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 first of what would end up being a mighty ten by-elections in Highland, we go back to the Tain and Easter Ross ward of 2017. This by-election followed the resignation of Lib Dem Jamie Stone, as just a month after the local elections he was also elected as an MP. He’d been a councillor since 2012 and previously in the 90’s, having also been an MSP between 1999 and 2011. Unlike some former parliamentarians, who became councillors after losing their seat, Stone hadn’t stood for re-election in 2011.
Tain and Easter Ross is one of Highland’s 21 wards, electing 3 councillors at a full election. Historic boundaries don’t map brilliantly, but there are roughly five wards making up the overall Ross (and Cromarty) area of modern Highland. This one covers what to my eye is a single peninsula but which doesn’t appear to be considered as such by the locals. Most of this peninsula seems to be simply the Easter Ross peninsula, although it’s not Easter Ross in entirety. Amongst the major settlements here are Tain itself, Portmahomack, Balintore, Milton and Kildary.
At the Scottish Parliament, the ward is entirely within the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency, which has been SNP since 2011. Stone represented its previous incarnation as Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. That’s the name the Westminster equivalent retains, as probably the only Holyrood constituency larger than it’s UK counterpart. It was this seat Stone won in June 2017, winning it from the SNP, who in turn had taken it from the Lib Dems in their 2015 landslide.
Boundaries and Recent Election History
No boundary changes here in 2017, so all the STV-era elections compare exactly. For the first vote in 2007, it was a typically Independent affair for the Highlands, electing two in the form of Alasdair Rhind and Alan Torrance, with the former being easily the most popular. The final seat was then taken by the Lib Dems.
However this would be a very temporary state of affairs, as the Lib Dem councillor Richard Durham became an Independent a few months later, and Torrance joined the SNP. Torrance sadly later passed, and a by-election in 2011 elected Fiona Robertson as an Independent councillor.
2012 re-asserted the previous full election’s pattern of two Independents and a Lib Dem, with Rhind and Robertson re-elected ahead of Jamie Stone, who held the seat for his party. Though Durham re-stood, he didn’t do particularly well as an Independent.
In 2017, the SNP gained a seat in what was the first time for the ward where Alasdair Rhind was not the most popular individual candidate. In fact, he placed fourth overall, only barely ahead of the Conservatives. Robertson was the most popular Independent and was re-elected, as was Stone for the Lib Dems.
Detailed 2017 Data
Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, the ward splits quite neatly between the more landward districts, which were led by the SNP, and seaward districts where Robertson placed ahead. Of these, the SNP performed most strongly around Barbaraville, Milton and Kildary, whilst Robertson’s best result came in a cluster of rural districts around the hamlets of Pitcalnie, Hill of Fearn and Inver.
Though the Lib Dems didn’t win any of the in-person districts, they did have a lead in the postal vote. Overall they did best in the same pair of districts as the SNP did. The much depleted Rhind had his base of support in Tain itself, the Conservatives did well around Portmahomack, and third-placed Independent Sandra Skinner only won notable support in Balintore.
As is so often the case where there are strong Independents, they were generally the most popular option for next preferences. For the SNP, Rhind and Skinner, their voters were most likely to plump for Robertson as their second preference, with Rhind voters being similarly favourable to Robertson. The Lib Dems were the only group to favour Rhind more, whilst the Conservatives opted by plurality for the Lib Dems.
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 1743 votes.
In true Big Rural Council fashion it’d have been the most popular Independent, Robertson, who’d have won on an initial re-calc. She’d have beaten the Lib Dems by 45.4% to 38.7%. That’s no real use to us for the by-election given she was still a sitting councillor, so we need to do a version eliminating her first.
That would have been a much more knife-edge victory for then-former Councillor Rhind, placing barely more than 1% ahead of the Jamie Stone for the Lib Dems. That would instinctively look quite good for the latter, but given Stone’s history in the area, I think I’d have been inclined to put that down as a personal vote. If I’d covered this at the time I might have plumped for Lean Independent – not writing the Lib Dems off entirely, but not the favourites.
I’d have been particularly certain of Independent favourability given Rhind reappeared on the ballot paper. There were two other returnees from elsewhere in Highland – the Conservative’s Eva Short and Libertarian’s Harry Christian, both of whom had contested the neighbouring East Sutherland and Edderton ward. They were joined by completely new candidates for the SNP and Lib Dems, as well as another Independent.
Harry Christian (Independent)
Gerald Holdsworth (Independent)
Stan Peace (SNP)
Alasdair Rhind (Independent)
Eva Short (Conservative)
William Sinclair (Lib Dem)
By-Election First Preferences
Rhind ended up winning this absolutely hands down, trebling his vote share compared to the full election, ensuring his absence from Highland Council didn’t even hit five whole months. He didn’t quite win on first preferences alone, but that’s a lead it would have been completely impossible to overturn. The political parties all suffered varying decreases, from a very mild fractional dip for the SNP, through to a hefty slide for the Conservatives. In the middle, the Lib Dems lost a fair share of their vote, lending credence to the notion of a personal vote for Stone.
As no candidate had an outright majority of the vote, transfer rounds were necessary. The quota to reach here was 1283 votes.
Rhind needed just a trickle of votes from lower placed candidates to formalise his victory, and got those within two rounds, whilst three other candidates were still in the race. That’s a comparatively rare level of success at a by-election, which very often see every other candidate eliminated. This was a hand count, so unfortunately we can’t run this to see just how stonking Rhind’s victory would have been over the SNP on a pure head-to-head – nor do we have any further polling district or second preference data.
With 4 of the 7 down, we’re most of the way through this little look back at 2017’s by-elections. As noted in a previous entry, this little gap filler has actually ended up slotting around actual by-elections, which I hadn’t expected when I started it. The show must go on, however!
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