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.
For the fifth entry in our look back at 2017’s by-elections, we’re on the relatively familiar territory of Aberdeenshire. Fresh from being re-elected councillor for Inverurie and District ward, the Conservatives’ Colin Clark found himself serving as MP for Gordon, having dramatically unseated former SNP leader and First Minister, Alex Salmond. He then promptly resigned his local seat.
Inverurie and District is one of 19 wards making up Aberdeenshire, and elects 4 councillors at an ordinary election. As the name suggests, the overwhelmingly dominant component of this ward is the town of Inverurie, with its southern suburb Port Elphinstone. There’s also a very sparsely populated rural chunk, including the small village of Kinmuck.
For elections to the Scottish Parliament, this ward is within the Aberdeenshire East constituency, which at the time of the by-election had been held pretty comfortably by the SNP the year before. On the original Holyrood boundaries it had been within Gordon, which was initially Lib Dem before Salmond won it for the SNP in 2007. At Westminster it’s part of a slightly larger Gordon constituency that Clark had gained from the SNP, before which it had similarly been in Lib Dem hands.
Boundaries and Recent Election History
This ward hasn’t had any tweaks to its boundaries since it was created, so we can compare all STV elections easily. In 2007, the Lib Dems were by far the most popular party, leading to them electing two councillors, whilst the others went one apiece to the second placed SNP and more distantly third placed Conservatives. Labour didn’t win a seat, but did poll in double-digits.
Although both councillors elected for the Lib Dems stood for re-election in 2012, only one did so under the party banner, with the other standing unsuccessfully as an Independent. The party slipped to a very narrow third, just two votes behind the Conservatives, whilst the SNP were miles in front as the most popular party, winning two seats this time. Labour also improved on their previous result, albeit again without winning a seat.
Lib Dem councillor Martin Kitts-Hayes left the party partway through the term, before eventually resigning in 2016. The resulting by-election is what first elected Colin Clark as Conservative councillor, not too far ahead of the SNP and with a strong Lib Dem result, whereas Labour’s vote cratered. That means Clark was successfully elected three times in the space of a year – twice as councillor, then as MP!
It was all change in Aberdeenshire as a whole in 2017, as the Conservatives took the lead in almost every ward. That meant a few of them, including Inverurie and District, had ricocheted between the Lib Dems, SNP then Conservatives as lead party across three elections. Their success here was such that they would have been in with a chance of winning two seats had they stood two candidates, though my estimate is the Lib Dems would still just have pipped them to the fourth seat regardless. The SNP’s decline however cost them their second seat, which went to Independent candidate Judy Whyte, whilst the Labour vote remained in the doldrums.
Detailed 2017 Data
Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, and the Conservatives unsurprisingly led in most of them. They did best in the postal vote, with their strongest in-person share coming from the very western edge of Inverurie, which was also Labour’s best bit. Only one district, covering the cover south of the town, went to the SNP. Whyte’s best result was in Port Elphinstone, and the Lib Dems in the north of Inverurie.
Looking at second preference distributions, there was a mutual transfer between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, though more emphatically from the former. Labour voters were also pretty keen on the Lib Dems. Meanwhile, the SNP’s voters were most likely to mark Whyte as their next option, and in turn Whyte’s voters leaned Conservative. Notably, the SNP weren’t particularly favoured by any other set of voters, which they’d need to be to close the gap with the Conservatives.
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 2410 votes.
Given the shape of first preferences and the patterns in the second, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the Conservatives winning the re-calculation. They did so with a pretty comfortable lead over the SNP, to the extent that had I covered this at the time I’d have probably put this down as “Likely Conservative”.
For the by-election, voters found themselves with a standard Holyrood 5 slate, the Greens opting to stand a candidate when that hadn’t in May. Labour’s Sarah Flavell was a direct returnee from that election, whilst the SNP’s Elaine Mitchell had stood in neighbouring West Garioch. All other candidates were entirely fresh faces.
Lesley Berry (Conservative)
Scott Bremner (Lib Dem)
Sarah Flavell (Labour)
Elaine Mitchell (SNP)
Craig Stewart (Green)
By-Election First Preferences
The absence of Whyte meant there was quite a lot of the vote going spare compared to May. Almost everyone benefitted from that, with the Conservatives gaining the lion’s share and coming within touching distance of winning on first preferences. The SNP and Labour also increased their vote share, bringing the latter close to the Lib Dems who were the only party to lose share. Bringing up the rear, the Greens won very few votes.
As no candidate had an outright majority of the vote, transfer rounds were necessary. The quota to reach here was 1723 votes.
Given how close they were to exceeding 50% at the outset, transfers were really just a case of finding a few more votes to get the Conservatives formally over the line. Those were duly received after the elimination of the Lib Dems, and ended up giving the Conservatives a slightly higher lead over the SNP than they’d enjoyed at the full election to boot.
However, something of an ill fate awaited both of the Conservatives in this piece. For one, Clark was one of the seven Scottish Conservatives who lost his seat at the 2019 election. Then, Berry was one of the councillors contributing to something of a messy term in Aberdeenshire Council, as she resigned from the party to sit as an Independent in June 2020. That’s likely to make any re-election bid on her part much more difficult.
Detailed By-Election Data
For the by-election, there are slightly different box mergers due to differences in turnout, though the Conservatives led in them all this time regardless, polling best in the merged Port Elphinstone and Kinmuck districts. The SNP’s support shuffled a bit and they had their strongest figures in the very awkwardly shaped district covering the east and central north west of Inverurie. The Lib Dems also migrated a bit, now strongest in the south of Inverurie, leaving only Labour with the same best performing district as previously. Green support was simply too low to have anywhere notable for them.
When it came to second preferences, both the Conservatives and Labour were again most likely to plump for the Lib Dems, who likewise repeated May’s outcome in favouring the Conservatives. With a Green on the ballot, we see the very common strong preference flow from SNP voters to them – however, the return was only marginally SNP favourable, with both the Lib Dems and Labour just one voter behind.
There are now just two more by-elections to cover from 2017, and then the BBS archive for the entire term will be largely complete. We’ve got four actual remaining by-elections to come before May’s elections however, so there’s still plenty of work left for me to do.
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