By-Election Preview: Falkirk South 14th of October 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.

Ward Profile

With barely more than six months to go until the 2022 Local Elections by the time this rolls around, Falkirk South is likely to be the last by-election of the 2017 term. Any vacancies arising within six months of the election (due on the 5th of May) come under provisions allowing the seat to remain vacant until the full election. This will be the 54th by-election I’ve covered since BBS launched at the start of 2018, and the 61st since the 2017 council elections, so a busy five years!

Anyway, this follows the resignation of long-serving Labour councillor Pat Reid, who also had the distinction of being one of the last councillors to have been elected via FPTP. He was elected in a 2004 by-election for the then Town Centre ward, at a time when the legislation to bring in STV elections was progressing through parliament.

For the Scottish Parliament, the ward is to all intents and purposes entirely within the Falkirk West constituency – the one polling district in Falkirk East is a very small rural one. Represented by the SNP’s Michael Matheson since 2007, Falkirk West had some early notoriety as the site of some truly terrible decision making.

Ahead of the first election in 1999 Labour foolishly barred their MP for the area, Dennis Canavan, from standing for the newly formed Scottish Parliament. Understandably miffed by that, Canavan opted to stand as an Independent. Local party members and voters were similarly displeased with Labour’s decision, and twice elected him with an absolutely thumping majority before he retired in 2007. That entirely unintentional wording was perhaps my subconscious preparing for this next bit…

For the UK Parliament, this became part of the redrawn Falkirk constituency in 2005. That continued as a Labour seat until MP Eric Joyce was expelled from the party in 2012 following a series of physical altercations. A highly controversial selection process for the 2015 Labour candidate then ensued, though with hindsight the party needn’t have bothered with the pain, as the SNP easily gained the seat in their landslide, and have held it since.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

Compared to the original 2007 version, the ward underwent a few changes ahead of 2017. It lost the Camelon and Carmuirs areas, whilst picking up most of the town centre. This gained area maps almost perfectly to Reid’s original FPTP Town Centre ward, which likely explains why he also moved from North to South in the 2017 election. Although most of the population comes from the previous South, given the councillor move we’ll need to look at both.

Back in 2007, both wards elected four councillors. In North, those went two apiece to the SNP (who led the vote) and Labour, whereas South was Labour led and saw them win two seats, versus one each for the SNP and Conservatives. Exactly the same pattern then held in 2012. At both elections, South had been the Conservative’s second-best ward in Falkirk.

With 2017’s reconfigured boundaries and drop to three councillors, the seats went equally to the SNP, Conservatives and Labour. Though the SNP had a first preference lead, it wasn’t miles ahead of the Conservatives, who once again had their second strongest result in the council here. Notably, each of those parties only stood one candidate, making this one of very few wards in the country that didn’t have transfer rounds, as they all had above 25% of the vote. Only the Greens’ appearance for a distant fourth place prevented this from being an uncontested ward.

Detailed 2017 Data

If we break the area down into individual polling districts, the SNP were the most popular party amongst in-person voters for almost every district, with particular strength in the Tamfourhill area. The Conservatives meanwhile took the lead in the southern town centre plus the Woodlands portion, and Labour weren’t a million miles behind the SNP in the western edge of Bantaskin. Finally, the Greens had their best result in the area around Arnothill and the northern town centre.

Not that they were needed in the actual election, but second preferences show the usual story – strong mutual SNP-Green transfers, whilst the Conservatives and Labour had a similar relationship. However, Labour voters were about twice as likely to second preference Green, and four times to second preference SNP, as the Conservatives were. That’s the kind of thing that you might expect to have an impact in the re-calculation for a single seat…

Candidates

It’s the same four parties contesting the ward as was the case in 2017 – just the Lib Dems absent from the Holyrood 5. Only the Green candidate is returning from any recent elections, having been on the party’s Central Scotland list for May’s Holyrood election. The other three are fresh faces, though Sarah Patrick is presumably related to current Conservative councillor John Patrick.

Stuart Duffin (Green)
James Marshall (Labour)
Sarah Patrick (Conservative)
Emma Russell (SNP)

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 3106 votes.

Stage 3 (final head-to-head stage); 

SNP - 2868 (46.2%)
Conservative - 2727 (43.9%)
Didn't Transfer - 615 (9.9%)

That’s a pretty close run thing, with the already slender SNP first preference lead narrowing from about 3.6% to 2.3%. But remember what I said above about those Conservative-Labour preferences? Had this been an SNP vs Labour finale, Labour would have won 45.7% to 39.9%. I’ve remarked a few times now on how there’s a real tendency in the Central Belt for Conservative second places to actually make it more likely the SNP will win a single seat vote, and that’s exactly what happens in this re-calculation.

However, that is a very narrow margin. Especially when you consider the usual dynamics of a by-election, with lower turnout slightly boosting Conservative share, there’s a very good chance they’ll win this one. Though Labour would be more likely to beat the SNP on transfers, I don’t think it’s particularly likely in current circumstances they’ll be able to pull themselves into the necessary second place to do so, leaving this a clear SNP-Conservative battle.

Call: SNP-Conservative Tossup

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