Capping off a busy term for by-elections in Highland, their ninth such ballot of the term came in Fort William and Ardnamurchan. This was a contest everyone would rather not have had, following the sad death of Conservative councillor Ian Ramon.
In typical Highland style, I had this one down as being a potential victory for an Independent. With the exception of Inverness, you should pretty much always be open to a strong Independent result in this part of the country. That was however as a tossup with the SNP, who I reckoned to be the most likely of the political parties to fill the vacancy.
Note that compared to 2017, a successfully elected Independent (37.2%) and Labour (8.3%) were not on the ballot. Contrary to the many replies and Quote Tweets to that effect, Labour are vanishingly unlikely to have “stood aside for the Conservatives”, as that would make no sense in a preferential voting system, where low-ranking candidates are eliminated and their votes redistributed.
It turned out I was right to have the SNP as possible winners, as they emerged with an insurmountable lead in first preferences. However, I was miles off in terms of anticipating a strong Independent result. Not a single one of the three was truly in the game, occupying the bottom spots on the board. Matheson had actually encouraged people not to vote for her, having thrown her hat in the mix to ensure competition but not really having the time, so to have placed only second last in that context is something of a feat.
That wasn’t the only surprise in this by-election. The Conservatives coming second was a shock by default, since I was expecting an SNP-Independent contest. They had a healthy increase in their share, but remember that 2017’s most popular Independent has since (re)joined the party. Not very many of his voters appear to have made a similar leap.
Perhaps most surprising though is that solid third place for the Greens. That really came out of the blue – they’ve never contested this ward before, and I hadn’t expected them to this time. That said, Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch was their best Holyrood constituency in Highland for both of the past two elections, so perhaps they sought to extend that relative strength to local elections. Last of the party candidates, the Lib Dems nonetheless achieved a respectable increase in their share, squeaking into double digits.
As no candidate had an outright majority of the vote, transfer rounds were necessary. The quota to reach here was 1144 votes.
When I said above that the SNP’s lead was insurmountable, that was based on years of experience of watching by-elections – gaps that size just aren’t eliminated by transfers. So it proved again here, with the SNP managing to cross the quota line without the (mathematically meaningless) elimination of the second-placed candidate. Indeed, although the Conservatives had somewhat narrowed the first preference gap between the two parties, after transfers the SNP had widened it again, both relative to first preferences and to the 2017 re-calculation.
Overall, these results set us up for a fascinating contest in May. If these figures were replicated then, it would give two SNP, one Conservative and one Green councillor. Per the preference data, my quick estimate for a four seater is the Lib Dems would creep a bit closer to the Greens through the transfer process, but still be about 50 votes behind by their final head to head. But of course, by-elections are a different beast to the full vote due shortly, not least in that we can expect much higher turnout next time.
Presumably, any Independent candidate worth their salt would have jumped on this chance for a trial run before next May’s election, yet those contesting this by-election all did very poorly indeed. Can it be taken as read then that this ward is going to end up bucking the rural(ish, in this case) Highland trend of electing at least one Independent in May? I don’t think we can say that for certain, but it is at least a possibility.
At the same time, it’s hard to gauge what will happen with Baxter’s vote now he’s a Conservative, assuming he stands again. Will it look like 2017 on a personal basis, or will it fall closer to the party preference? Will the party stand a second candidate regardless, or proceed cautiously with just one? What happens on both the Independent and Conservative front could be the difference between the Greens confirming a breakthrough here, or being left out in the cold by a dramatically different electoral landscape.
Machine counts mean some really juicy data, starting with the breakdown of results per polling district. I was expecting this to be available on Monday given the count was Friday afternoon, but Highland Council’s elections team continue to go above and beyond. Not only did they pop the data on the website on a Saturday, but they sent me an email with it all attached as well!
For the breakdown by polling district, we have a lot of merged boxes and thus districts this time. That’s no great surprise, given the level of turnout, how few voters many of these districts have anyway, and the requirement to merge any box with fewer than 200 votes. Nonetheless, the mergers are reasonably “clean”, though it might be worth specifying them:
- A, B, C, D, E & G – Ardnamurchan, Moidart, Sunart, eastern Morvern, northern Ardgour
- F, H, I & J – western Morvern, most of Ardgour, Inverlochy area of Fort William
- K, L, M & N – Most of Fort William
- O, P & Q – Kinlochleven, Glencoe, North Ballachulish
- R, S & T – Ballachulish, eastern Fort William
The SNP led in all of these mergers, most strongly in the one covering Ballachulish. The Conservatives did best in the Kinlochleven bloc, as did the Lib Dems. Meanwhile the Greens fared most comfortably in the core Fort William portion, which was also the peak of Drayton’s weak support. Finally, McKenna polled strongest in the western Morvern pile, and Matheson around Ardnamurchan.
Looking now at second preferences, we see some familiar stories. Mutually strong transfers between the SNP and Greens, and between the Conservatives and Lib Dems? Groundbreaking. The Independents were a bit more split, with McKenna in particular having a pretty even spread that the Conservatives managed a plurality of. Matheson’s voters were most likely to give McKenna their second preference, and Drayton’s to do likewise for Matheson.
There’s not too long to wait until the next vote, as Argyll and Bute’s Lomond North by-election is coming up in just under two weeks now. It had initially seemed like we might have a rare Tuesday by-election that week too, but in a truly astonishing turn of events, that ballot was cancelled. That will be the second last by-election of this term, with one further vote due in January.
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