Cause of By-Election
Buckie was one of eight wards in Scotland that didn’t go to the polls in May, with the three candidates standing for election automatically filling the three seats available. One of these was Lib Dem Christopher Price, something I have to admit was extremely funny, as there wasn’t a hope in hell of them picking up a councillor at a contested election. It wasn’t to last, as by mid-August Price announced his resignation, effectively having been unable to balance his duties as a councillor with his full-time job.
This led to some quite scathing responses both from local journalists and other political parties, with a particular outraged focus on the cost of the by-election. I went from finding the situation humorous to quite unedifying, even disgusting. To begin with, it’s very clear that Price was intended as nothing more than a paper candidate. I’ve written about paper candidacies in the past, which are a natural consequence of the competing incentives to stand as many candidates as possible whilst deploying limited resources intelligently to maximise the number elected.
The Lib Dems could not have known the SNP would fail to stand a second candidate. Nor could they have known that 2017’s Independent councillor was standing down – he only talked to the press about it after the close of nominations. They had no reason to expect the ward would be uncontested. If they hadn’t stood, it would have been under-contested and a by-election would have been required anyway. You might wonder whether they could have stood a candidate more able to do the job, but given (as we’ll see below) their by-election candidate stood in a neighbouring ward, the answer seems to be “no”. It was Price, or no candidate.
What about the fury around his taking a salary for that time? Working on the basis there’d have been a by-election anyway had he not stood, we also need to consider when it would have been held. It takes time to plan and administer a by-election, and given it’ll be two and a half months from date of resignation to date of poll for this one, we can assume a similar timescale if one had been required due to under-contesting.
Given Price resigned three and a half months in, and there’d have been a by-election anyway had he not stood at all, rather than tens of thousands for a by-election plus salary, the net cost of his brief tenure is in fact one month’s salary. Even in this cash strapped period of time, one month’s salary for a councillor (£1631), even allowing for cost of National Insurance and pension contributions, is a drop in the ocean.
Much was also made of his attendance record, of just one meeting – however, given the summer recess starts in July, he’d only had five meetings of either full council or his committees to attend anyway. Indeed, given the timescales involved, it seems to me that Price did indeed attempt to make the best of his unexpected election, but the attendance record shows he couldn’t. Three months of a five year term seems a perfectly reasonable period of time to give the job a fair shake, find quite honestly you couldn’t, then step back and give someone better prepared the opportunity.
This section is a lot longer than usual, but I feel quite strongly about the appalling attitudes that were on show. Politics is already deeply unpleasant, and perhaps the journalists and political opponents in this situation might want to reflect on their needless contribution to that toxicity in this case. Indeed, I received an email just after May’s election explaining the SNP’s limited slate of candidates was in part down to people being unwilling to stand given how toxic Moray politics is. As an outside observer, it certainly seems that was an accurate assessment.
Far from being a terrible person, Price ended up in a situation no one could have foreseen, gave it his best shot, and has done the right thing in stepping back. Is having a bit of common decency and letting the guy get back to his life without grief so much to ask? If you were part of that little circus and you aren’t ashamed of yourself, you bloody well should be.
Buckie is one of 8 wards in Moray, and elects 3 councillors at a full election. Unchanged since it was created in 2007, the name is pretty self-explanatory, as the town of Buckie is indeed the overwhelming component of the ward. It also extends to include the smaller village of Findochty a bit further along the coast, and the even smaller village of Rathven just outside Buckie itself.
For elections to the Scottish Parliament, the ward lies within the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency, the minority component of Moray council area that lies in the North East region rather than Highlands and Islands. Prior to 2011 it had been in the Moray constituency, but both have been consistently held by the SNP since creation.
Westminster’s Moray constituency is coterminous with the council area, and has been held by the Conservatives since 2017, when now-leader of the Scottish Conservatives Douglas Ross unseated then-Westminster group leader of the SNP Angus Robertson. Amusingly enough, both are now in the Scottish Parliament, Ross having effected a return last year for his old H&I region seat, whilst Robertson headed to Edinburgh Central. Ross only held the seat very narrowly in 2019, and it may be entirely dissolved in coming boundary changes.
The first two STV elections returned the same three councillors – Gordon McDonald for the SNP, plus two Independents Anne McKay and Joe Mackay. Both would leave office in the 2012-17 term, with McKay resigning in 2013 and being replaced by another Independent, Gordon Cowie, whilst Mackay sadly died in 2015 and was succeeded by the SNP’s Sonya Warren.
Long service didn’t do McDonald any good in 2017, as Warren held the SNP seat, Cowie was re-elected, and Conservative Tim Eagle picked up the final seat. This May’s uncontested election again saw Warren returned, alongside the ill-fated Lib Dem Christopher Price and Conservative Neil McLennan. McLennan was briefly co-leader of the council before resigning to sit as an Independent, further adding to the political churn in the ward.
In terms of vote shares, the SNP have led at every full election in the ward, and absolutely steamrollered the 2015 by-election. Only in the 2014 by-election did they come second, behind Cowie. The dramatic nature of the Conservatives’ revival from 2016 onwards is demonstrated by previously peaking at 12.6% in that 2015 by-election, before nearly trebling their share in 2017. That seems to have largely been at Cowie’s expense, as he did only half as well as he had at his initial by-election win. The only other party to have received votes in the ward are Labour, who were only present in 2007, when they nonetheless came ahead of the Conservatives.
Councillors and Key Stats
3 Councillors, in order elected:
🔵Conservative: Neil McLennan
🟠Lib Dem: Christopher Price
🟡SNP: Sonya Warren
Change vs 2017: +1 Lib Dem, -1 Independent (Gordon Cowie retired)
🔵Conservative: Neil McLennan
🟠Lib Dem: Christopher Price
🟡SNP: Sonya Warren
Obviously, since there was no vote here in May, there isn’t a 2022 result to compare to. Instead, we’ll have to compare with 2017, which is less than ideal…
First Preferences (2017)
Transfers (single winner recalculation) (2017)
Two-Candidate Preferred (2017)
Whereas the SNP, Labour and Independent candidates are entirely fresh faces, Lib Dem Les Tarr is a returnee, having stood in neighbouring Keith and Cullen in May. Conservative Tim Eagle was actually a councillor for the ward between 2017 and 2022, also contesting the Moray constituency at Holyrood last year, but had opted not to re-stand in May. The Greens are the only Holyrood party absent, perhaps unsurprising when you consider this is amongst their weakest patches in the country.
🔵Conservative: Tim Eagle
🔴Labour: Keighly Goudie
⚪Independent: Neil Houlden
🟡SNP: John Stuart
🟠Lib Dem: Les Tarr
As we don’t have 2022 data to go on, this is much more difficult to predict than usual. It’s almost certain to be between the SNP and Conservatives. 2017 data suggests a close contest, albeit allowing for what we now know about preference drop-off it would possibly have been a bit less close with just one SNP candidate on the ballot. Rather a lot has happened since 2017!
Notably, Independents almost completely disappeared in Moray between the two elections. If we compare both 2022 and 2017 with the exclusion of Buckie, the sum for Independent candidates dropped by a whopping 16.5%. Despite the potential spare vote bonanza, the Conservatives were almost steady, with a miniscule swing of -0.1%. By comparison, the SNP were up +5.7%. That might suggest the SNP are likely to be starting from a stronger position than their 2017 result.
However, the biggest swing was +7.5% to Labour, as well as notable +2.4% for the Lib Dems. It’s important to note that whereas both parties only stood in 2 wards in 2017, they were present in 5 in 2022, and they will have eaten away at the Conservative vote. The SNP meanwhile were less impacted by the Greens’ +0.6%, the latter having gone from standing in 2 to 3 wards this year.
One other thing to take into account is the sharp decline in Conservative polling support over the past two weeks. At UK level, Labour are recording eye-watering leads over the Conservatives, and even in Scotland’s distinct political climate it’s hard to see how the Conservatives won’t be slumping. Even if they bounce back a bit, at the moment the party is looking quite wounded. Especially with the Lib Dems (and Labour) on the ballot this time, Conservative votes may be further depleted, and per that earlier reference we know not all of those will transfer back.
Bearing all of that in mind, I think the SNP are going into this by-election with the edge. I’m certainly not writing off the Conservatives, but without data from May I honestly can’t say just how good (or bad) their chances are. Tim Eagle may struggle to soar above current difficulties to effect his speedy return to the council. Independent Neil Houlden could shake things up, but I’m unsure as to how prominent he is, being the only candidate I don’t think publicised his candidacy before nominations closed.
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