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 due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and may be re-scheduled again at short notice.
We’ve got a trio of by-elections due on the 11th of March, all of which have been through serial delays due to the pandemic. Over the next couple of nights I’ll publish previews for all of them. We’ll start at the top and work our way southwards, so we go first to Highland’s Aird and Loch Ness ward. Highland has had a large number of by-elections, with this being the 6th here since 2017. Sadly, this one is down to the death of Conservative councillor George Cruickshank, who had been elected for the first time in 2017.
Aird and Loch Ness is one of the 21 wards in Highland Council, electing 4 councillors at an ordinary election. The ward straddles the area either side of Loch Ness, though most of the population can be found in an area just to the West of Inverness, including Beauly, Kiltarlity, Kirkhill and Torgormack. Other notable settlements to the west of the Loch are Cannich, Drumnadrochit and, at the southern tip, Fort Augustus. The eastern side of the Loch is much more sparsely populated, primarily around Foyers and Farr.
At Holyrood, the ward is entirely within the Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch constituency. The SNP have held that constituency since it was created for 2011, but the Lib Dems held the original Ross, Skye and Inverness West constituency before then. At Westminster, the ward is notionally split between the Ross, Skye and Lochaber and the Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey constituencies. However, nearly the entire population of the ward lies within the latter. That constituency was held by the Lib Dems between 2005 and 2015, and since by the SNP.
Boundaries and Recent Election History
To all intents and purposes this ward has the same boundaries as it had upon creation in 2007 – a very, very tiny addition was made in 2017 that changes very little indeed. As is usual in the Highlands, Independents have typically performed very strongly here. At the first election in 2007 the ward elected two of them, Margaret Davidson and Helen Carmichael, alongside one each for the SNP and Lib Dems.
The exact same councillors were returned in 2012, though the votes went from an almost even balance between the two Independents to Davidson having three times as many. In a 2015 by-election following SNP councillor Drew Hendry becoming the local MP, the Lib Dems came out on top.
2017 was a third victory in a row for the same Independents, whilst the SNP held their seat, and the Lib Dems lost theirs to the Conservatives. Cruikshank, having stood in 2012, roughly trebled his vote share to pick up the seat. Although benefitting from the lack of the two Independent councillors in the 2015 by-election, to do so poorly was a rather dramatic turnaround from that relatively recent success.
Detailed 2017 Data
In terms of leaders per polling district, Davidson was out in front in most of the ward, and dominant around Fort Augustus where she won around 60% of the in-person vote. Although less strong overall, Carmichael evidenced a clear support base around Torgormack and Beauly.
The only other party to lead in any districts were the SNP, around Kirkhill and Farr. The Conservatives had their best result amongst postal voters and around Torgormack, for the Lib Dems it was Beauly, and the Greens around Invermoriston.
Unsurprisingly, voters favouring either Independent candidate overwhelmingly put their second preference towards the other. That makes this particular chart more a matter of interest than any predictive use, as neither of those sitting councillors will be in this by-election. That said, apart from the Greens, who had mutually strong preferencing with the SNP, the Conservatives were generally a more popular choice for second preferences than the SNP.
For this by-election we have the full Holyrood 5 plus an Independent. In terms of familiar faces, it’s only the Conservative’s Gavin Berkenheger. He contested the Wester Ross ward by-election back in 2018, as well as the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency in the 2019 UK election. Everyone else is entirely new in this electoral cycle, or at least within the Highlands. The full list of candidates is:
Gavin Berkenheger (Conservative)
David Fraser (Independent)
Ryan Mackintosh (Green)
Bill Moore (Labour)
Martin Robertson (Liberal Democrat)
Gordon Shanks (SNP)
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 2530 votes.
As the sitting Independent councillors obviously won’t be on the ballot, the re-calculation here is a bit trickier. Running one with them in it, it’s entirely unsurprising to see Davidson win with roughly 58% to the SNP’s 27%. To get a vague sense of what would happen without them, we need to take them out.
Stage 6 (final head-to-head stage);
Conservative - 2039 (40.3%)
SNP - 1754 (34.7%)
Didn't Transfer - 1266 (25.0%)
Reducing it to a two-party fight for the seat is much closer, with the Conservatives eventually triumphing over the SNP. Given the SNP have regained some strength compared to 2017, they may be stiffer competition, although the Conservatives usually benefit from higher turnout amongst their voters at by-elections. This being the Highlands, there’s also the possibility for an Independent victory from David Fraser.
For further complexity, the Lib Dems weren’t miles out of contention either, with 25.3% of the vote at the point they were eliminated in the re-calculation versus 31.0% for the SNP and 30.9% for the Conservatives. They won a 2015 by-election here, were (narrowly) the most popular next preference amongst voters who plumped for the two Independents, and are also much more popular with Conservative and SNP voters than those parties were with each other. In short, this could be a right royal rumble.
Call: Con/SNP/Ind/LD Tossup
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