NOTE: This by-election was postponed at very short notice from the 19th of March to the 19th of November due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and may be re-scheduled again at short notice.
Clackmannanshire absolutely loves a March by-election, so it does. There was one in the North ward in 2018. Then we had one in the Central ward last year. This year it should have been East’s turn, as Conservative councillor Bill Mason had resigned for health reasons, having first been elected in 2017. (As an aside, you can see all three generations of BBS mapping styles via Clacks by-elections.) However, this year, the March by-election wasn’t to be. It was cancelled just the day before it was originally due as Coronavirus took hold, and eventually rescheduled to November.
At a full election, Clacks East elects 3 councillors. The ward includes the historic county town of Clackmannan itself, although it’s long since been overtaken by Alloa as the centre of the Wee County. Most of the rest of the population live in the other main town of Dollar or in Pool of Muckhart in the northeastern corner.
Clacks has typically been a Labour-SNP battleground, but the Conservatives have been doing well recently, and have had substantial strength in the East ward for ages. 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, which has changed hands repeatedly. Labour held it until the SNP surge in 2015, the Conservatives then took it in 2017, and it went SNP again last year.
Boundaries and Recent Election History
The ward has had a very minor boundary change since it was created in 2007, expanding to take in a tiny bit of Alloa. That’s a negligible enough change for us to say it compares neatly with previous elections. In all three elections since STV was introduced in 2007, the ward has elected one apiece from the SNP, Conservatives and Labour. In 2007 and 2012, although the Conservatives did multiple times better here than in any other Clacks ward, the SNP had a lead in first preferences. In 2017, with the Conservatives growing to win a seat in every ward, corresponding growth in this one gave them the overall lead.
Since council elections are machine counted, we can get down to polling district level results. Note that the map and chart below show in-person votes per district, as postal votes are not broken down by district.
Though there’s 11% between the Conservatives and SNP, then 10% between them and Labour in the ward overall, the districts show the ward splitting perfectly across the middle. In the northern half around Dollar and Muckhart, the Conservatives absolutely steamrollered all opposition, winning well over half the vote. Also notable is that, although still small, this was the best bit for the Lib Dems and Greens too. By contrast, the southern half around Clackmannan itself had the SNP out ahead with Labour nipping at their heels, and the Conservatives a distant third.
In terms of recent elections it’s new faces all round for the three parties that currently have seats on Clacks council. For the Greens, Marion Robertson will be a dab hand by now, having contested this ward in 2017 as well as both of the other Clacks ward by-elections since then. These four parties are all standing the same candidate they nominated for the original date in March. The Lib Dems however have a new candidate, Jim Hay, who stood in the Clackmannanshire West ward in 2017. It’s just the Holyrood 5 for this one, with full list of candidates as follows:
Denis Coyne (Conservative)
Jim Hay (Liberal Democrat)
Carolynne Hunter (Labour)
Stephen Leitch (SNP)
Marion Robertson (Green)
2017 Re-Calculation and Prediction
As ever, to get the best comparison between the original vote and a single seat by-election, we need to dig a bit deeper and re-calculate a result for electing a single councillor. The top chart shows the first preferences in 2017, transfer flows are in the bottom chart. Remember that in a single seat election under STV, a candidate needs 50%+1 of the valid votes cast (a quota) to win.
Stage 7 (final head-to-head stage);
Conservative - 1782 (51.0%)
SNP - 1241 (35.5%)
Didn't Transfer - 473 (13.5%)
That Conservative lead in first preferences grows through the transfers process, resulting in a relatively rare case of a re-calculated winner reaching quota without needing to eliminate every other candidate. At the start of October I’d have said that, despite recent SNP polling highs and their re-taking of the Westminster constituency in December, the Conservative lead in 2017 was probably big enough that they’d be favourites to win, even if narrowly.
Then we saw the SNP overcome a 20% deficit after transfers in 2017 to take Aberdeenshire’s Ellon ward by 2%. Different wards have different dynamics and assuming that with a narrower 15% to close the SNP therefore have this one in the bag would be foolish. But it’s also now much more likely that they are seriously in the running, to the extent I’d call this a complete tossup between the two parties.
Call: Con-SNP Tossup