By-Election Result: Hillhead


(Note: some of the detailed data has yet to be made available by the council for this by-election. Due to this being historic in by-election terms I’ve published the bulk of my analysis immediately regardless, striking whilst the iron is hot and all that.)

December saw the very sad passing of long-standing councillor Hanzala Malik. He’d first been elected all the way back in 1995 as Labour councillor for the then Woodlands ward under the old First Past the Post system, transitioning to Hillhead when STV was introduced in 2007. Malik had also served between 2011 and 2016 as an MSP, an unexpected result of one of the worst (and, if we’re honest, most comedic) party strategy mistakes of all time. His unfortunate passing triggered one of the most interesting council by-elections yet.

Hillhead had been the only ward in the country where the Greens had won the most votes in 2022, and one of five where they were the estimated winner for a single seat. That meant that in strict electoral terms the Greens were the defending party. Although I noted in my preview that lower turnout at by-elections tends to be to the Greens’ disadvantage and that I wasn’t sure what is by now a strong personal vote for Councillor Martha Wardrop would carry over to another Green candidate, for the first time in six years of running this project I nonetheless predicted that the Greens were the most likely winners. That was a marginal “Lean Green” call however, and I also said “I think this is has the potential to be a very messy by-election.” If the Greens could pull off a win here though it would be historic, the first time they’d ever won a local by-election in Scotland.

Headline Results

Councillors and Key Stats

1 Councillor Elected:
🟢Green: Seonad Hoy
Change vs 2022 (notional): Green Hold
Change vs vacating: Green Gain from Labour
Turnout: 24.3% (-13.3)
Electorate: 17009
Valid: 4075 (98.5%)
Spoiled: 63 (1.5%)
Quota: 2039
2 Continuing Councillors:
🟢Green: Martha Wardrop
🟡SNP: Ken Andrew


🔴Labour: Ruth Hall
🔵Conservative: Faten Hameed
🟢Green: Seonad Hoy
🟤Independent Green Voice: Alistair McConnachie
🟡SNP: Malcolm McConnell
🟠Lib Dem: Daniel O’Malley
Independent: Ryan McGinley

First Preferences

Note: The Freedom Alliance won 0.9% of the vote in 2022.

First Preference History

I was absolutely spot on both to have said the Greens were the likely winners here and that this would be messy, as we got what I can only describe as the “maximum banter” outcome. Labour had a lead in first preferences, and given we’re culturally inured to First Past the Post many would expect that to mean a Labour win. However, transfers acted to allow the Greens to emerge victorious from second (as Labour themselves have benefitted from in the past), prompting some stamping of feet and complaining about how unfair that is and really Labour should have won. Yet Independent Green Voice clearly acted as a spoiler here, and given transfer data clearly shows more than enough of their votes going to the Greens to overturn Labour’s lead, an undistorted result would have seen the Greens top on first preferences anyway.

Regardless of IGV’s shenanigans, this is a very good result for Labour, delivering their best vote share so far in the ward albeit we can’t be entirely sure their 2011 and 2012 results wouldn’t have been higher taken within the current boundaries. They were also the only returning party to increase their share of the vote. Although the Greens had the largest decline of any of the other returnees, we need to bear in mind the impact of IGV and the points I highlighted in my preview, namely how fewer voters in the Green demographic turn out at by-elections and a strong personal vote for Martha Wardrop. In that context their vote held up remarkably well, and remains their second-best result yet.

Speaking of votes holding up well, that’s my assessment of both the SNP and Conservatives. The SNP weren’t even down a whole 4%, whereas I had expected them to end up much more towards the low 20’s and potentially even their worst share yet. You absolutely should not nationally extrapolate from a single by-election but it might be more helpfully indicative at city level, and suggests Glasgow may be harder fought than some expect. They did however throw the kitchen sink at this, which wouldn’t be replicable city-wide at a general election.

For the Conservatives, I’d suggested privately to a friend as the count started I thought they might fall behind the Lib Dems, just due to the demographics of the ward and how badly the Conservatives are doing overall at the moment. That turned out not to be the case, and again it may come down to campaigning. Faten Hameed didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, but fair play to her she got out campaigning, even getting Junior Scotland Office Minister John Lamont out on the doors. The Lib Dems in fact lost half of their vote, which may have been down to what appears to have been a pure paper candidacy, which is mostly what you expect from them in Glasgow by this point. Regardless of campaigning effort, this is the worst result yet here for both parties.

The fact IGV actually placed ahead of the Lib Dems whilst both not actually being a real campaigning party or indeed a real party at all speaks to the fact they managed to confuse voters here. Their share is pretty good for a micro-party but is a share founded on deliberate deceit, and as I’ll talk about a bit at the end, another clear call for something to be done to put a stop to this nonsense. Finally, the Independent candidate whose election agent has taken to spinning bizarre conspiracies about me did deservedly badly, not even managing to match the paltry share the aligned Freedom Alliance lot got in 2022.

Two-Candidate Preferred

If you know anything about transfer patterns (and I know a lot about transfer patterns), the first preferences alone would have told you the Greens had this in the bag. Indeed, someone at the count had sent me ~75% complete first preference figures which enabled me to be absolutely certain the Greens were going to win. Through the transfer rounds it remained neck and neck up until the Conservatives dropped out, at which point Labour opened up a 100 vote lead.

With almost 1,100 SNP votes to transfer next however there was no way that could hold, and the Greens emerged victorious with SNP transfers favouring them over two-to-one, giving them that historic win. It also gives the Scottish Government parties their first by-election win since Humza Yousaf took office, though notably not for the First Minister’s party. Crucial context for that though is that the SNP were only the 2022 single-seat winner in one of those nine wards, again reminding us how incomparable STV is to FPTP.

Comparing for a single winner, the final Green share was only a little bit lower than their share against the SNP in 2022, albeit with a much slimmer majority. However, if we compare directly with 2022 re-calculated to be a Green vs Labour contest, they are down from a clear majority of votes and Labour significantly narrowed the gap from 23.5% to just 4.6%, a 9.5% swing. That again adds to the fact that although they didn’t win the seat, this was a good result for Labour overall.

Detailed Results

Results by Polling District

I had a slight disappointment on this front as I was chasing up the council to see if they’d do a more useful approach to box mergers for the purposes of useful data, but after cajoling them I got no response, so I’ve assumed they have flatly refused. Instead of merging boxes from districts KE1311 and KE1811, they could have kept both districts separate. Based on the results in neighbouring districts, I have a suspicion that would have turned all of North Kelvin Labour red, but cannot say for sure.

If that had been the case, we’d have had a really neat split with Labour leading in Woodside and all of North Kelvin, rather than just the east, whilst the Greens led in Hillhead, Woodlands and Park Circus. Of those areas, Labour had their best performance in their eastern North Kelvin chunk, whilst for the Greens it was eastern Hillhead; oddly, that was very narrowly the Conservatives’ best bit too.

The SNP meanwhile did well enough in Woodside they weren’t actually a million miles off a lead there, which would have given a three-toned map, whilst IGV recorded their top share (albeit dishonestly) in Woodlands. Finally, the Lib Dems did least poorly in that merged chunk of western Hillhead and North Kelvin.

Second Preferences

If we start with a straight reading of these figures, it’s a lot of the usual stories. The SNP and Greens are, naturally, notably strong in their mutual preference flows. Likewise, par for the urban Central Belt course, Conservative and Lib Dem voters were most likely to favour Labour. Labour’s voters were much more evenly split but, reflecting the general shape of politics in the ward at the moment, were most likely to give the Greens a second preference. 

The clearly confusing nature of IGV is very evident here though. For one thing the legitimate Greens end up with the largest share of direct IGV second preferences, picking up double (50 vs 24) the number that Labour did. When you consider that some of those 24 for Labour (and the 36 for the SNP) will likewise be people who had thought their first preference was for the Greens, it’d more than overcome Labour’s narrow first preference lead. Another sign of confusion is that both the Greens themselves and the SNP had a significant pile of transfers to IGV, likely largely at the other party’s expense.

I did a bit of a deeper dive into the ballot data for what could be the maximum “real” Green performance here, recognising that some IGV voters will be genuine. I chose to take possibly confused voters as anyone who voted IGV 1 only, IGV 1 Green 2, IGV 1 Anyone Else 2, and IGV 1 Anyone Else 2 Anyone Else 3. I’ve excluded the very small number of voters (17) who used at least 4 preferences, on the basis that by that point they’ve preferenced most candidates and gone beyond the 3 that prior evidence has shown a majority of voters don’t, shifting the balance of probability towards a more deliberate vote.

I also noted on Twitter that of the 18 “micro-party” candidacies since the 2022 elections, 15 of those have won 1.3% of the vote or less. The only ones higher than that have been this IGV result, and two for the British Unionist Party (4.3% and 3.1%) in North Lanarkshire wards. This just seems extremely unlikely, taking into account the points I make in the next section. The British Unionist Party actually do meaningfully exist, their name is completely honest (they are indeed strongly Pro-Union), and they elected a North Lanarkshire councillor in 2022. 

Taking all of that into account I’ve opted for an arbitrary-yet-still-generous to IGV assumption that the “floor” for confused votes is half of the total “possibly confused” voters, or 58 votes. The total envelope for the impact of IGV here then is worth an additional between 1.4% and 2.8% for the Greens, which gives IGV between 1.8% and 0.4% of the vote. 0.4% seems a bit low even for a micro-party, whereas 1.8% a bit high based on recent experience, so the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. That translates to the Greens taking a first preference lead of between 1% and 2.5% (rounding effect here) over Labour, and a swing of -3.3% to -1.8% versus their 2022 result.

A Serious Democratic Issue

All of the fun data out of the way, we need to talk seriously about Independent Green Voice. This by-election emphasises the need to do something to resolve this situation. This isn’t a case of a smaller party with a different view of green politics challenging the established Green party. As widely reported, McConnachie is a far-right activist expelled from UKIP years ago for saying gas chambers were not used to murder Jewish people during the Holocaust, a truly vile statement. He has also been on record denying the scientific fact of climate change.

The party also has no real existence. It does not meaningfully campaign, it does not produce materials, and if you search for them online you mostly find articles about them splitting the vote in 2021. The only thing belonging to them you can find is a 2007 manifesto. It is simply not credible to believe so many people are intentionally voting for this party, and indeed in both 2021 and at this by-election people at polling stations on the day reported voters coming out confused and saying they’d voted for IGV thinking it was the Greens. Their “natural” support seems something more like the Freedom Alliance backed Independent here, a mere fraction of a percent.

It could not be clearer that the sole purpose of this party is to deceive voters and distort results. They were very successful in doing so in 2021, when they definitely cost the Greens a seat in the South region (denying them a history-making seat in every region), and very likely a second MSP in Glasgow (which would have been 10 seats overall, the first time they’d have hit double digits). Beyond just changing two seats in parliament, that also fundamentally altered the narrative of the 2021 election, which was basically “this is pretty much a no-change election, though the Greens did not bad”, when otherwise it could arguably have been “Greens have big breakthrough”.

Although the transferrable nature of the voting system prevented them from costing the Greens a seat in this by-election, they similarly distorted the narrative. From a negative direction, see the people throwing temper tantrums about Labour not winning the seat despite a first preference lead, and despite that arising from a voting system that favours them overall (they are 2022 single-seat winners in twice as many wards as they led in first preferences). From a positive direction, see Labour spinning their first preference lead as a big silver lining in a lost election. Had IGV not deceived voters, the Greens would simply have led on first preferences as well, and neither of these narratives would have emerged.

I cannot emphasise enough how bad this is for our democracy, and that if your instinct is to think it’s fine just because you don’t like the Greens (as you have every right not to!), then that’s a poor reflection on you. Voters deserve representation and not to be misled, even if you don’t like how they vote. It simply should not be allowed for a fake party to deceive voters and distort election results like this, regardless of who it’s targeted at. We’ve yet to see if the Electoral Commission make any further comment following this vote, but their response to 2021 (re-quoted in this piece) was frankly shameful, claiming they were confident that there was enough difference to avoid confusion.

This is a remarkably complacent thing to say in the face of irrefutable evidence voters have been confused, particularly given the confusion has evidently arisen from IGV’s freshly approved before 2021 logo that has “Green” in big, bold letters. It may well be the Electoral Commission lacks the powers to address this issue, but surely they aren’t stupid and can see what is going on here. Can they not at least acknowledge that there are serious concerns whilst emphasising they lack the power to intervene, if that is indeed the case? If they do lack the power, the UK Government needs to do something about this, as unlikely as it is.

It should worry any true democrat if IGV now have carte-blanche to deceive and distort elections in Scotland going forward. And if IGV can do it, what’s to stop people trying similar shenanigans to the disadvantage of the Conservatives or Labour, setting up Independent Conservative/Labour Voice? Whilst we certainly can’t put the Electoral Commission in the position of judging the ideological alignment of party policies versus their name, we also can’t just have blatant deceit normalised. I’ve written before about reforming ballot access (needs updated, mind), and this is another great reminder of the need to do so. I’m increasingly of the mind that perhaps there needs to be an Australia-style minimum membership requirement too, though nowhere near the 500 they require.

A Smaller Democratic Issue

I’ve written quite frequently about how single seat by-elections jar quite badly with the principles behind STV and Proportional Representation, as they can rob entire sections of the electorate of representation even without a single voter changing how they vote, just because a single seat vote differs so much from a multi seat ballot. In the most extreme cases it can leave a ward with representation from only one party. That happened as recently as two weeks ago in Jedburgh, but I’ve also noted this as a negative when it happened to the Lib Dems in Corstorphine and Murrayfield, to Labour in two North Lanarkshire wards, and to the SNP in Dundee North East.

In Hillhead’s case, although it hasn’t left the ward with sole party control, it does make it (I believe) the only ward in Scotland where every councillor represents a party from the Pro-Independence side of the divide. I’m told that the Labour-turned-Independent councillor for Edinburgh’s Sighthill and Gorgie ward (who sits alongside two SNP and a Green councillor) is also Pro-Independence, giving a second ward where every councillor backs it, but he wasn’t elected for a party that does. Whilst the constitution shouldn’t matter at local level, it is notably unrepresentative to have one side or other of the constitution the sole elected local voice. This is an area where following Ireland (both parts, which simply co-opt replacements from the same party as originally elected) or using a party list system would work better.

Anyway, long thoughts on democratic systems aside, that about wraps up the first pass at analysis for this election. I’m hoping that I get the data I need from the Council on Monday so we can look at how votes were spread across the ward and where second preferences went directly. Otherwise, we’ve got three weeks until the next election in Stromness and South Isles which, with all due respect to Orcadians, as a contest between two Independents is not going to be anywhere near as exciting to follow!

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