2021 in Review: Council By-Elections

Background and Caveats

Well, 2021 was another year, eh? Although we’re in a very different situation after the vaccine rollout, life still remains dominated by the bloody pandemic. Despite that, a degree of political normality returned. In addition to May’s Scottish Parliament election, we witnessed a staggering 22 council by-elections across Scotland. That was by far the most we’ve had in any year this term, in part due to a few being pushed back from the tail end of last year.

Before we dive into the detail, I’m afraid I’ve got to list the usual caveats for this. Although 22 by-elections is a lot, it’s still only a small fraction of Scotland’s (currently) 354 council wards. That alone means these figures aren’t representative of the whole country. Per my arbitrary classification scheme for wards, we had 3 City, 3 Town, 5 Urbanised, 7 Semi-Rural, 3 Rural, and 1 Island ward voting this year. Wards in the City, Town and Urbanised classifications, for example, accounted for 79% of votes cast in 2017, but only 56% of votes across this year’s by-elections.

Also important for many by-elections, especially in the more rural wards, is the absence of popular independent councillors. Councillors that continue to serve obviously don’t appear on the ballot for by-elections, and so that can limit the usefulness of direct comparisons with 2017 in their wards.

Finally, remember the most important aspect of STV – that the nice simple language used for FPTP of “gain/loss/hold” isn’t as applicable here. Whoever vacated one of three or four seats is not always the same as the overall winner at the last election. It’s entirely possible for the vacating party, the party that had a first preference lead, and the party that would have won a single seat election in 2017 to all be different!

Seat Shifts

Let’s get straight into the stickiness of STV by looking at how seats have shifted. The table below shows each of this year’s by elections with both the vacating party and 2017’s notional winner shown, alongside the eventual winner of the by-election. You can click the ward name to see the result analysis for each by-election.

And then this little chart shows those shifts more concisely. Note that of the Independents, one had been elected as an SNP councillor (in Fortissat) and one as a Conservative (in Partick East/Kelvindale). They are nonetheless still shown as Independent for the purposes of “Seats Vacated”, as that’s meant to account for actual composition of the council.

This year has actually been one of the best for showing just how weird and wonderful STV can be. Although the SNP prompted 8 of the vacancies, there were only 3 wards where the SNP were the 2017 winner – none of which were amongst the wards they caused the vacancy! In the other direction, although only 3 Conservatives caused vacancies, they were the 2017 winner in 6, with only one overlap between those categories.

If we then compare in terms of vacated seats, which is more impactful on political control but not particularly useful for political understanding (note Independents use slightly different terminology as they aren’t directly comparable to one another):

Conservative - Vacated 3, gained 7, held 1, lost 2 (net +5)
Labour - Vacated 3, gained 3, lost 3 (net nc)
Liberal Democrat - Vacated 2, gained 2, lost 2 (net nc)
SNP - Vacated 8, gained 4, held 2, lost 6 (net -2)
Independent - Vacated 6, won 3 (net -3)

This version looks very nice indeed for the Conservatives, and rather disappointing for the SNP, whilst it’s pretty neutral for Labour and the Lib Dems. However, as you’d expect, Independents bear the brunt of the losses. As noted above, and as I try to hammer home every year, and regularly on Twitter, this is not the most useful in terms of understanding how the electorate shifted under STV, given that the vacating party isn’t necessarily the previous victor. If we instead compare with the defending party based on 2017 winners:

SNP - Defending 3, gained 4, held 2, lost 1 (net +3)
Conservative - Defending 6, gained 2, held 6 (net +2)
Liberal Democrat - Defending 1, gained 2, lost 1 (net +1)
Labour - Defending 5, gained 1, held 2, lost 3 (net -2)
Independent - Expected 7, won 3 (net -4)

By this more useful measure, all of the SNP, Conservatives and Lib Dems had a good year for by-elections, gaining seats in electoral terms versus 2017. Of these, the Conservatives were the only party not to have any losses. Independents again understandably fare poorly, and Labour too also failed to live up to their performance at the full election, with a single gain compared to a trio of losses.

First Preference Votes

First Preferences across all 22 By-Elections

In terms of actual votes, the only party really feeling the pain is Labour, who are down 2.5% compared to their share in the same wards in 2017. They did stand in one fewer ward this time, for 17 in total. Most of the vote share decrease is borne here by Independents, that isn’t directly painful seeing as most of them are completely different candidates.

The other four major parties will feel a bit cheerier looking at this, having grown their shares to varying degrees. The Conservatives have the largest gain here, though the SNP aren’t far behind, and remained the most popular party overall. Both contested all 22 by-elections, but remember the relative under-representation of urban areas in this year’s crop of by-elections. That’ll have slightly deflated the SNP and more substantially the Labour total, and somewhat inflated the Conservatives’.

The Lib Dems and Greens ended up almost tied, with the former ahead in votes, and the latter increasing their share more. That may be partly reflective of different patterns of ward contesting across both elections – the Lib Dems stood in 16 wards, up from 14 in 2017, whilst the Greens were on 17, up substantially from 10.

First Preferences across 10 By-Elections with Holyrood 5

We could also look only at the wards where all of the Holyrood 5 were on the ballot paper, which was 10 out of the 22, to see how they fared in direct competition. In these wards Labour show a much smaller decline, roughly equivalent to that felt by the Lib Dems. The SNP meanwhile led in both overall share and in size of their gains, though the Conservatives still had a fair boost too. 

Of course, this is particularly impacted by what wards were and weren’t contested. The two best Lib Dem wards this year, from the Highland by-election double, were both missing Labour candidates and one was missing a Green. Had those gaps not existed, the Lib Dems would look much better here, whilst everyone else would be slightly lower. Similarly, had Labour decided not to stand in East Garioch where there’s a Green councillor elected entirely on a personal vote, Green gains would have looked twice as large.

Weighted First Preferences across all 22 By-Elections

For something a bit new this year, and having been banging the “these wards aren’t representative” drum all article, what if they were a little bit closer? This is a quick weighting of the figures so that each class of ward contributes as much of the total as in 2017 nationwide – so 27.5% for City wards, 10.2% for Rural and so on.

That weighting gives us some similarities and some differences with the raw data. The SNP are further ahead of the Conservatives when Rural wards make up less of the total, but the Conservatives still benefit from the largest positive swing. Labour’s vote total is also somewhat higher, though their % loss is basically the same. The Greens show solid gains and a reasonable lead over the Lib Dems, who are pretty much static in this measure.

It’s really important to emphasise this still isn’t a fully representative measure. For example, the three City class wards were two Glasgow and one Inverness. Those will have a very different flavour to your average Aberdeen or Edinburgh ward. Similarly, two of the Town class wards were Livingston, so we’ve no idea what Ayr, Dunfermline or Cumbernauld may have been like. It’s just another thing to throw into the mix to show how many interpretations you can put on the same data – and we can be assured folk will be picking the figures they like best!

A Notable Absence

One thing that may jump out at you, at least if you are embedded in Scottish Politics Twitter, is the complete absence of Alba from any of these figures. This year’s by-elections split neatly with 11 either side of Alba’s launch, and thus they had multiple opportunities to get a foot in the local organising door before the full campaign. They evidently decided not to do so.

That certainly seems curious, especially given it’s completely free to stand at council level. You’d think a party that genuinely wanted to become an embedded, permanent part of Scottish politics, and which claims thousands of members, might have been able to find some candidates to test the waters. Other small parties like the Libertarians and even the Independence for Scotland Party managed to stand at least a handful.

It’s possible Alba doesn’t yet have the infrastructure in place to organise local selections – but if so, that’d also suggest a lack of infrastructure to meaningfully contest the election. My frank assessment of Alba’s potential after the Holyrood election was that their only real hopes for the foreseeable would be to get a handful of their defectors re-elected, and at least stabilise some form of presence. Nothing since then has given me any reason to re-assess.

Looking Ahead to 2022

It’ll no doubt be tempting to take these figures as an indicator of what we can expect in the full elections due in May. I’d caution very strongly against that, for the reasons I’ve given throughout this piece. This is an interesting comparator for these 22 wards compared to 2017, but not for the whole country. Part of the reason I pull this data together is so that it exists somewhere with these caveats, as it’ll end up appearing elsewhere without them.

For a much better sense of where Scotland as a whole currently sits politically, we can instead have a look at the state of parliamentary polling. That’ll be the next entry in this year’s review, due out shortly. Remember we also have one final by-election for the 2017-2022 council term coming up in January, so we don’t have to wait until May for the next bit of Scottish election excitement. 

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