Clackmannanshire Central By-Election, 28/03/19

For our first by-election of 2019, we’re making a return trip to the Wee County. Following on from last year’s Clacks North by-election, Clackmannanshire Central has also just seen the resignation of an SNP Councillor, with Phil Fairlie choosing to step down for personal reasons. Fairlie was freshly elected for the 2017 intake, and served as Deputy Leader of the council from April last year.

Clacks Central is one of five wards in the council area, and elects 3 councillors at a full election. The directional descriptors for Clackmannanshire’s wards are a little bit cryptic, but this ward effectively covers the north of Alloa plus the small hamlet of Devon Village. Although Sauchie and Fishcross do retain their own local identities, they now form part of the statistical settlement of Alloa.

Clacks has typically been a Labour-SNP battleground, but the Tories have been mounting a strong challenge recently – albeit Central was their weakest ward in the Wee County. For the Scottish Parliament, it’s part of the Clackmannanshire and Dunblane constituency, which has been held by the SNP since 2003 (as Ochil until 2011). For Westminster it falls under Ochil and South Perthshire, one of the seats the Conservatives won in 2017’s snap election.

With no boundary changes taking place ahead of 2017 direct comparisons with past results are a skoosh. In the 2007 and 2012 elections, the ward leaned more heavily Labour than the council as a whole, electing two Labour and one SNP councillor each time. In 2017 one of those Labour councillors was replaced with a Conservative as the latter swept to a seat in every ward. Nonetheless, it remained Labour’s strongest ward in the council, with a narrow lead in first preferences over the SNP.

For the by-election, we’ve got a full slate of Holyrood parties plus a UKIP candidate. None of the unsuccessful candidates from this ward in 2017 are making a re-appearance but there are a few familiar names. The Green’s Marion Robertson will have candidacies for 3 of 5 Clacks wards under her belt, having stood in the North by-election last year, and in East in 2017 alongside the SNP’s Jane McTaggart. The Lib Dems didn’t stand a candidate here at all in the full election, but candidate John Shier Biggam contested South for them then. The full list of candidates is;

  • John Shier Biggam (Liberal Democrats)
  • Margaret Brookes (Labour)
  • William Marlin (Conservative)
  • Jane McTaggart (SNP)
  • Dawson Michie (UKIP)
  • Marion Robertson (Green)

As ever, to get the best comparison between the original vote and the by-election, we need to go beyond the surface and re-calculate a result for electing a single councillor. The top half of the chart shows the first preferences in 2017, as well as the party of the successfully elected councillors. Transfer flows are on the bottom half. Remember that in a single seat election under STV, a candidate needs 50%+1 of the valid votes cast (a quota) to win.

Round 5 (final head-to-head stage);

  • Labour – 1217 (47.2%)
  • SNP – 1050 (40.7%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 310 (12.0%)

Sure enough, Labour’s slight lead in first preferences would have held throughout the process if it was a single councillor. By the final head-to-head stage Labour’s Derek Stewart would have held a reasonable lead over the SNP’s Phil Fairlie – though not a million miles ahead. I’d say it’s likely to be a pretty close call again. National polling hasn’t shifted much for either party, and both saw similar declines in the Clacks North by-election to the Conservative’s favour. The Tories are starting from a much weaker position and Labour from much stronger here, so I wouldn’t expect a repeat of the leapfrogging there even if the voters are slightly bluer this time.

All that said, Stewart has also cultivated a very strong personal vote over a 30 year tenure in the area, according to another candidate who stood in the Wee County in 2017. That may mean that there’s a chunk of those 2017 votes that don’t carry over to Labour itself in a by-election in any case. I’m not sure that’s enough grounds to say that takes Labour’s initial advantage away, seeing as you might expect an endorsement along the lines of “I’ve worked hard for this area for 30 years, and I know Margaret will work just as hard as I do” to carry some weight in such situations. Nonetheless it may mean the SNP at least are starting on a slightly stronger footing than it first appears.

Call: Close Lab-SNP contest, tilt slightly Lab.