For the last Scottish by-election of the year, we found ourselves in Motherwell South East and Ravenscraig following the resignation of SNP councillor Agnes Macgowan for family reasons. That completed a busy few months for Lanarkshire elections, as we’d already had Bellshill (also in North Lanarkshire) plus East Kilbride West and the UK-level Rutherglen and Hamilton West (both in South Lanarkshire) out at the polls.
This was the first genuine, in STV terms, SNP defence against Labour since the change in First Minister, yet I reckoned the signs didn’t look good for the SNP. They’ve been bruised at every other by-election so far this year, and their North Lanarkshire group has been falling to bits, including through the loss of 8 of their councillors to the “Progressive Change North Lanarkshire” grouping. I therefore had this pegged as being likely to go Labour’s way, though without that likelihood being as overwhelming as other recent Lanarkshire votes.
Councillors and Key Stats
1 Councillor Elected:
Labour: Kaye Harmon
Change vs 2022 (notional): Labour Gain from SNP
Change vs vacating: Labour Gain from SNP
Turnout: 20.0% (-20.2)
Valid: 3107 (98.5%)
Spoiled: 48 (1.5%)
3 Continuing Councillors:
Labour: Kenneth Duffy
SNP: David Robb
Conservative: Nathan Wilson
British Unionist Party: Billy Acheson
Conservative: Oyebola Ajala
Labour: Kaye Harmon
Lib Dem: Robert McGeorge
Alba: Mark Shields
UKIP: Neil Wilson
Green: Derek Watson
SNP: Rosa Zambonini
Note: The Scottish Family Party won 0.9% of the vote in 2022.
First Preference History
Score another perfectly predicted result for Ballot Box Scotland! Now, I won’t say who so as to spare them their blushes, but someone did offer me a £10 bet that Labour wouldn’t win this by-election. I didn’t take that up, claiming that BBS can’t go around gambling on by-election outcomes as a matter of integrity (in reality I’m just not a betting man), but I want everyone to know that I am spiritually richer by a tenner now, even if my wallet says otherwise.
Labour’s comfortable lead here took them back towards but not quite matching their pre-IndyRef level of support in the ward, whilst the SNP’s decrease was their worst share yet. Reflecting the fact this was the most strongly SNP-aligned of the three Lanarkshire wards to have gone to the polls this year, it’s also the only one where they managed to stay above 30% – barely!
Though Labour’s positive swing almost completely balances the SNP’s negative, the story is unlikely to be as simple as direct SNP to Labour transfer. Regular readers will be used to me pointing out low by-election turnout, and at 20% this was extremely low, tends to be a handicap for the SNP especially, so some of the swing will be down to a different pattern of voters coming out to vote. In addition, we’ve got a whole suite of swings for other parties plus some new faces versus last year’s full election.
The Conservatives also took a big hit, and saw the biggest shift relative to their previous vote share. That’s their second worst result here and leaves them back in single-digits, but was largely to be expected, given their weakened national position and Labour being the clear non-SNP option locally. That allowed the Greens to get close to overtaking them, with a small uptick in their vote. UKIP, the only other returning party, also saw a tiny positive swing, albeit it wasn’t enough to even give them a whole percentage point of the vote.
That leaves our three newcomers, none of whom scored particularly highly, but where I have a slightly different surprise relative to what some folk on Twitter have had. For one thing, I’m not surprised at all that the British Unionist Party came fifth. Remember, they actually have a councillor in North Lanarkshire in the Fortissat ward, and they also make a conveniently easy protest vote for past Conservative voters scunnered with that party but unwilling to go for Labour. They may not be a national presence, but they’re notable locally and benefit from a simple message.
Instead, I was surprised the Lib Dems beat Alba, even if they only did so by a hair and I wasn’t expecting Alba to do all that much better than they did. The Lib Dems have never stood in this ward previously and North Lanarkshire is an absolutely dire area for them. By contrast, some of Alba’s best results in last year’s local elections came in this area, including 5% in neighbouring Motherwell North, though that was with an incumbent who had defected from the SNP. Either way, it’s clear that Alba continue to struggle for relevance in Scottish politics, barely registering even after picking up a defecting MSP and as the SNP’s vote share plummets.
As is so often the case in by-elections, we had to go through a few rounds of transfers before the inevitable victory was procedurally confirmed. Labour did well enough here that the computer didn’t have to go as far as the mathematically immaterial elimination of the second placed candidate, with the final stage instead being the direct head-to-head with the SNP. It’s very marginal, but whilst Labour’s percentage gain here is higher than on first preferences, the SNP’s losses are lower. A lot, if not all, of that is just going to be down to the fact that by-elections often have lower “Didn’t Transfer” tallies for this measure due to the absence of same-party candidates to eat up high preferences.
Results by Polling District
What had been an entirely yellow map last May ends up almost entirely red here, with the SNP just scraping a vote lead in the Muirhouse district, which naturally ends up as their best patch across the ward. Labour meanwhile did best in the districts around Craigneuk and Wishawhill – that was also UKIP’s highest share, though that really doesn’t amount to much at their level of support.
The other parties best bits have some odd pairings. The Conservatives and Alba were both strongest in the districts around Flemington, whilst the Greens, BUP and Lib Dems peaked in the district covering the town centre and streets to the east of Airbles station. Open Street Map tells me part of the area is called “Watsonville”, leading to a classic case of nominative determinism for Green candidate Derek Watson there.
Looking at second preferences, there are some interesting little quirks here. As is quite common for Labour, their next preferences were highly fragmented. The Conservatives got the largest proportion, but really not very much more than either the Lib Dems or SNP. Whilst the two other national Pro-Union parties leaned towards Labour, the relatively small number of Lib Dem voters were notably cool towards the Conservatives, preferring both the SNP and Greens over them.
The SNP and Greens, as you’d expect, demonstrated relatively strong mutual preferencing. That was lower from the SNP to the Greens than the reverse due to the presence of Alba, who pick up a reasonable number of SNP second preferences in a way they just don’t from the Greens. Labour were nonetheless a more palatable option for more SNP voters than Alba, whilst despite the party’s invective, Alba voters tended to plump for the SNP. Sticking with constitutional hardliners, the BUP’s voters unsurprisingly went strongly Conservative with their next preference, whilst UKIP’s small pool of voters had the BUP as their most common next party choice.
Taking all of this in the round, it’s worth finishing with some thoughts on the seat breakdown this might indicate at a full election. The first preferences would easily give 2 Labour and 1 SNP, but the final seat would be contested between the second SNP candidate, the Conservatives and the Greens. Each of the three has reason to feel optimistic about picking it up.
For the SNP, they might expect to do better at a full election than a by-election, and even on these figures would be the hypothetical fourth seat. For the Conservatives, if it’s their sitting councillor standing again that may help them, plus they won’t have the “squeeze” factor of a by-election. And for the Greens, the party probably most negatively impacted by by-election conditions, the fact they grew their share at all could point to further growth if they keep working towards the full.
And with that, we’re all done for 2023 by-elections in Scotland! We’ve already got two lined up for 2024, one of which will be our first “repeat” by-election of the term. As usual, I’ll also be looking back over the whole year as part of my annual review series, which will appear just before Christmas.
If you find this or other Ballot Box Scotland output useful and/or interesting, and you can afford to do so, please consider donating to support my work. I love doing this, but it’s a one-man project and takes a lot of time and effort. All donations, no matter how small, are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful.