be noted it’s not uncommon for councillors to be bumped up into Parliament, but usually they do so towards the end of a council term – it’s rather more rare these days for people to be elected councillor and parliamentarian in quick succession at the start of a five year term, never mind to then hold onto that dual mandate for so long.

The awkwardness of our overly personalised electoral systems aside, Thorniewood is one of North Lanarkshire’s 21 wards, and elects 3 councillors at a normal election. The ward covers most of Viewpark, excluding only Fallside, part of what is by now a single well-linked settlement stretching through Bellshill and Motherwell out to Wishaw. North Lanarkshire as a whole has been politically interesting to watch since 2011, as voters in post-industrial Scotland shifted from their traditional Labour affiliation to the SNP. In fact, North Lanarkshire was one of the four councils that voted Yes to independence in the 2014 referendum.

Since then it’s been one of the main battlegrounds between the two parties, and in 2017 in the four big towns (Coatbridge, Airdrie, Motherwell and Cumbernauld) the SNP had the lead, whilst Labour led in the smaller towns like here. At Holyrood, the ward is part of the Uddingston and Bellshill constituency which was first won by the SNP in 2016, having been Labour until then. It’s part of Gaffney’s aforementioned Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill constituency at Westminster and thus has been Labour for decades except for that two year SNP stint from 2015-17.

Map of Thorniewood Ward

Thorniewood was slightly truncated in the 2017 boundary review, as it did previously cover the whole of Viewpark. It has consistently elected three councillors however, and those have always been two Labour and one SNP. Labour have won a majority of first preferences at each full election, though they dropped from approximately 70% in 2007 and 2012 to just above 50% in 2017. The one exception to this trend was a 2015 by-election, where the ward split relatively narrowly in favour of the SNP, at 47% vs 42.6%.

This one is entirely between the Holyrood Five, with no minor parties or independents nominated. The Greens’ Rosemary McGowan is a familiar face for followers of Ballot Box Scotland, having also been her party’s candidate in last year’s Coatbridge South by-election, and a candidate in the 2017 whole council election. None of the other candidates are returning faces from that election, but in a notable departure from the norm, it appears that four of the five parties have stood women. The full list of candidates is;

Candidates

  • Eve Rowan Cunnington (SNP)
  • Rosemary McGowan (Green)
  • Norah Mooney (Labour)
  • Lorraine Nolan (Conservative)
  • Colin Robb (Liberal Democrat)

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.

Thorniewood 2017 First Preferences in percent Labour 50.3 SNP 38.7 Conservative 11.1

Thorniewood 2017 Recalculation for a Single Councillor. Final stage in percentages Labour 53.6 SNP 40.1 Didn't Transfer 6.3

Round 4 (final stage);

  • Labour – 2510 (53.6%)
  • SNP – 1879 (40.1%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 295 (6.3%)

As would be expected from their first preference vote majority, Labour handily win the single seat in this re-calculation. That said, they aren’t a million miles ahead of the SNP. I reckon this is pretty evenly matched given recent events. Yes, Labour are having a very poor time of it at the moment and have previously been beaten in a by-election here, but this is one of their absolute strongest parts of the country. Yes, the SNP are having a comparatively good time of it at the moment, but they are far from their 2015 peak when they still only eked out a 4.4% lead over Labour. In neighbouring Coatbridge South last year, also part of Gaffney’s constituency, Labour managed to narrowly beat the SNP in a seat that the SNP had the lead going in – but that was before they took their recent polling nosedive. Overall, I wouldn’t feel confident putting money on either side here.

Call: Lab-SNP contest.

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