By-Election Preview: Dalry and West Kilbride (North Ayrshire) 12th of August 2021

If you feel a bit stumped by any of the information here, or wonder how it’s possible to get this level of depth, you can check this little guide to how I preview By-Elections.

NOTE: This by-election may be re-scheduled at short notice due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Ward Profile

Leaving the Highlands, the third and final by-election due on the 12th of August is in North Ayrshire’s Dalry and West Kilbride ward. Whereas Highland has had many a ballot since 2017, there hasn’t been a single by-election not just in North Ayrshire, but in the entire historic county of Ayrshire in that time. SNP Councillor Joy Brahim, first elected in 2017, has resigned as her work has taken her outside the area. As an aside, it’s a relief to have three by-elections in one day all prompted by resignations, given how often I’m writing these pieces following the very sad passing of incumbents.

Dalry and West Kilbride is one of 10 wards making up North Ayrshire, electing 3 councillors at a normal election. No prizes for guessing this ward covers the towns of, err, Dalry and West Kilbride, though it also takes in such a sweep of surrounding rural area that it completely bisects the mainland portion of the council area.

For the Scottish Parliament, the ward is within the Cunninghame North constituency, which has been held by the SNP since 2007. As with much of west-central Scotland, it had previously been Labour. Westminster’s North Ayrshire and Arran constituency obviously went to the SNP in their 2015 landslide, but had likewise been a Labour seat beforehand.

The Holyrood seat played a small role in a momentous bit of Scottish political history. In an election marred by a large number of spoiled ballots – it was held the same day as the first ever STV council elections – this was a narrow and controversial SNP victory. Had Labour held the seat, the SNP couldn’t have made up the difference on the lists, and it’d have been Labour rather than the SNP with a narrow single seat lead. It’s unlikely the SNP would have been able to form a government had they not been the largest party, and thus gaining this seat was one part of a chain of events leading to the era-defining 2014 Independence Referendum.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

There were very mild boundary changes in 2017, adding some sparsely populated tracts, including the village of Gateside, which will have had a negligible impact on electoral outcomes. If the proposals from Boundaries Scotland following the Islands Act are accepted, 2017 may prove to be the last election for this ward, as it’ll be replaced by a new North Coast ward including West Kilbride and Garnock Valley ward taking Dalry.

At the very first STV election in 2007, the ward returned Elizabeth McLardy as an Independent councillor and most popular candidate overall, plus one from Labour and the Conservatives. During the term, Conservative councillor Robert Barr resigned from the party, and was re-elected in 2012 as an Independent, taking the status of most popular candidate from McLardy, who was nonetheless re-elected. The Conservative vote halved, likely concentrated behind Barr instead, so they didn’t regain a seat, and Labour lost theirs to the SNP.

In 2017, McLardy suffered a substantial decrease in support and lost her seat to resurgent Conservatives, whilst a similar decline for Barr placed him third overall. This meant the SNP were the leading party in the ward for the first time, albeit that the total vote for Independent candidates was far higher.

Detailed 2017 Data

(Note: Thanks to Kenneth Leadbeater, who had all of the North Ayrshire Preferences by Ballot Box documents to hand and sent them along, after they went missing from the Council website!)

From the polling district level data we can see hugely different pictures between the two towns making up the ward. Barr led the vote in the Dalry portion, which was also where the SNP, Labour and those two smaller Independents, Sheena Woodside and John Willis did best. West Kilbride meanwhile was Conservative led, and where former councillor McLardy and another Independent, Kay Hall, had their strongest showing. Over in the much smaller Barrmill and Gateside section, the Conservatives also eked out a narrow lead.

Looking at 2017’s second preferences, it’s an Independent bonanza, which looks like it largely follows the same geographic splits. Amongst the Dalry squad, Barr was the most popular next preference for Labour and Woodside voters, with Barr’s supporters returning the favour for Woodside, who was also next most popular amongst Willis’ small pool of voters.

Over in West Kilbride, Hall had a plurality of Conservative and McLardy preferences, which were mutual for McLardy. Hall was also popular amongst SNP voters, which is the one exception to preferences staying within locally strong candidates – however, their vote share was the least concentrated anyway.

Candidates

A much quieter ballot this time around than back in 2017, though it’s more party-political. The Lib Dems notably didn’t contest a single Ayrshire ward in 2017, but are on the ballot this time, meaning the Greens are the only absent Holyrood 5 party. Though she’s the first Lib Dem to appear on a council ballot here this cycle, Ruby Kirkwood is by no means a newcomer, having stood for Cunninghame North in May’s Holyrood election, and was on the West regional ballot too.

Independent John Willis is a returning face, having contested the ward in both 2012 and 2017, placing last each time. Labour’s Valerie Reid stood in the Saltcoats ward at that election, whilst the other three candidates are totally fresh faces, including a rare Socialist Labour candidate.

Robyn Graham (SNP)
Ruby Kirkwood (Liberal Democrat)
James McDaid (Socialist Labour)
Valerie Reid (Labour)
Ronnie Stalker (Conservative)
John Willis (Independent)

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. Remember that in a single seat election under STV, a candidate needs 50%+1 of the valid votes cast (a quota) to win. For this re-calculation, that was 2562 votes.

As is so often the case with strong Independents, Barr would have won a single-seat election, with 39.9% versus the SNP’s 31.3% and 28.8% not transferring. That’s not much use to us since he’s obviously not on the ballot this time, so let’s remove him, as well as the three other Independents not re-contesting the ward.

Stage 7 (final head-to-head stage); 

Conservative - 1902 (37.1%)
SNP - 1806 (35.3%)
Didn't Transfer - 1415 (27.6%)

This gives the Conservatives a narrow lead of less than 2% over the SNP. Given Barr was formerly a Conservative, it’s maybe not surprising his voters would prove more favourable to his former party than the SNP. That really is a narrow lead however, and there are a lot more exhausted ballots in this re-calc than there will be on the day.

Given by-election dynamics and a solid showing in the Holyrood election, the Conservatives are definitely in with a good shot here. On the other hand, 2017 was the peak of the Conservative revival, and the trough for recent SNP support, so the latter’s chances may have improved since then. As such, I’d say this is far too close to call.

Call: Conservative-SNP Tossup.

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the mention, we don’t always get that courtesy. However as the SLP have stood on three previous occasions in this ward as well as numerous times in elections at Westminster, Holyrood and EU levels I’m assuming your use of the descriptor “rare” is in the Scots colloquial vein! ps an informative and interesting article.

  2. Your analysis is well argued but without necessarily appreciating local factors. Your deduction that the Independent could win may be a bit wide of the mark this time. He was bottom of the five Independent candidates last time with only 72 votes. Whilst you could reasonably extrapolate that independent voters could well transfer their support to him my understanding (I’m involved in the campaign) is this is unlikely. II do gthink it is looking like a three horse race with SNP, Tory and Labour fighting it out. Second and even third preference votes could determine the outcome. It may be up to Labour voters to decide which is the most disagreeable, an SNP or Tory Councillor.

    • Just as a point of clarity, nowhere in the piece does it say I expect Willis to be in with a shot here, precisely because of his low level of support. I very explicitly state at the end I view this as a Conservative-SNP tossup!

      • I know that this prediction is fraught with particular difficulties given the number and total votes for independent candidates in 2017. The difference here seems that voters voting independent normally do so on a reputational basis as much as “none of the above” principle. This candidate by all account is not regarded as likely to amass independent votes on any significant scale which of course raises the question where will these votes go if anywhere? I wish I knew. Down to the campaign. Keep up the good work.

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