We had three by-elections taking place across Scotland on the 11th, in wildly varying political arenas. The second result we’re looking at is from Highland’s Aird and Loch Ness ward. This one took place after the sad passing of Conservative councillor George Cruickshank.
Given two of the ward’s councillors have been the same Independents since 2007, there was a very large chunk of spare votes up for grabs in this election. Based on previous results and the fact the Highlands love an Independent, I reckoned it could have gone any of four ways, for an Independent, the SNP, Conservatives or even the Lib Dems.
In the end, it was really a two-horse race. What would have been the barest whisker of a victory over the SNP for David Fraser, the Independent candidate, under First Past the Post will soon be shown to have been pretty crushing under STV. When an Independent performs as strongly as this, you can all but guarantee transfers will work in their favour. First preferences in full were (changes versus 2017 election):
Fraser (Independent) - 997 (28.3%, +28.3)
SNP - 994 (28.2%, +5.9)
Conservative - 824 (23.4%, +3.7)
Liberal Democrat - 300 (8.5%, -1.7)
Green - 272 (7.7%, +0.1)
Labour - 133 (3.8%, +3.8)
Note that in the 2017 election the combined total for two Independent candidates elected as Councillors and therefore not present here was 40.1%.
It’s probably not particularly surprising that Fraser picked up most of the vote that the two sitting Independents had left lying around. That was enough to squeak him 3 votes ahead of the SNP, who benefitted from the largest vote share increase of any party. The Conservatives weren’t a million miles behind with a very respectable vote indeed, but placing third put them out of contention immediately.
Given that 40% of the 2017 vote was entirely up in the air, this was an undoubtedly disappointing result for the Lib Dems, who are the only party to lose vote share compared to 2017. I’d had them pegged as potential victors assuming their candidate was well-known and they had a favourable transfer wind, but that evidently wasn’t the case.
The Greens also only managed a rounding increase in their vote share, and in comparison to the other by-elections they’ve stood in recently, that meant their absolute number of votes was lower too. As with most rural wards what may seem a “shockingly low for Scotland” Labour share is in reality a “completely par for the rural course” result.
As no candidate had an outright majority of the vote, transfer rounds were necessary. The quota to reach here was 1761 votes.
Looking at the transfers for the final head-to-head at stage 6 (no changes vs 2017 due to incomparability of the Independent):
Independent - 1663 (47.2%)
SNP - 1198 (34.4%)
Didn't Transfer - 646 (18.4%)
What was an absolutely paper-thin lead on first preferences looks close through the transfer rounds – it’s even a straight tie at stage 2. However, once the Conservatives dropped out, Fraser catapulted into a clear lead over the SNP. Although the machine count didn’t give us the real-time round-by-round excitement of Highland’s usual hand counts, we did get regular updates on the rough size of first preferences.
Those made it pretty apparent Fraser would win given he seemed close to the lead, because he’d obviously have been a higher preference for most SNP and Conservative voters than the other party. With the full data in hand, we can confirm that and see that if it had gone to an Ind-Con head to head, Fraser would have won it 45.8% to 27.4%, nice and easy.
Machine counts mean some really juicy data, starting with the breakdown of results per polling district.
Due the combination of lower turnout, rurality, and a high postal vote (roughly half of the total), there were a very large number of box mergers here, so this isn’t a massively useful breakdown of every district I’m afraid. What’s most notable is Fraser’s base of support was in Drumnadrochit, where he absolutely steamrollered all opposition with nearly 63% of in-person first preferences. He also led in the merger of districts bordering the village, suggesting he was probably quite weel-kent in the surrounding area.
The SNP had the lead in the remaining districts, bearing in mind the caveat about mergers. It looks like their strongest result was probably in the district covering Kirkhill, unless a merged box was hiding a high share. Postals were pretty evenly split, but the Conservatives came out narrowly ahead there, and of the in-person votes they also did best in Kirkhill.
You know who also did best in Kirkhill? The Lib Dems. Clearly, a popular district, that one. The Greens and Labour did not do best in Kirkhill though, instead doing well amongst one of the merged pile of boxes. That covers Fort Augustus, Invermoriston, Farr and Torgormack, so presumably one of those areas was particularly favourable to each party.
Given how well Fraser did during transfer rounds, I was actually slightly surprised to find he wasn’t clearly everyone else’s most common second preference. As it stood, it was the Conservatives and Lib Dems who were most likely to transfer his way. His voters were most likely to go Conservative, but it was actually a relatively even split, with everyone except Labour at least in the teens.
Labour were most likely to transfer to the Lib Dems, which leaves the SNP and Greens as their pretty standard mutually strong preferencing.