(Apologies for the length of time before publishing this one; I’ve recently aimed to publish by-election analysis on the Monday at latest even if waiting for additional data. In this case however I got so fixated on the data I was waiting for I didn’t follow that policy, which is my bad!)
The first by-election of 2024 was set to be a rather unexciting affair, as it was a return to a ward that had last voted just ten months previously. In March 2023, Dunblane and Bridge of Allan had unfortunately had to return to the polls only around 10 months after the full election due to the death of SNP councillor Graham Houston. As that by-election was easily won by the Conservatives, I frankly didn’t see how there could be any possibility of this one turning out any differently when Conservative councillor Douglas Dodds resigned for health reasons.
Councillors and Key Stats
1 Councillor Elected:
Conservative: Thomas Heald
Change vs 2023 by-election: Conservative Hold
Change vs vacating: Conservative Hold
Turnout: 36.6% (-1.5)
Valid: 4288 (99.4%)
Spoiled: 27 (0.6%)
3 Continuing Councillors:
Conservative: Robin Kleinman
Green: Alasdair Tollemache
Independent: Ewan Dillon (elected as Labour)
Green: Clare Andrews
Conservative: Thomas Heald
SNP: Ahsan Khan
Lib Dem: Dick Moerman
Family: Michael Willis
Labour: David Wilson
Note: Changes are versus 2023 by-election / versus 2022 election. An Independent candidate, Alastair Majury, won 5.3% and Alba 0.9% in May 2022.
First Preference History
I wasn’t expecting anything radically different to last year’s result, and sure enough things did end up looking pretty similar overall, including an unassailable lead for the Conservatives on first preferences. They did however lose a little bit of their support compared to last year, continuing a zig-zag pattern on the chart where they go up one election, down the next. The SNP also lost a chunk of their vote, perhaps unsurprisingly coming out the worst of the pack on this measure, though it narrowly avoids being their worst result in the ward thus far.
On the other hand, Labour managed to draw their second best share so far, squeaking into the 20’s for the first time since the 2012 election. They saw a weighty swing in their favour here, sufficient at a full election to elect a councillor without transfers, coming from three of the four other major parties. The only party they didn’t seem to gain from are the Greens, who had a very poor result in last year’s election for a ward they have a councillor in, but show a modest recovery here, clawing their way back into double digits. At a full election on these figures they’d still lose their seat to a second Conservative, but it should make them feel a little bit less worried about that happening in reality in 2027, given Green voters are the least likely to turn out at by-elections.
That means the Lib Dems got pushed back into fifth place, having pipped the Greens for fourth last year. Given that since the loss of their original councillor here, the comparative strength of the Lib Dem vote relative to the rest of the Stirling has almost certainly been due to favourable demographics, it’s also not a shock it’d prove squishy and vulnerable to a Labour recovery. That leaves the Family Party on an almost entirely unchanged (after rounding) share compared to last year, and in fact a definitely unchanged number of votes, having won 50 votes not just at last year’s by-election, but back in 2022 as well. Lest you think that’s the exact same voters, there’s a lot of differences between where the second preferences went each time, which suggests a more unstable support bloc.
In my experience it’s quite hard to overcome the kind of first preference lead the Conservatives had here when the remainder of the vote is so fractured in both party and constitutional terms. That again proved the case in this vote, with the Conservatives remaining easily ahead throughout. Labour were close to overtaking the SNP for second, and we’d generally expect both SNP and Green votes to massively favour Labour over the Conservatives. It wouldn’t have been enough to see Labour to victory in this case, but they’d have run the Conservatives much closer at 41.7% to 40.4%, leaving 17.8% not transferring.
At this point, I will say I spotted some very beautifully done “lines to take” work from a couple of the local Scottish Conservative MSPs, who were saying how this result shows it’s the Conservatives who are in position to beat the SNP “across Scotland”. This is, of course, simply not true. As you’ll see me saying quite a few times if you go back through last year’s by-elections, what we’re seeing in them is a tendency for the strongest non-SNP party in a given area to beat the SNP. For the Conservatives, these areas are limited to either affluent suburban (like here) or rural wards.
There are actually quite a lot of such wards because there only needs to be rough equality in electorate size between wards within each council, rather than between councils, meaning the places the Conservatives excel in account for more of Scotland’s wards and thus councillors than their population share would suggest. There’s no such luck for them in Parliamentary elections though, where the whole country must be split equally and so the majority of the population that lives in the urban Central Belt also counts for a clear majority of seats. In all bar a handful of those seats the Conservatives are dead in the water and it’s Labour who are looking likely to sweep to great success.
Results by Polling District
Looking at the really local detail, the Conservatives managed a clean sweep of the ward this time with a lead in every polling district. They peaked in Bridge of Allan, which was also the Family Party’s best bit. The other parties similarly pair up to share hotspots. For the SNP and Labour it was western Dunblane, which may explain why the SNP lost the narrow lead they’d managed here at last year’s by-election. The Greens and Lib Dems meanwhile did best in the east of the town, albeit by a mere 0.01% for the Greens who scored a consistent 11% across Dunblane as a whole.
A lot of familiar dynamics over here on the second preferences, though it’s worth looking at these with respect to last year’s by-election for some changes. As per usual, the SNP and Greens had the most notable mutual flow of preferences, but last year the proportion was equal and accounted for a majority of each party’s voters, this time SNP to Green was stronger than the reverse, and represented a minority of voters. Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems favoured Labour, breaking the tie that had existed between Labour and the Lib Dems amongst Conservatives last time. Finally, as mentioned earlier, note how the Greens are tied with the Conservatives for the most popular second preference from the Family Party, marking a significant change from 2023 where the Conservatives were 17 times as popular an option.
I am now very much hoping this is the last time I have to talk about Dunblane and Bridge of Allan until the 2027 local elections, and I’m sure the voters feel much the same. Whilst it’s a very lovely bit of the country to visit (I enjoyed a cycle through it the morning after the election, as I sometimes do before visiting my granny in Clackmannanshire) doing elections on a 10-monthly cycle is simply too much. I’d noted way back in my preview for the first by-election that there was a question mark around Labour-turned-Independent councillor Ewan Dillon, for whom there is still precisely zero explanation as to why he went Independent so shortly after being elected. At this point, barring anything seriously criminal, I am begging him just to stick it out for the rest of the term so there can be a little break here!
We’ve still got four other Scottish by-elections definitely in the works over the coming months, with the first being one of those Conservative-dominated rural wards I wrote about above. I shall look forward to again writing words to the effect of “wards like this are only representative of wards like this, and not of the whole of Scotland” when people get overexcited about that one!
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