In the first Scottish election of any form since Humza Yousaf became First Minister and SNP leader, we were in North Lanarkshire’s Bellshill ward. As I explained in my preview, even if the national situation wasn’t grim for the SNP, the local situation would have been. Shockingly poor choice of candidate and a local group that has seen nearly a third of its number become Independents was never going to end well for the SNP.
In that piece I’d therefore (perhaps over colourfully) declared that Labour would win “unless the Labour candidate is caught in the act of kicking a puppy down the street.” That phrasing appeared to tickle a few journalists, appearing in some of the coverage, though my fellow by-election nut Andrew Teale was (only very slightly) more cautious.
Councillors and Key Stats
1 Councillor Elected:
🔴Labour: Anne McCrory
Change vs 2022 (notional): Labour Hold
Change vs vacating: Labour Gain from SNP
Turnout: 22.7% (-16.2)
Valid: 2778 (98.5%)
Spoiled: 41 (1.5%)
3 Continuing Councillors:
🔴Labour: Angela Campbell
🟡SNP: Lisa Stubbs
🔴Labour: Pat Patton
🟡SNP: Joseph Budd
🔵Conservative: Colin Cameron
🟠Lib Dem: John Cole
🟣Family: Leo Lanahan
⚫Alba: John Marshall
🔴Labour: Anne McCrory
🟢Green: Rosemary McGowan
🟤Freedom Alliance: Simona Panaitescu
🟤British Unionist Party: Billy Ross
🟤UKIP: Neil Wilson
Note: An Independent candidate, John Devlin, won 4.5% in May.
Fortunately for Labour, Anne McCrory didn’t kick any cute baby animals down the street, and she therefore emerged triumphant – in fact, with a chunky swing to Labour, as they won the seat on first preferences. The SNP meanwhile had a correspondingly massive loss of votes, which really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. The Conservatives were similarly squeezed, dipping to by far their worst result in the ward since their revival.
A large part of that is likely to be down to the fourth placed party, the British Unionist Party. Remember that they won a seat in the Fortissat ward last year, but this is the first time they’ve stood here. Alba also had a relatively good result, being the only returning party to grow their raw number of votes as well as their share. Although they continue not to register at a national level, this patch of North Lanarkshire did see higher than average results overall where they stood in 2022.
The other two Holyrood parties did quite poorly, with the Greens marginally ahead of the Lib Dems, reflecting the fact that this is basically a deadzone for these parties – they’ll have been names on the ballot paper and nothing more. Also scoring very low but at least still winning a whole digit in percentage terms were the Family Party. That left UKIP and the Freedom Alliance tied as the fringiest of the fringe, both only winning 7 votes.
At this point I do have to do my usual, extremely boring, and extremely frustrating to partisans thing of pointing out that council by-elections are not nationally meaningful. I know, I know, most of you are well aware, but it has to be said. This is certainly in line with current polling suggesting growth for Labour and a dire time for the SNP, but it was in an already Labour-favourable ward, with abysmal local circumstances for the SNP. Not every vote coming up is going to be as sticky for the latter.
In addition, turnout of just under 23% is extremely low, even by the standards of by-elections in the urban west Central Belt. You can’t tally up the votes as constitutional proxies at local by-elections anyway, but it’s even less useful when turnout was about a quarter of what it was at the referendum. That’s to say nothing of the fact there were two national polls with actually useful figures on the constitution. (The first here, analysis of the second is going to be published after this piece.)
None of this is to say that Labour should not be thrilled with this result, and they’d be daft not to big it up nationally. Instead, these are just tiresome words of caution not to get so carried away and overestimate the importance of a single by-election as if it somehow resolves all of the tensions, issues, nuances and difficulties in Scottish politics. Would that it were so easy!
As this by-election was won on first preferences, there were no transfer rounds. We can nonetheless proceed with eliminations to get a head-to-head, which delivers roughly the same 2:1 lead for Labour over the SNP as was the case under first preferences alone.
First Preference History
Results by Polling District
Looking at polling district results, last year Labour had only led the district covering Hattonrigg, whilst the SNP won the other three. This time around Labour took an easy lead in all of them, though Hattonrigg remained the source of their overall majority. The SNP’s best result was in Fallside, which is also where Alba excelled, breaking into double digits. There was a similar constitutional alignment for the Conservatives and British Unionist Party, who both had their strongest results in the north of Orbiston. Although very weak, the district covering southern Orbiston was the only bit the Greens or Lib Dems even got past 2%.
In terms of second preferences, as is so often the case with big Labour by-election wins, a huge number of their voters didn’t actually mark a second preference at all – just shy of half. Amongst those that did, the Conservatives picked up the largest share. Perhaps reflecting the relative strength of each party locally, it was Alba rather than the Greens who got biggest chunk of the SNP’s next preferences, though both of those smaller parties largely opted for the SNP, and exactly as many SNP voters opted for Labour as they did Alba. The Conservatives and Lib Dems before went largely towards Labour, whilst the British Unionist Party’s votes flowed first towards the Conservatives.
And that’s us for Bellshill. Before too long though we’ll be crossing the Lanarkshire border into the Southern counterpart, for a by-election in East Kilbride Westt. Spoiler alert: I similarly expect that to be an easy Labour win.
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