Ballot Box Scotland launched in January 2018, and has covered every Council by-election since then. However, seven by-elections had already taken place in 2017 after that year’s May elections. As a bit of a bonus to wrap up this term, I’m completing the set by going back to those early by-elections and uploading all the data the same way I have for every election since I started.
The penultimate entry in this bonus series once again brings us to a ward that may be familiar to long-time followers of Ballot Box Scotland. Perth City South most recently had a by-election in November 2020, but there’d already been a quick return to the polls three years previously. This first by-election followed the resignation of Conservative councillor Michael Jamieson in rather grim circumstances, as he’d been found in possession of indecent images – a euphemism we’d all hope to avoid encountering at the best of times, never mind in relation to elected representatives.
Getting onto the electoral track, Perth City South is one of the 12 wards within Perth & Kinross, electing 4 councillors at a full election. There are 3 wards covering the city, with this effectively covering the southwest, including Burghmuir, Woodlands, Cherrybank, Craigie and Moncrieffe. It also has a southern portion of Letham.
At the UK Parliament, SNP representation in the area dates back to a 1995 by-election for the then Perth and Kinross constituency covering the city, won by Roseanna Cunningham. The successor Perth and North Perthshire constituency has consistently been SNP, though at the 2017 election long-serving MP Pete Wishart was left with a nail-biting majority of just 21 votes over the Conservatives. That majority grew to a more comfortable 14% in December 2019.
For Holyrood the ward is in the Perthshire South and Kinross-shire constituency. That constituency, and the preceding version of it, is the Scottish Parliament’s successor to the old Perth and Kinross seat, and has been SNP since devolution when Cunningham made the move to Holyrood. She chose to retire this year, and though her successor held the seat for the party, it ended up being one of their most marginal victories.
Boundaries and Recent Election History
Minor changes to the boundaries in 2017 saw the ward expand northwards to take in that little stretch of Letham mentioned above. Despite the otherwise SNP-leaning nature of Perth, the Lib Dems have consistently been the leading party here. In 2007 they won two councillors, with one each for the SNP and Conservatives. In their 2012 setback, they lost one of those to Labour, making this a rare rainbow ward.
Although the Lib Dem vote share almost fully recovered in 2017, they only stood a single candidate. It’s a pretty good bet they’d have won two councillors had they stood a second, but instead it was the SNP clinching the double, coming at Labour’s expense.
Detailed 2017 Data
Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, there’s a relatively clear split between strong Lib Dem and SNP areas – their worst results came in the areas the other was strongest. To the Lib Dems went the districts around Burghmuir, Woodlands and Cherrybank, of which the first was their best overall. The SNP meanwhile led in Moncreiffe, Craigie and most strongly in the Letham chunk, which was also where Labour had the most success.
The Conservatives had their best showing around Cherrybank and Woodlands as did Bathgate, the more successful of the two Independent candidates. Both the Greens and Houston, the other Independent, had their best figures in Craigie.
Looking at 2017’s second preferences, and the Lib Dem popularity was pretty clear. They were the most popular next preference for Conservative and Labour voters, and the second most popular for the SNP, Greens and Bathgate. Going in the other direction, Lib Dems were most likely to put their number 2 next to the Conservative. As is so often the case the two Independents had strong preference flows between one another, whilst the SNP and Greens were likewise favourable to one another.
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 3488 votes.
Given how popular the Lib Dems were both in first and second preferences, you probably didn’t need BBS level analysis to figure they’d have easily won a single seat vote. Interestingly, this is a rare case of a mainland ward where the SNP weren’t in the top two, as they were just a hair behind the Conservatives in the round they drop out.
Rather than viewing this as a clear-cut “likely Lib Dem” case at the time though, given how out of kilter the result was with the rest of Perth and Kinross, I’d have put a large part of their performance down to a personal vote. If I was evaluating this now without further context, I might say that given where Lib Dem next preferences were going, it might have been Lean Lib Dem with the Conservatives as their closest competition.
For the by-election most of the candidates were new faces. However, two returned from neighbouring Perth City wards. Green candidate Elspeth MacLachlan had stood as an Independent in Perth City North, where she had previously been an SNP councillor. Labour’s Tricia Duncan meanwhile had been on the ballot for Perth City Centre.
Liz Barrett (Lib Dem)
Denise Baykal (Independent)
Audrey Coates (Conservative)
Tricia Duncan (Labour)
Pauline Leitch (SNP)
Elspeth MacLachlan (Green)
By-Election First Preferences
That personal vote hunch would have been proven correct when the Lib Dems ended up placing third in the by-election, although still with a very respectable vote share. Labour and the Greens also saw themselves losing votes compared to the full election. The SNP and Conservatives then experienced roughly equivalent gains, meaning it was still pretty close on first preferences, and Lib Dem transfers would be the deciding factor.
As no candidate had an outright majority of the vote, transfer rounds were necessary. The quota to reach here was 2777 votes.
Though the Lib Dems gained on the Conservatives through transfers, starting at 137 votes behind, they fell 29 short and dropped out. Their transfers then saw the Conservatives leapfrog the SNP to claim the seat. That crucial stage being so close would then have a major impact on my assessment of the later by-election here, where the Lib Dems would emerge victorious.
Detailed By-Election Data
At polling district level, the map differed from the full election by the Conservatives taking the lead in the district around Cherrybank and Woodlands, but the Lib Dems remained ahead in the west around Burghmuir – naturally, these were those parties best areas. The SNP meanwhile retained the same district leads as at the full election, though it was the Moncreiffe area that squeaked into their strongest. Labour likewise shifted there, whilst the other two candidates had too few votes to really pick out any strong areas for them.
Unfortunately, the Perth & Kinross habit of providing their preference profile reports in PDF format led to a faulty conversion, so the second preference data is just a bit off. I may or may not be emailing some of the offenders on this front before the election to request that they Do Not Do That next year…
And with that, we’ve only got one final 2017 by-election to cast our eyes back over. That will very neatly publish on the day of the Fort William and Ardnamurchan by-election, allowing BBS to move smoothly back into current election coverage
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