Ellon and District (Aberdeenshire) By-Election, 15/10/2020

NOTE: This by-election was delayed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and may be re-scheduled again at short notice.

After two weeks of (mostly) non-partisan Islands council by-elections, we’re finally back on a good old party-political scrap in Aberdeenshire’s Ellon and District by-election. This follows SNP councillor Richard Thomson’s election as MP for Gordon in December, one of a small handful of SNP councillors to make that transition. Thomson had first been elected in 2012, and served a spell as the leader of the council towards the end of that term.

Ellon and District is one of 19 wards in Aberdeenshire Council, and elects 4 councillors at a full election. As the name implies, the town of Ellon is the main component of this ward, accounting for about 75% of the population. The rest of the population is spread between the much smaller villages such as Newburgh, Collieston and Ythanbank, and a wide scattering of rural houses and farms.

This ward lies within the Gordon area, which has a relatively long history as a Liberal Democrat stronghold, with success in the Westminster seat dating back to 1983 and the Liberal Party. In the original Scottish Parliament constituencies the equivalent Gordon seat was likewise held by the Lib Dems until the SNP’s then-leader Alex Salmond won it in 2007. For 2011, the redrawn constituency became Aberdeenshire East, which has remained SNP. Salmond then won the Westminster constituency in the SNP’s 2015 landslide, but lost it in 2017 to the resurgent Conservatives, who gained a massive 29% of the vote whilst the Lib Dem vote collapsed entirely. In 2019, an SNP rebound then saw Thomson narrowly re-take the seat.

There have been no changes to ward boundaries since it was created in 2007, so results are easily comparable. In that first 2007 election, the seats split two to the Lib Dems and one apiece to the SNP and Conservatives. The SNP fell foul of their own unanticipated success, only standing one candidate when they had enough votes to elect two. They didn’t make the same mistake again in 2012 and picked up a second seat, notionally gaining it from the Lib Dems. The latter only stood a single candidate after one of their 2007 councillors left the party in opposition to Donald Trump’s Menie Estate golf course, which lies within the ward. 2017 saw the same partisan spread, but this time it was the Conservatives who didn’t foresee their success (in 7 other Aberdeenshire wards too) and missed out on a second seat by only standing one candidate.

It’s a classic Holyrood Five affair for this by-election, with no candidates  beyond those main parties. Looking to rectify their 2017 mistake and take a second seat for the Conservatives is John Crawley, whilst hoping to hold theirs is the SNP’s Louise McAllister. All fresh faces here compared to 2017, none of them having stood anywhere at that election. The full list of candidates is:

  • John Bennett (Labour)
  • John Crawley (Conservative)
  • Peter Kennedy (Green)
  • Trevor Mason (Liberal Democrat)
  • Louise McAllister (SNP)

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. 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 4 (final stage);

  • Conservative – 3104 (56.3%)
  • SNP – 1964 (35.6%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 447 (8.1%)

For a single councillor, 2017 works out as a very comfortable Conservative victory – and without having to eliminate every other candidate. The SNP may have re-taken the Westminster constituency, but their winning margin was only 1.4%. It’s unlikely, though possible, that their vote share growth was concentrated in this particular ward.

When you consider too that the Conservatives picked up (a neatly matching) 56.3% of the next preferences from Lib Dem and Labour voters in 2017, and that lower turnout in by-elections tends to favour them, they are clear favourites here. The prospects are good that this by-election will effectively introduce the “natural” balance of councillors 2017 should have seen had the Conservatives not underestimated their strength.

Call: Likely Conservative