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.
Although I hadn’t yet had the idea for Ballot Box Scotland at the time, I’ve got very distinct memories of the first by-election that followed the 2017 elections. By which I mean being absolutely furious about it in my then-boyfriend’s car when I saw the news on Twitter. But what on earth would have me so animated about a by-election for Elgin City North, way up in Moray, the only mainland council I’ve never visited?
Well, Independent councillor for the ward, Sandy Cooper decided to resign just four days into the role. It “wasn’t for him.” At the same time as he was being elected to an office it turned out he didn’t want, I was bawling my eyes out on the steps at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow because my own hard work had narrowly come to naught.
In hindsight, I’d rather be the BBS-nerd than a councillor so it all worked out – Britain Elects is both, and I think I would simply expire if I was. Besides, Maggie is a very good egg I feel no shame having lost to. Nonetheless, I was understandably gutted at the time – hence being apoplectic at the thought of some numpty having stood only to give it up within days. The vanity!
Anyway, moving on to the wider political context, Elgin City North is one of the eight wards making up the Moray council area, electing 3 councillors at a full election. It’s part of the Moray constituency in both parliaments, which at the time of the 2017 election were both held by the SNP. However, by the by-election, the Conservatives had flipped the Westminster seat with now-leader Douglas Ross as MP, ending the SNP’s 30 year tenure.
Boundaries and Recent Election History
The ward had very minor boundary changes ahead of 2017, growing a few streets to the north west. A quick check via Google Maps confirms my immediate guess that the additional area consists of new builds that didn’t exist back when the 2007 boundaries were drawn – or as recently as 2014. Previous results will therefore be perfectly fine to directly compare.
At the first election in 2007, Elgin showed up as a distinct urban island in this otherwise largely rural and small town council. In addition to being SNP led, both wards elected the only Labour councillors in the council area, alongside an Independent – John Russell here in the case of North.
The SNP had polled very well here in 2007, and took that as cause to stand two candidates in 2012. With Russell standing down, they managed to elect both – though the second was just 0.5 votes ahead of the Conservative candidate at the crucial stage, which really puts my 40-vote loss into perspective.
Labour held their seat, though their councillor resigned partway through the term, leading to a by-election that saw the SNP ending up with all three councillors in the ward. Another for the “STV is perhaps not so great a system for ensuring diversity of views as many assume” column.
Labour had done very poorly in that 2014 by-election, and though they recovered somewhat for 2017, their share was still less than half what it had been in 2012. In the midst of their revival the Conservatives came out on top here, squeaking past the SNP with a 10 vote lead in first preferences. That led to both of those parties winning a seat apiece, with absolute time-waster Sandy Cooper winning the final seat. He’d contested the 2014 by-election as well, giving him three whole years to look into the role of councillor, and he still resigned four days in. Ugh.
Detailed 2017 Data
Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, we see the Conservatives were ahead in the northwest around Bishopmill as well as in the postal vote, whilst the SNP were strongest in the rest of the ward, which apparently have no distinct locality names available. That’s a bit of a pain for descriptions, but we’ll persevere.
Labour’s support was greatest in the same district as the Conservatives, as was the support for the second Independent candidate, Billy Adams. Finally, Cooper’s strongest results came from the two southern districts.
Looking at 2017’s second preferences, it’s mostly favourable to Independents. The Conservatives were almost evently split, with Cooper narrowly edging out Adams, whilst voters for both Independents preferred each other the most. SNP and Labour voters likewise favoured each other, though that was more emphatic from SNP to Labour than in return.
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 1790 votes.
Re-calculating 2017 for a single councillor shows the Conservatives coming out on top, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the second preference chart showed voters tended to favour them over the SNP. Given the gap and the local political context, had I covered this at the time I’d have said it was “Likely Conservative.”
But that’s not all the re-calculation fun! If you followed the link to the newspaper piece about Cooper’s resignation, you’ll have seen a bit of a bunfight between Labour and the SNP. Both parties were claiming it was their candidate who lost out for Cooper’s vanity run. That’s exactly the kind of petty election beef I both find highly enjoyable and am equipped to answer, by doing a full three-seat re-calculation after excluding Cooper. Quota here is 895 votes.
It turns out that the injured party was Labour, though it was by a hair’s breadth. At stage 3 it’s so tightly bunched between Labour, the second SNP candidate and the other Independent you may be having trouble seeing it on the chart. Labour are just 7.6 votes ahead of the SNP, so the latter drop out, and their transfers narrowly push Labour past Adams into taking the final seat by 14.5 votes.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that it would have been the SNP’s seat but for 8 votes however – STV is more complicated than that. They are 20 votes behind Adams, and Labour’s votes would have transferred about 2:1 to Adams over the SNP, a very comfortable margin. We can say that Labour’s analysis was pretty solid, whereas the SNP’s was perhaps rather more wishful thinking and public posturing.
When it came to the by-election, voters had the same three party options as they’d had two months prior. Unsurprisingly, both the SNP and Labour candidates who had cried foul were back on the ballot, whilst the Conservative candidate was an entirely fresh face, the party having elected every candidate they’d stood in Moray in May. They were joined by Terry Monaghan, an Independent who had stood in Forres and won less than 1% of the vote.
Patsy Gowans (SNP)
Maria McLean (Conservative)
Terry Monaghan (Independent)
Nick Taylor (Labour)
By-Election First Preferences
Since almost a quarter of the vote was going spare versus the full election, it wasn’t too surprising that all three parties saw positive swings. The Conservatives benefitted marginally more from that than the SNP, allowing them to very slightly widen what still remained a narrow lead.
Though Labour were the party that lost out in the first place, sympathy doesn’t win elections, and they placed a distant third. Monaghan fared a lot better than he did in Forres, which may speak to a certain degree of “some voters will vote for any Independent out of principle.”
As no candidate had an outright majority of the vote, transfer rounds were necessary. The quota to reach here was 1154 votes.
Despite by-election conditions typically favouring the Conservatives, this ended up closer run than the re-calculated result of the full election, with their post-transfer lead over the SNP dropping to 2.9%. A lead is a lead however, and that meant the Conservatives emerged victorious. Note that as this was a hand count, we don’t see a (mathematically irrelevant) final round excluding the SNP, nor do we have any further data to look at.
The first of 2017’s by-elections out of the way, there are still six more to go. I’ll be publishing a look back at one of them every week for the next few weeks. That’ll take us nicely to the day of (I hope) the last council by-election of the 2017-22 term, at which point I can wrap everything up with the neatest of bows before preparing for the mammoth task of next year’s elections.
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