The first by-elections of the 2022-27 council term were unfinished business from May. Two of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s wards had ended up short of candidates to the tune of one councillor each, and so whilst voters didn’t get to have their say at the same time as the rest of the council, they did get a chance to influence one of their two councillors.
Given the strength of Independent candidacies in the Islands councils in general, I had both down for Independents to win. In Barraigh agus Bhatarsaigh voters only had the options of Independents anyway, but whereas Sgìr’ Ùige agus Carlabhagh had a few party candidates on offer I assumed the general tendency of Islands wards to Independents would hold.
(Note that this is a slightly longer wait than normal for a results post – the votes per stage weren’t made available until a week after the vote.)
By-Election Results (Barraigh agus Bhatarsaigh)
First Preferences (Turnout: 39.6%)
Looking first at Barra and Vatersay, it was a quick return to the council for Iain MacNeil, who had lost his seat in the newly redrawn Uibhist a Deas, Èirisgeigh agus Beinn na Faoghla ward in May. SNP-turned Alba-turned Independent Calum MacMillan had likewise lost out and again didn’t fare nearly so well, though he’d apparently attempted to withdraw in any case. That left it a two horse race with Barra native Gerard MacDonald.
MacNeil was only 4 votes short of quota, and MacMillan’s transfers overwhelmingly favoured him, easily pulling him over the line. That means Barraigh agus Bhatarsaigh now has a full complement of two councillors, both Independents.
By-Election Results (Sgìr' Ùige agus Carlabhagh)
First Preferences (Turnout: 47.1%)
Moving northwards to Sgìr’ Ùige agus Carlabhagh, it was Independent Norman MacDonald who emerged as the clear frontrunner based on first preferences. Interestingly enough the second placed candidate was the Lib Dem, an impressive result for a party that hasn’t been seen in a CNES election since 2007. As is so often the case in Islands wards, that probably comes down in large part to the quality and local profile of the candidate. Another Independent, Sophie Brown, placed a pretty solid third place ahead of the SNP.
At this point it’s probably worth acknowledging the little slap on the wrist I ended up giving the Scottish Lib Dem leader over this (and which then got an inexplicable writeup in a newspaper, as if my tweets are somehow news). We cannot read anything about support for the Lib Dems, SNP or Independence from this vote. It’s immaterial that the SNP hold this constituency in both parliaments – that has never translated to local elections, because Independents dominate Islands council politics. Of all parties, you’d think the Lib Dems, with their parliamentary dominance but local absence in the Northern Isles, might understand that!
Even if you were trying to read a by-election of just over 600 votes as nationally and constitutionally representative, a creditable result for the Greens would tilt the constitutional balance, at least amongst the party candidates. These were the first by-elections of the term so I’m going hard on this, but you should never attempt to hang big national political theories on individual council by-elections. It’s also helpful to remember that pointing out when people are being daft doesn’t mean you’re taking the opposition position! See also some people being cross that I pointed out very Independence-favourable “polls” on Twitter and newspaper websites they were quoting were statistically useless…
Returning to the votes as cast, the final two Independents really didn’t have much impact at all. In fact one of them only won a single vote, quite possibly their own. That’s got to be the worst performance I’ve seen in any by-election I’ve covered.
The same ranking held throughout the transfer process, though there was a repeated narrowing of gaps – the SNP closing in on Brown, Brown on the Lib Dems, and the Lib Dems on MacDonald. MacDonald’s final victory was with a 9% margin, having started at 15%. If I were the Lib Dems’ Jamie Dobson, I’d be eyeing up a 2027 re-run here. That makes the ward one Conservative and one Independent now.
As both of these by-elections were hand counts, we don’t have any of the detailed data on second preferences or a breakdown by polling district. In the latter case, given the number of votes would have necessitated a huge amount of box merging, we’d probably not have learned very much anyway.
There’s another by-election due in Shetland to fill a May vacancy, but that’s an entirely Independent affair. It’s therefore looking set to be a nice quiet summer in voting terms in Scotland, hopefully giving me time and space to finish up my LE22 data collation project by the end of July. At the time this piece will publish, I’m 63.9% done. Of course, UK-level politics will be consumed by the Conservative Leadership Contest. As it’s not Scotland-specific I won’t be giving it the treatment the Scottish Labour one got last year, but I will be keeping tabs on declarations of support.
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