Back Catalogue Bonus: Rutherglen Central and North 23rd of November 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

For our final dive into the by-election archives, (almost) completing the whole set of 2017-2022 votes, we’re taking a quick trip to Rutherglen Central and North. This is another ward where an elected councillor was then immediately elected MP and opted to vacate their council seat. Labour’s Ged Killen won the Rutherglen and Hamilton West constituency in June 2017, having served as a councillor since 2013 when he won a by-election for the Rutherglen South ward.

Rutherglen Central and North is one of 20 wards within South Lanarkshire, and elects 3 councillors at a full election. The name is rather self-explanatory, as it covers the central and northern ends of the town, including the town centre, Bankhead and Gallowflat areas.

Unsurprisingly, for Westminster elections the ward lies within the Rutherglen and Hamilton West constituency that Killen was elected to represent. That seat had historically been Labour before the SNP won it in 2015, and they’d go on to regain it from Labour in 2019. For Holyrood it’s within Rutherglen, which was Labour until 2016, when it likewise fell to the SNP. Under initial boundaries it had been titled Glasgow Rutherglen, reflecting the fact that from the 70’s to the 90’s, Rutherglen was part of the city – and it remains within the Holyrood region to this day.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

Ahead of the 2017 election, the ward had a slight boundary change, primarily adding more streets in the southern end of the Gallowflat area. That shouldn’t be so much of a change we can’t compare previously elections, but whether due to boundary or internal party strategic reasons, Killen ended up moving along with the boundary from south to north.

Back at the first STV election in 2007, Labour won a very narrow majority of the vote and therefore two of the ward’s councillors, with the SNP taking the other. 2012 brought absolutely zero change in terms of representation, with the exact same councillors returned, though Labour increased their vote share to a hefty 61%.

As with so many other Central Belt wards, Labour couldn’t keep that performance up in 2017, and lost around half of their vote to place second behind the SNP. Both parties only elected a single councillor this time however, with the third seat going to the Conservatives, who’d trebled their vote share. Though nowhere near enough to win a seat, the Lib Dems also managed a solid recovery versus 2012, when they’d only won 2.5% of the vote.

Detailed 2017 Data

Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, the SNP led the in-person vote in every single one, polling strongest in the district covering the town centre. Labour meanwhile led in the postal votes, whilst their best district otherwise covered the Bankhead area. That was also the Conservatives’ best bit, though really not with much to separate it from northern Gallowflat. For the two smaller parties, the Lib Dems had their best figures in the west of the ward, and the Greens in southern Gallowflat.

Looking at 2017’s second preferences, it’s pretty standard fare for a Holyrood 5 situation, most notably with strong preferences between the SNP and Greens. Both Labour and Conservative voters were most likely to opt for the Lib Dems as their next choice, with the return flow favouring Labour.

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 2751 votes.

This proves to be a really close contest, with the SNP squeaking just a shade over 1% ahead of Labour. That’s the kind of breakdown where I’d probably have been inclined towards calling a Tossup at the time, especially so close to the election. On the other hand, given by-election dynamics and the fact Labour had won the Westminster seat the next month (and prompted the by-election, obviously), it might even have nudged me towards a Lean Labour call.

By-Election Candidates

For the by-election, Labour’s unsuccessful second candidate was straight back onto the ballot for another go, against a fresh face from the SNP. Everyone else on the paper was returning from another South Lanarkshire ward – the Green and Conservative candidates from next door in Rutherglen South, the Lib Dem from nearby Cambuslang East, and ward newcomers UKIP from much further afield in Clydesdale South.

Ellen Bryson (Liberal Democrat)
Brian Finlay (Green)
David Innes (SNP)
Martin Lennon (Labour)
Janice Mackay (UKIP)
Taylor Muir (Conservative)

By-Election First Preferences

The SNP’s time at the top here proved short lived, as they suffered a heavy decline in share, allowing Labour to easily re-take the lead, albeit not with their previous strength. Both the Conservatives and Greens also found themselves substantially worse off than at the full election, whilst the Lib Dems ended up with the largest increase of any party. That’s the kind of performance that if they delivered it at a full election would have secured them a seat, though I’d be somewhat surprised if they’ve held that strength the entire time since.

By-Election Transfers

As no candidate had an outright majority of the vote, transfer rounds were necessary. The quota to reach here was 1524 votes.

Given the Labour lead and the typical preference flows of the other parties involved, it was pretty obvious they’d end up the victors. They ended up with a much weightier lead than the SNP had in the May vote, and indeed managed a relatively rare victory without having to go the whole way to elimination of the second placed candidate. 

It’s worth noting that there’s an interesting consequence to Killen’s shift from the South to Central and North Ward. South had seen the Lib Dems come just 5 votes behind the SNP, re-electing former Glasgow region MSP Robert Brown for a second term as councillor. A single seat election would have easily went to Brown.

Whilst it’s likely some of that was personal vote, if the Lib Dems could gain 9% in a by-election in ward without a councillor, they could definitely put up a strong fight where they did have one. Had Killen resigned from that ward, it might have led to a Lib Dem victory – though on the other hand, Labour may have been less inclined to step down so quickly in a ward they placed a distant third.

Detailed By-Election Data

At polling district level, Labour just missed out on delivering a clean sweep, leading in every district except the one covering southern Gallowflat, which remained SNP led. That wasn’t actually the SNP’s best area this time, however, with both leading parties polling best in a merged set of districts covering the west and centre of the ward. The Conservatives performed well in northern Gallowflat again, whilst the Lib Dems and Greens had their best showings to the south.

And that’s us done! On the one hand, it’s unfortunate that the data necessary for the second preferences doesn’t appear to be on the Council website. On the other hand, given how common such data gaps are in what the councils make available, it feels like a fitting end to this little bonus series.

At the time of publication, polls will still be open in the Fort William and Ardnamurchan by-election, meaning that tomorrow BBS will be shifting gear back into covering current by-elections. That’s the first of three final by-elections for this council term, the fourth having been dramatically and surprisingly cancelled. Then it’ll be onto the full local election extravaganza! I’ve already done a lot of work ahead of it, and if you can spare a few quid for my crowdfunder, you can help me do even more.

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