Bridge of Don (Aberdeen) By-Election, 03/10/19

2019 is fair making up for the lack of City Council by-elections in 2018, as a trip up to the Granite City for a rare two seat by-election means we’re just missing Glasgow for the full set. This will be only the third multi-councillor by-election since STV was introduced in 2007, with one in each of Edinburgh and Aberdeenshire in 2015. And it’s not the only by-election coming up in Aberdeen, as the Torry/Ferryhill ward is due one soon too due to another resignation – but more on that as it approaches.

Unfortunately half of this by-election has been triggered by the sad passing of SNP councillor Sandy Stuart, who had represented the ward since 2012. The other half was prompted by the resignation of Conservative councillor Brett Hunt, elected in 2017, who had courted some degree of controversy due to spending substantial time working abroad.

Bridge of Don is one of 13 wards making up Aberdeen City Council, and elects 4 councillors at a normal election. As the name suggests, it consists entirely of Aberdeen’s northern suburb of Bridge of Don. The area was previously a separate village, but was absorbed into the city and rapidly expanded over the past few decades. In common with other northern portions of the city, it was an area the Lib Dems tended to do comparatively well in before their collapse, competing with the SNP and Labour.

For the Scottish Parliament, the ward is entirely within the Aberdeen Donside constituency. This (and the preceding Aberdeen North constituency) have been won by the SNP at every election since 2003, having been won by Labour in 1999. However the current MSP, Mark McDonald, sits as an independent following his resignation from the SNP in 2017 after an investigation into harassment.

At Westminster, most of the ward is part of the Gordon constituency which in addition to northern portions of Aberdeen City Council, also covers the Garioch (“geary”, don’t even start me, Beyoncé), Formartine, and Strathbogie areas of Aberdeenshire. Gordon was won by the Conservatives in 2017, after the nationwide SNP surge in 2015 saw former First Minister Alex Salmond (…) snatch it from the Liberal Democrats who had held the seat for decades. Before boundary changes in 2005 it had been in the Aberdeen North constituency, which was comfortably Labour until the SNP won it in 2015, and a small corner in the southeast remains part of that constituency.

To all intents and purposes, the ward hasn’t seen any boundary changes since 2007 as that little area in the southwest doesn’t have many, if any, residents. At the first election the ward elected two Lib Dem, an SNP and a Labour councillor – though the SNP had enough votes to likely win two, they had only stood one candidate.. In 2012 they went the other direction and stood three and elected two including Sandy Stuart, and Labour held their seat. Having resigned from the Lib Dems shortly before the election, John Reynolds was also comfortably re-elected as an independent. In 2017 the SNP and Reynolds held on, but Labour lost their seat to Brett Hunt, with the Conservatives showing an impressive leap from 5th place with 6.1% to 2nd with 25.8%.

There are a few returning faces in this by-election, with the independent Simon McLean having stood in the ward in 2017. Labour’s Graeme Lawrence was formerly the councillor for neighbouring Dyce/Bucksburn/Danestone, whilst the SNP’s Jessica Mennie stood unsuccessfully in Northfield/Mastrick North, where her party rather oddly stood 3 candidates for a 3 seat ward – which would have needed 75% of the vote to secure. UKIP’s candidate stood in Kingswells/Sheddocksley/Summerhill. All the other candidates are fresh faces, especially the Red Party of Scotland, contesting their first ever election. The full list is;

  • Philip Clarke (UKIP)
  • Sarah Cross (Conservative)
  • Sylvia Hardie (Green)
  • Graeme Lawrence (Labour)
  • Max McKay (Red Party of Scotland)
  • Simon McLean (Independent)
  • Jessica Mennie (SNP)
  • Michal Skoczykloda (Liberal Democrat)

As ever, to get the best comparison between the original vote and a by-election, we need to go beyond the surface and re-calculate a result – but this time it’s re-calculating for two! The top chart shows the first preferences in 2017, transfer flows are in the bottom chart. In a two seat election under STV, a candidate needs a third +1 (so just over 33.33%, repeating of course) of the valid votes cast (a quota) to win.

Stage 7, last competitive round;

  • SNP – 2670 (36.9%)
  • Conservative – 2301 (31.8%)
  • Ind (Reynolds) – 1616 (22.3%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 649 (9.0%)

Had the 2017 election been for two seats, it’d have been one apiece to the SNP and Conservatives. By stage 7 the SNP had crossed the threshold, and the gap between the Conservatives and Reynolds was insurmountable. That bodes well for both parties holding their respective sets at the by-election. However, in the current political climate there is a big orange catch for the Conservatives. That huge increase the Conservatives saw in their vote could be quite soft, and the first preferences that went to Reynolds, a former Lib Dem, in 2017 may well trickle back to his old party. Although it’s quite some distance away, the Lib Dems saw a substantial increase in their vote share in the East Kilbride Central North by-election at the end of August, suggesting they are indeed bouncing back. That was largely at Labour’s expense, which could therefore be another solid source of votes for them here.

Whether the Lib Dems do make a comeback or not could be really important. The current Conservative/Aberdeen Labour (still suspended from the mother party)/Independent administration is now sitting on 22 of 45 seats, versus the SNP and Lib Dems on 20, and 3 vacancies. If the by-election returns an SNP and a Lib Dem councillor, followed by either of them winning the Torry/Ferryhill seat, those two parties would have a majority. That they are the current opposition doesn’t necessarily mean they would form a coalition to take control, especially when you consider there are no coalitions between them anywhere at the moment. However, it would almost certainly result in at least some form of administration change as it seems unlikely the existing one would be able to limp on as a minority for years.

Call: SNP win one, Con vs LD for second