Eilean a’ Cheò (Highland) By-Election, 12/03/2020

We’re still on the west coast of Scotland for 2020’s second council by-election on the 12th of March, but a good bit further north than January’s Dumfries and Galloway vote. Independent councillor for the Eilean a’ Cheò ward, Ronald MacDonald, resigned his seat in order to focus on implementing a review into health and social care in the Highlands. That’s actually quite a nice reason to have a by-election, given it’s all too often they come about due to death or ill health. This will be the fifth by-election to Highland council since the full election in 2017, so it’s been quite busy there.

Eilean a’ Cheò is one of 21 wards in the Highland Council, and normally elects 4 councillors. The main component of the ward is the island of Skye, the fourth most populous island in Scotland. Although there are people living in some of the other islands covered by the ward, only Raasay has a population you’d need more than one hand to count, and even than it’s below 200 compared to the around 10,000 on Skye. Unlike most other Scottish islands, Skye is connected to the mainland by bridge, which caused a somewhat comedic stramash when one MSP suggested that meant it wasn’t a “real” island during the passage of the Islands Act through Holyrood.

In the Scottish Parliament, the ward is part of the Skye, Lochaber & Badenoch constituency which has been held by the SNP since it was created in the 2011 boundary changes. Previously it had been in the Ross, Skye & Inverness West constituency, which per the historic Highland norm was consistently Lib Dem. At Westminster it’s in the Ross, Skye & Lochaber constituency, held by the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford since 2015, but before that having been the constituency of the late Charles Kennedy, former leader of the Lib Dems.

There haven’t been any changes to the ward boundaries since 2007, which isn’t a surprise given where it covers. At the first election the historic strength of the Lib Dems was evidenced by their candidate being elected first, alongside two Independents and an SNP councillor. In 2012 that general pattern held, though one of the Independents chose not to re-stand and was replaced by a different councillor.

In 2017, most of the incumbents were booted out. Lib Dem David Millar had left the party in 2014 to sit as an Independent within the “Highland Alliance” group and was not re-elected, and his former party then did very poorly with a new candidate. The SNP kept a councillor, but it was a new one as they stood two candidates and the incumbent lost out. Independent Hamish Fraser also failed to be re-elected, leaving only fellow Independent John Gordon standing from 2012, to be joined by new Independents John Finlayson and the now-resigned Ronald MacDonald.

This time around the ballot is overwhelmingly party political, with only Labour missing from the Holyrood parties. Joining the parties are two Independent candidates. Nobody here stood anywhere in Highland in the 2017 elections never mind in this ward, so it’s a completely fresh ballot facing voters here. There’s a bit of an, shall we say, oddity in terms of one of those independents though. Màrtainn Mac a’Bhaillidh has perhaps taken advantage of the good ol’ technicality that in Scotland you can basically call yourself whatever you want so long as you aren’t doing so to commit fraud or anything. He’s down on the ballot with his surname listed as that of the Gaelic campaign group he’s part of, Misneachd. It’s certainly one alternative to registering as a party, and for consistency it’s that ballot description used in the list;

  • Andrew Jonathan Kiss (SNP)
  • Dawn Kroonstuiver Campbell (Green)
  • Màrtainn Misneachd (Independent)
  • Calum Munro (Independent)
  • Ruaridh Cameron Stewart (Conservative)
  • Fay Thomson (Liberal Democrat)

At this point I’d normally do a recount for a single councillor from the 2017 results, but…

Independent candidates won 71% of the vote between them last time. None of those candidates are standing again this time, so this is much more of a wildcard than a standard by-election where it’s usually easy to recalculate the previous result along purely partisan lines. Rather than make a fool of myself by trying to predict this kind of hyper-local contest, I’m just going to say this one is wide open. It could be an independent, it could be the SNP in line with Parliamentary trends, it could be the Lib Dems in line with history, I couldn’t for one second claim to have any idea.

Call: Who knows!