As if May didn’t have enough excitement with the Scottish Parliament election, we’ve also got a UK Parliament by-election for the Airdrie and Shotts constituency. Extra work though it may be, it does now mean I’ve rounded out every type of party-political election it’s been possible to cover in Scotland – Westminster, Holyrood, Councils (and by-elections for all) and European. I just need a referendum of some sort and I’ve really got the whole voting set!
This one has arisen from SNP MP Neil Gray resigning to contest the identically named Airdrie and Shotts seat for the Scottish Parliament. Under new rules the party adopted last year, any parliamentarian seeking to swap which parliament they were serving in had to resign their existing seat first, in the hopes of allowing a by-election on the same day to minimise costs.
That hasn’t entirely worked out in this case, however. In part due to the ongoing issue of the pandemic, election officials opted instead for a week later on the 13th of May, rather than concurrently with Holyrood on the 6th. That was perhaps a little embarrassing, but I suppose last year everyone was hoping the pandemic might not have dragged on this long.
Boundaries and Recent Election History
Airdrie and Shotts lies entirely within the North Lanarkshire council area, and like all Scottish constituencies has borders dating back to 2005. Apart from Airdrie and Shotts themselves, this includes Glenmavis, Wattston, Caldercruix, Plains, Chapelhall, Salsburgh, Eastfield, Harthill and Allanton in the area shared with the Holyrood constituency. Unique to the Westminster version are the Holytown and Newmains areas. A large chunk of this constituency may be familiar to keen followers of BBS, as the Fortissat ward had a by-election in March.
As with much of the west Central Belt, various versions of this constituency were very safely in Labour hands for decades. In 2010, Labour’s lead over the SNP here was a commanding 34.7%. Despite this, the SNP gained the Scottish Parliament seat the following year, and then gained this seat in their 2015 tidal wave. Labour came extremely close to recapturing the constituency in 2017, falling just 195 votes (0.5%) behind the SNP. That made this seat the 6th most marginal anywhere in Scotland heading into 2019 – though the vast majority of Scottish seats were marginal that year!
Unfortunately for Labour, 2019 turned out to be their worst General Election performance in Scotland of the democratic era, and Neil Gray re-solidified his majority here to a non-marginal 13.1%, amounting to over 5000 votes. Although I say “non-marginal”, it’s worth remembering his 2015 majority had been 19.8%. If Labour were to perform strongly, they could therefore take this – if.
Based on the results for the overlapping council wards, the SNP have recently proven strongest around the south of Airdrie, Holytown, Chapelhall, Salsburgh, Allanton and the Stane portion of Shotts. Map tints indicate Newmains as well, but the real winner there in 2017 was a very popular Independent. Labour meanwhile did the best in the centre of Airdrie, Glenmavis, Wattston, Caldercruix, Plains, Shotts and Harthill. There’s also a pocket of Conservative support around Eastfield.
(With thanks to Andrew Teale of LEAP for the ballot box data – as I started BBS a bit after the 2017 elections, I hadn’t gone through every council website downloading every document, as for some odd reason I didn’t expect any councils to delete their data before 2022. North Lanarkshire decided they’d be fun and do exactly that…)
As is typical for UK Parliament by-elections, we have a somewhat eclectic field here. The four main Westminster parties are all standing, and except the Lib Dems have put up candidates that are in some way locally familiar. Defending for the SNP is Anum Qaisar-Javed, who stood for the Council in 2017 for the Murdostoun* ward. Her main opponent will be Labour’s Kenneth Stevenson, one of their councillors for Fortissat. The Conservative’s Ben Callaghan stood in the Fortissat by-election in March, as well as Coatbridge North in 2017 and Coatbridge South in 2018.
There are then four other candidates from smaller parties. UKIP’s Donald Mackay gets about a fair bit – he’ll be standing for the Edinburgh Central constituency and on the Lothian list the week before, and in 2019 stood in the East Dunbartonshire constituency. The SDP’s Neil Manson is also contesting Lothian. Reform UK’s Martyn Greene meanwhile can be found on the West Scotland regional list. Finally, the Scottish Unionists’ Jonathan Stanley is another Holyrood candidate, but he’s at least contesting the Central region the covers this area, albeit doing so under the auspices of All for Unity.
Although the Greens stood in 2017, they haven’t put up a candidate this time. That’s possibly due to this following on so closely from the Holyrood election, bearing in mind that Green branches tend to take their own decisions on contesting constituencies. They’ve also typically preferred to focus resources on proportional elections in cases where there’s a competing FPTP vote happening at a similar time.
* Note that we’ll be returning to Murdostoun before too long on BBS. Very sadly, Independent Councillor Robert McKendrick passed away recently, and there will therefore be a by-election in due course.
Stephen Arrundale (Liberal Democrat)
Ben Callaghan (Conservative)
Martyn Greene (Reform UK)
Donald Mackay (UKIP)
Neil Manson (Social Democratic Party)
Anum Qaisar-Javed (SNP)
Jonathan Stanley (Scottish Unionist)
Kenneth Stevenson (Labour)
If Labour were polling in any way better than they did in 2019, I’d be inclined to say they were in with a good chance here. They aren’t, so they aren’t. Holyrood is looming, and all polling evidence says the SNP are miles in front, and Labour are pretty stagnant. It’d take quite a stretch to imagine Labour closing a 13.1% gap at the moment, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s impossible.
What’s likely to make the SNP’s lead so resilient is that their starting point is around 45%. Even if you imagined vast amounts of tactical voting on the part of Conservative supporters in favour of Labour, it’s never going to be to that extent. The SNP would have to lose at least 2-3% to really put them at risk of losing to the tactical vote, and that doesn’t seem to be where things currently stand. If I were a betting man – I’m not, but if I were – I’d be putting the money on Qaisar-Javed for this one.
Call: Likely SNP.
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