East Kilbride Central North (South Lanarkshire) By-Election, 29/08/19

After a short lull in council by-elections, unfortunate circumstances have triggered one in South Lanarkshire’s East Kilbride Central North ward. Sheena Wardhaugh who had served as councillor for the ward since 2007, elected each time for the SNP but resigning and sitting as an independent shortly after the 2017 election, sadly passed away at the start of June.

East Kilbride Central North is one of 20 in the council area, and one of 5 covering the town of East Kilbride, electing 3 councillors at a normal election. Alongside the Town Centre, the ward includes the East and West Mains areas, as well as south western portions of Calderwood and St Leonards. As with much of the Central Belt East Kilbride has been a Labour-SNP battleground since the 90’s, though for much of that time Labour were overwhelmingly dominant, especially at Westminster.

At Holyrood the ward is part of the East Kilbride seat, which was held by Labour until 2011, when their finance spokesperson Andy Kerr lost to the SNP’s Linda Fabiani. That was one of the first results announced that night, and one that has stuck in my brain as a defining moment in the first ever Holyrood election I could vote in. For the UK Parliament it’s part of the East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow constituency which, as with preceding constituencies, was strongly Labour until the SNP sweep in 2015. Incidentally that constituency is a favourite in the “confusing Scottish place name pronunciations” genre, “Strathaven” being roughly “stray-ven”.

The 2017 election saw very minor boundary changes to the east of the ward, losing the small chunk of “Glen” streets where the indentation is on the map above, though it also dropped from 4 councillors to 3. At the previous two elections those councillors went two each to Labour and the SNP, with Labour leading the popular vote each time. In 2017, the SNP held both seats and took the lead in first preference votes, so it was Labour who lost out thanks to the reduction in councillors. Each time, Wardhaugh was elected as the 2nd SNP councillor and last councillor overall, though by 2017 she’d clearly picked up a substantial personal vote as she came only narrowly behind her colleague.

Grant Ferguson is the SNP’s hope of regaining the seat, facing off primarily against Labour’s Kirsty Williams. Besides those two, we’ve got a nice neat run of all the other Holyrood parties, as well as the Libertarians and UKIP. Apart from UKIP’s David Mackay, who stood in East Kilbride West, these are all fresh faces who didn’t stand anywhere in the council in 2017. I had hopes of a Brexit Party candidate popping up to give them their first council by-election appearance, but none to be seen. The full list of candidates is;

  • Grant Ferguson (SNP)
  • Graham Fisher (Conservative)
  • Antony Lee (Greens)
  • David Mackay (UKIP)
  • Paul McGarry (Liberal Democrats)
  • Stephen McNamara (Libertarians)
  • Kirsty Williams (Labour)

As ever, to get the best comparison between the original vote and a single seat by-election, we need to go beyond the surface 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);

  • SNP – 2748 (44.3%)
  • Labour – 2378 (38.4%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 1073 (17.3%)

As we’ve come to expect from the kind of first preference advantage the SNP had in 2017, they would have won a single councillor election. The margin between them and Labour does narrow substantially to 5.9%, which would if Labour were doing particularly well at the moment be enough for me to reckon they would be in with a shot. However, they simply aren’t doing well at the moment. Following the bruising loss of both their MEPs and a result in the single figures in the European elections they’ve also been polling in the doldrums of the teens for both Holyrood and Westminster. I’m therefore inclined to say this is the SNP’s contest to lose.

Call: Likely SNP win