Back Catalogue Bonus: Fortissat 7th of September 2017

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.

Ward Profile

Held on the same day as the Cardonald by-election in Glasgow, a look at North Lanarkshire’s Fortissat ward might give the dedicated BBS reader a sense of déjà vu. That’d be because there was also a by-election here earlier this year. This is one of just three wards in Scotland that has experienced two by-elections since 2017, and one of four to have two councillors elected that way – Bridge of Don in Aberdeen was one ballot but for two vacancies.

At the root of the first by-election here was that Conservative candidate Sandy Thornton found himself duly elected – but never at any point signed his acceptance of office. He therefore never legally became a councillor. After a certain period this automatically becomes a vacancy and triggers a by-election. But what on earth could possibly cause a candidate not to take up elected office? Why even stand in the first place?

Well, it’s very clear that Thornton had been intended as nothing but a paper candidate – he’d stood in 2012 and won just 2.6%, for one thing. Indeed, his own offered excuse for not taking up the seat was ill-health, and I find no reason to doubt that – and emphasise that this component of the situation isn’t at all amusing. However, that further evidences the paper status of his candidacy, as it’s unlikely someone with such poor health they couldn’t take up the role would stand if they expected to win, and if your illness was temporary you’d presumably take up office and hope for improvement.

So, what’s a paper candidate? Almost anyone who has been active in a political party will be familiar with the concept of “targeting.” Generally speaking, parties have an uneven distribution of support and limited resources. It therefore doesn’t make sense to try and win everywhere in the country – the SNP currently being something of an exception. At the same time, there’s both a strong social and electoral incentive to stand as many candidates as possible.

Parties therefore target their time and resources on a set of candidates most likely (or most desired) to be elected, whilst other candidates are simply intended to keep habitual party voters in that habit, gather data, and generally bolster credibility. Hence, paper candidates. This bit of the political sausage machine often surprises folk, who assume all candidates must be trying to win, but it’s a pretty natural consequence of any voting system using local units, and STV is almost as heavily impacted by it as FPTP is. Those same voters also often expect to have every party stand in their area, so they can’t complain!

Thornton was therefore an oddly unfortunate victim of the Conservatives’ remarkable success in 2017. It wasn’t simply that the party did well that year, but that they did unexpectedly well. There are by my estimate 15 wards where had the party stood two candidates they’d have elected two councillors, but not expecting such success, only stood one. For the same reasons, they also elected some of the folk who were just meant to be filling out a ballot paper.

There will be more of these councillors across the Central Belt than the Conservatives would be comfortable admitting – see the recent tale in the Irvine Times of the local councillor there who has by all appearances done nothing since being elected. I’d caution that that’s another extreme, and I expect most such accidental councillors have given the job a fair shake. It’s simply in this case the candidate didn’t feel capable of taking up the role, and that is a shame.

Lengthy exposition aside, we can look at local circumstances. Fortissat is one of North Lanarkshire’s 21 wards, electing 4 councillors at a full election. The centre of this ward is the town of Shotts, and there are then a string of other villages along major roads to the north, including Salsburgh and Harthill, and the south, including Allanton.

As with the rest of North Lanarkshire, this is also a strongly Labour area in historic terms. In both parliaments, this ward is part of an Aidrie and Shotts constituency, which Labour long held. The Holyrood constituency went to the SNP in 2011, and the UK constituency in 2015, though they held it with a very slender majority in the 2017 snap election.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

There has been a very small boundary change since 2007, with the ward expanding to take in the village of Morningside near Wishaw. It also previously had 3 councillors. In 2007, those went one each to Labour, the SNP and an Independent. That same spread continued into 2012, though the SNP stood two candidates and it was their incumbent who lost out.

In 2017, with another councillor up for grabs, there was more of a shakeup. Labour picked up a second seat, whilst the SNP held steady on one. The unfortunate not-quite councillor for the Conservatives therefore displaced the Independent. Charlie Cefferty lost over half of his vote compared to the previous election, and actually placed behind what I for ease refer to as the British Unionist Party (BUP) – at the time of the vote they had a longer, more perplexing name. This shift might perhaps be further explained with the knowledge that Cefferty was formerly a senior figure in the Orange Order.

Detailed 2017 Data

Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, the ward effectively chunks up into three sections. Labour were the leading party in the main population centre of Shotts, winning nearly half the vote. The SNP then did had a lead in the western half, covering the smaller villages, particularly Morningside.

Finally, the BUP even managed to lead the districts covering Harthill and most strongly Eastfield. Conservative support was also strongest in the Morningside area, whilst Cefferty did best in Bonkle.

Second preferences here ended up perhaps a little peculiar, given the ballot options. Labour were the next most preferred option for both the SNP and Cefferty’s voters, with Labour voters returning the favour for the latter. Labour in general were a pretty popular second preference, with every other candidate’s voters more likely to pick them than the SNP for their next choice.

Oddly, almost a quarter of SNP voters also opted for Cefferty, despite the staunchly pro-Union Orange Order and the SNP not exactly being friendly. Given the very low SNP preferences for Conservative and BUP candidates, I have to be frank and say I reckon a bit of blind “well, an Independent is good, eh?” voting was going on. Anyway, unsurprisingly there was very strong degree of mutual preferencing between the Conservatives and BUP.

2017 Re-Calculation

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 2522 votes.

It shouldn’t be a shock that given Labour’s lead, the constitutional persuasion of the other candidates on the ballot, and what second preferences looked like, that they’d have won a single seat election pretty easily. Were this a vote I was covering at the time, I’d have said it would quite simply be a Labour win.

By-Election Candidates

The by-election brought with it a slightly wider range of candidates, as the Greens and UKIP joined the fray – both of their candidates had stood in Airdrie North at the full election. The SNP’s Mags Murphy was a direct returnee from May, and Cefferty took another run at it too. Oddly, the BUP selected an entirely new candidate, and the Conservatives much less oddly did likewise, and Labour opted for a totally fresh face as well, both of their candidates having been elected and them not drafting anyone from another ward in.

Charlie Cefferty (Independent)
Kyle Davidson (Green)
Daryl Gardner (UKIP)
John Jo Leckie (BUP)
Norma McNab (Conservative)
Mags Murphy (SNP)
Clare Quigley (Labour)

By-Election First Preferences

This turned out to be an absolute corker. In what can only be described as a dramatic turn of events, the SNP were shunted into third place by the BUP. It’s been very rare indeed for the SNP to place third in any (mainland) ward in Scotland since they became the country’s dominant force. To find themselves third behind not one of their major competitors but a tiny fringe party would have been quite the shock to their system.

The Conservatives and former Independent councillor Cefferty also saw decreases in their support – losing half again in the latter’s case. Having never expected their not-quite-councillor here in the first place, the Conservatives would also have “lost” their seat to the BUP if this had been a full election. Meanwhile,  first-timers for the Greens and UKIP barely registered.

By-Election Transfers

As no candidate had an outright majority of the vote, transfer rounds were necessary. The quota to reach here was 1845 votes.

With the SNP in third and nowhere favourable to pick up transfers from, this came down to a Labour-BUP competition – the vote shift figures above are from then re-calculating the full election for a similar comparison. Though the gap versus that vote was much smaller, it was nonetheless exactly as wide as the actual Labour-SNP gap had been. Naturally, plenty more SNP votes went Labour’s way than the BUP’s.

Detailed By-Election Data

For the by-election ballot box data, North Lanarkshire have unfortunately scrubbed their website of all elections data preceding 2021. As I haven’t always been in the best data download habit, that means I’m missing the raw numbers of votes from this, though I do have the % shares per district for everyone except the Greens and UKIP, who won too few votes to show up in my graphic version of this.

This time around, Labour ended up in front in most districts, though still with their strongest result in Shotts. The SNP were reduced to a lead in just the districts around Allanton and Bonkle, although their best vote share came from around Salsburgh. Despite the BUP surge, they still only led the districts around Harthill and Eastfield – though their strongest result came in the Dyekhead portion of Shotts.

Second preferences felt a bit more normal this time, with a slightly expanded roster of candidates. Though what few Green voters there were had the usual preference flow to the SNP, the SNP’s return was actually just below what they sent to Labour. Labour voters likewise were most likely to select the SNP… if they picked a next preference at all, which more than half did not.

The BUP and Conservatives maintained their mutual second preference situation, with the small pool of UKIP voters similarly favouring the BUP. Cefferty’s much reduced voter base were also most likely to back the BUP.

After all this excitement and relative success, you might have expected that the BUP would keep plugging away at this area. It isn’t often a new party piles on enough support that they could win a councillor, and getting an elected foot in the door could be the path to success in the longer run. Any sensible, credible attempt at starting a new party would jump at this kind of opportunity. Yet, come the follow up by-election, and the BUP were nowhere to be seen.

Their website had been wound up, and although the party was still registered, their leader appeared to have moved onto a new wheeze in the Abolish the Scottish Parliament Party. That outfit achieved hee-haw this May, winning less than a third of the votes in the Glasgow region than the BUP had won there, the only region they contested, in 2016. I’m not often so sharply critical of parties, but whatever you think of the policies or positioning of these micro-parties, it just looks fundamentally unserious and utterly frivolous to toss aside this relative success.

Musings on new parties failing to grasp the low hanging fruit in front of them aside, we’re now near the midpoint of this little series. I’d intended it as a bit of a gap filler between Falkirk South and the festive period, yet it looks like we’ll see two actual by-elections in that time too. An election nerd’s work is never done, it turns out.

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