Rounding out the smattering of by-elections to arise after May’s full vote was Mid Galloway and Wigtown West. Labour had unexpectedly won a seat here in May, due to the retirement of a popular local Independent and the resulting failure of the Conservatives and SNP to stand “enough” candidates. Had either of them stood an additional candidate, they’d have won the seat – if both had done so, the SNP would have been favoured to pick it up, based on Labour and especially Green transfer patterns.
They didn’t though, and Labour ended up with a councillor who very clearly didn’t expect or want to win, resigning completely wordlessly a few months in. Given the Conservatives had won a (slender) majority of the vote in May, they were the clear favourites to win, even allowing for their current difficulties.
Councillors and Key Stats
1 Councillor Elected:
🔵Conservative: Richard Marsh
Change vs 2022 (notional): Conservative hold
Change vs vacating: Conservative gain from Labour
Turnout: 30.8% (-15.6)
Valid: 3354 (99.2%)
Spoiled: 26 (0.8%)
3 Continuing Councillors:
🔵Conservative: David Inglis
🟡SNP: Katie Hagmann
🔵Conservative: Jackie McCamon
🟡SNP: Ian Gibson
🟢Green: Daniel Hooper-Jones
🔵Conservative: Richard Marsh
🔴Labour: John McCutcheon
🟠Lib Dem: Iain McDonald
Not only did the Conservatives win, they did so on first preferences alone, going against recent by-election and polling trend to record an increase in their vote share. I have to admit to being quite surprised by this, as I’d anticipated something more along the lines of “win 43% of first preferences, then coast to victory on transfers”, rather than “win 53% and romp home without a single second preference needed”.
Both the SNP and Labour ended up losing ground, which for the SNP perhaps isn’t an enormous surprise given the area, but it was rather more unexpected for Labour given their generally improved position in Parliamentary polls. Although it wasn’t as sharp in absolute terms as the SNP, relatively speaking the Greens lost the biggest chunk of their vote of any party. Placing behind the Lib Dems, who hadn’t stood a single candidate in Wigtownshire for over a decade, is likely to sting a bit for them.
First Preference History
As this one was counted by hand, there isn’t any of the detailed data we get from machine counts – no second preferences, no polling district data, and in fact because it was a first-round victory, not even a two-candidate preferred figure. The only thing to look at then is the first preference history since the ward was created in 2017.
For the victorious Conservatives, this is their second best result in the ward yet, albeit below their 2020 by-election figure. Although both the SNP and Labour were down relative to May, it was similarly their second best figure to date. The Greens on the other hand go in the opposite direction, with this being their second worst share – only the first election on these boundaries in 2017 was lower.
In the absence of detailed data, we can instead talk a little bit about how this is a cracking example of why you cannot and should not use a single by-election as proof of national political trends or theories. It’s absolutely undeniable the Conservatives are, to be frank, completely bombing in polling at the moment. Both Holyrood and Westminster trackers show a party in freefall, as did results in the two other most recent by-elections. One by-election in rural Scotland doesn’t disprove national polling, least of all when UK-level polling is even more severe for them, in relative terms. Lest you reach for your preferred claims of constitutional bias, note that this goes against recent polling for both the SNP and Labour. So what happened here?
Well, I can’t answer that for sure, but there are likely to be a few contributors. First off there are those “by-election effects” I always talk about. By-elections have much lower turnout, with this one down by 15.6% – or, put another way, only just over two-thirds (68.1%) of the voters that turned out in May did so again for this one. Lower turnouts lead to greater influence for higher turnout groups (primarily older and wealthier voters) who are more likely to vote Conservative (and Lib Dem). At a “normal” time, if the Conservatives were performing nationally on a par with how they were at the last election, gaining a few % of the vote at SNP (and Green) expense would be unremarkable.
A second contributing factor could be the now quite well established tendency for those voters of a Pro-Union persuasion to vote for the party best placed to beat the SNP. Clearly in Galloway that was going to be the Conservatives, hence the leakage in the Labour vote despite big positive swings in the two urban by-elections that preceded this one, where they’d have been the obvious pick to beat the SNP.
Third and finally would be something no national polling can ever pick up, and that’s the local campaign. The whole thing about a national picture is it’s the aggregation of wildly diverging local situations, and it’s not uncommon for a handful of places to go against national trend to some degree. Maybe the candidate was weel kent and widely respected locally? Perhaps their party ran a particularly strong campaign? Personalities, doors knocked, leaflets delivered, and voters politely reminded to actually drag themselves out to the polling station really do matter.
Whatever the exact explanation or balance of these contributing factors, this was a good result for the Conservatives at a time those are few and far between. They can and should be pleased with that without dafties on Twitter trying to claim one ward out of 354 in Scotland with fewer than a third of voters turning out is somehow nationally representative – it wasn’t in May, and it isn’t now.
In any case, this was the last by-election in 2022. We’ve unfortunately already got one lined up for early 2023 following the death of a Conservative councillor in Aberdeen, but the date for that is TBC. At some point before Christmas, we’ll see the usual BBS look back over the year’s by-elections, but otherwise that’s a wrap on them.
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