Coatbridge South (North Lanarkshire) By-Election, 25/10/18

Scotland’s 8th council by-election of this year is due on the 25th of October for Coatbridge South in North Lanarkshire. This one was unfortunately prompted by the death of Labour councillor Gordon Encinias, who was elected for the first time last May. That makes it the 5th by-election to have come about this way, acting as quite a morbid reminder of the skew in councillor demographics towards older men.

One of 21 wards in North Lanarkshire and electing 4 councillors in an ordinary election, Coatbridge South is the first by-election since I started this project to take place in a subdivision of a large town, rather than across a whole or multiple towns and villages. Two other wards – West and North – cover the rest of Coatbridge, which was formerly a prominent mining and ironworking town. North Lanarkshire as a whole has been politically interesting to watch since 2011, as voters in post-industrial Scotland shifted from their traditional Labour affiliation to the SNP. In fact, North Lanarkshire was one of the four councils that voted Yes to independence in the 2014 referendum.

Since then it’s been one of the main battlegrounds between the two parties, with Coatbridge as a whole tilting marginally towards the SNP in terms of votes; Labour narrowly led in West last year whilst the SNP eked out a similarly slender victory in North, but a notionally large SNP lead here in South. For the Scottish Parliament the whole ward is part of the Coatbridge and Chryston constituency, represented by the SNP. At Westminster it’s part of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, which was narrowly won by Labour in last year’s snap.

Due to an increase in the number of councillors in North Lanarkshire last year, Coatbridge South was marginally expanded in the boundary changes. Up in the northwest corner, the southernmost portion of the town centre plus an area to the east of Langloan was added to the ward. The ward also received an additional councillor, leading to it splitting 2:2 for the SNP and Labour. Although the Conservative surge could be seen even in Coatbridge, they didn’t win a councillor in any of the wards, making the town one of the last anti-Tory holdouts in the country. At the first two STV elections the ward had come out 2:1 for Labour and the SNP.

I said above that the SNP’s large lead in the ward was “notional”; 11.2% of the vote went to the Independent Alliance North Lanarkshire, a grouping formed from ex-Labour councillors. Both of Labour’s 2012 councillors stood under that banner, which would explain why the ward seemed to lean heavily SNP whilst it was on a knife-edge in the rest of the town. It’s worth noting as well that the second, unsuccessful, SNP candidate from 2012 picked up nearly 5% as an independent, so chunks were probably carved from both parties theoretical support in the ward.

In terms of by-election candidates, none of these independent minded candidates decided to throw their hats back in the ring, perhaps stung by last year’s disappointment. Instead, we’ve got a full rainbow of parties. Both the SNP and Labour have put up entirely fresh faces, whilst the Conservative candidate stood in neighbouring Coatbridge North last year. The Green could be found next door in Airdrie South, but the Kipper has come from slightly further afield, standing in Motherwell Southeast and Ravenscraig last May. The Lib Dem is a completely new face, as the party didn’t contest a single North Lanarkshire ward in 2017;

  • Ben Callaghan (Conservative)
  • Rosemary McGowan (Green)
  • Lesley Mitchell (SNP)
  • Christpher Wilson (Liberal Democrats)
  • Neil Wilson (UKIP)
  • Geraldine Woods (Labour)

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 last year, 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 7 (final head-to-head stage):

  • SNP – 2119 (45.6%)
  • Labour – 1788 (38.5%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 740 (15.9%)

If it had been just the one councillor, the SNP would have come out reasonably comfortably ahead of Labour – but transfers heavily favoured the latter, slashing the margin between the two from 13% to 7% by the final stages. In fact, of the 34.5% of first preferences eliminated non-SNP candidates started with, only a paltry 2.9% made it to the SNP.

That could be a worry for them if it’s the same story next month. Potentially buoyed by having won the MP seat, Labour’s chances of preserving that 2:2 balance look quite good. In the ward with the lowest turnout in North Lanarkshire, it may come down to who is best able to get their voters to actually go to the polls.

Call: Close run SNP-Labour race, small advantage to SNP.