Today was an exciting day for election nerds across the UK, as it brought the first actually party-political election anywhere since March! Though each of the past two weeks have also seen Scottish by-elections, those were for heavily Independent-dominated Islands councils. Obviously, they were extremely important for the voters who lived there, but they didn’t tickle the psephological itch of anyone outside the area.
Enter Ellon and District ward of Aberdeenshire Council! This vacancy had arisen following the election of Richard Thomson as MP for the Gordon constituency. Despite strong SNP polling and the victory in that seat, the size of the Conservative lead in 2017 combined with normal by-election dynamics and the fact they’d picked up a commanding share of transfers had me pretty sure it’d go their way instead.
Well, that wasn’t quite right… But let’s look at first preferences to start with, which were:
SNP - 1683 (42.4%, +10.5)
Conservative - 1658 (41.7%, +0.8)
Liberal Democrat - 405 (10.2%, -9.5)
Labour - 114 (2.9%, -4.7)
Green - 112 (2.8%, +2.8)
This came out as a wafer-thin lead for the SNP of 25 (0.6%) votes, on a substantial swing of +10.5%. It wasn’t necessarily a surprise to see this narrow lead, though I’d still have banked on the Conservatives. Since the Conservatives were barely behind (and indeed did grow their vote share a little bit, +0.8%) it seemed like that placement was ripe for flipping by transfers, if 2017 was anything do go by.
Before we get to those however, the other parties. The Lib Dems lost almost half of their vote share (down 9.5%) compared to 2017, which perhaps reflects how in December they continued to drop slightly in the Gordon constituency despite vote share gains elsewhere. It’s important not to over-egg individual council by-election results, but they don’t want to be losing too many votes in the North East ahead of next year’s election, and this is a grim result.
Things were similarly bleak for Labour, who dropped nearly two thirds of their share (down 4.7%) in what had otherwise been a comparatively strong ward, by Aberdeenshire standards, for them. That put them just two votes ahead of the Greens, who were standing in the ward for the first time.
Looking now at the transfers, and taking us up to the final head-to-head stage 4 (changes vs equivalent stage in 2017):
SNP - 1916 (48.2%, +12.6)
Conservative - 1840 (46.3%, -10.0)
Non-Transfer - 216 (5.4, -2.7%)
The SNP lead not only held through the process, but actually trebled to 76 votes, leaving the final margin between the two parties a still very tight 1.9%. Effectively, this time around, the voters that turned out were much more willing to transfer to the SNP than they were to the Conservatives.
I have to admit this took me completely by surprise, to the extent that given how long Aberdeenshire Council themselves were taking to announce the result, I started to wonder whether some over-eager journalists had called a victory based on first preferences alone! But no, eventual sight of the transfers as above confirmed everything. Let’s just say I’m quite glad I had this called as “likely” Conservative rather than having gone all in with a “they’ll definitely win!”
This was a by-election I was expecting to be interesting given the circumstances anyway, but it exceeded all expectations. Running this project, it is actually much more exciting to see close-fought races like this which go against my prediction than easy wins, regardless of the parties involved. If this has you excited about elections again in general, then don’t worry – pandemic allowing, we’re moving from the Shire to the City with Kincorth/Nigg/Cove in Aberdeen as our next by-election on the 5th of November.
A Personal Note
One final little thing to finish up. Long-time followers of Ballot Box Scotland, or those who have been paying attention, may be aware that I’ve been unemployed for most of the time I’ve been running this – for unrelated reasons! I’m very excited that as of next week that will no longer be the case, as I start a new job and get my career back on track.
Although I am not going anywhere – I’m very, very proud of my work on BBS and it genuinely brings me a lot of joy – that does mean that I will be less available during the daytime going forward. As such, when by-elections have Friday counts and if polls are released during a weekday, I’ll no longer be able to respond as rapidly. Given the relative time involved and the fact I do of course have a break for lunch, I’ll probably be able to do very quick reporting of headline figures. I won’t, however, be able to do things like seat projections, full transfer charts, or schedule full analysis posts.
Anyway, it seems appropriate at this point to again thank all of the thousands of people who have been so supportive of this project for nearly three years which have otherwise often been very difficult for me. I look forward to your continuing support in the coming years, and given how much time BBS takes, I will still be very, very grateful for any donations in support of my work.