Fife Council By-Elections, 14/11/19

It wasn’t enough just for Shetland to give us double dunter by-elections this year, as Fife has also swooped in with plans to hold two by-elections at once – also in neighbouring wards. The first to be announced was for Rosyth ward, where SNP councillor Samantha Steele has stood down. Next door in Dunfermline Central, Conservative councillor Alan Craig also resigned a few days later. Both councillors were freshly elected in 2017.

Fife Council has 22 wards, and both of these by-elections are taking place in the southwestern end of the council area. This part of the council was a longstanding Labour stronghold, but has historically had a bit of a Lib Dem streak too. Both wards are entirely within the UK Parliament’s Dunfermline and West Fife constituency, which has a long history of Labour representation before the SNP won it in their 2015 sweep, though it went Lib Dem in a 2006 by-election which catapulted a certain Willie Rennie to prominence.

In the Scottish Parliament, most of the area covered is in the Dunfermline constituency which has had a similar history. Its previous version was Labour in the first two elections and Lib Dem in 2007, then the SNP won the first election on the current boundaries in 2011. In the 2013 by-election which followed the revelation that MSP Bill Walker was a domestic abuser, Labour regained the seat, only to lose it to the SNP again in 2016. The portion of Rosyth ward which covers Rosyth itself is however in the Cowdenbeath constituency, which was consistently Labour until the SNP won it in 2016.

Looking specifically at Rosyth ward first, in addition to Rosyth itself it also encompasses a string of the West Fife villages – Pattiesmuir, Limekilns, Charlestown and Crombie. These areas were brought into the ward in the 2017 boundary changes, which saw the North Queensferry area moved out of it. The ward has always elected 3 councillors, which in the 2007 election went one apiece to Labour, the SNP and Lib Dems. In 2012 Labour won a second councillor by taking the Lib Dem seat, then lost it to the Conservatives in 2017.

Former SNP councillor for the ward Sharon Green-Wilson is on the ballot here hoping to make a return to the council, as is Labour’s Billy Pollock who previously represented neighbouring Dunfermline South. Independent candidate Alastair Macintyre pops back up from last year’s by-election in Inverkeithing and Dalgety bay, as does the Libertarian’s Calum Paul, taking a third run at the council having stood for Kirkcaldy Central in 2017.  Full list of candidates;

  • Jill Blair (Liberal Democrat)
  • Margaret Fairgrieve (Conservative)
  • Sharon Green-Wilson (SNP)
  • Alastair Macintyre (Independent)
  • Craig McCutcheon (Green)
  • Calum Paul (Libertarian)
  • Billy Pollock (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 8, final head-to-head round;

  • SNP – 2147 (42.1%)
  • Conservative – 1713 (33.6%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 1239 (24.3%)

Although the gap narrows substantially versus first preferences, in 2017 the SNP would have held their lead throughout to win a notional single seat by-election. I’d be inclined to say that’s probably going to be roughly the case this time round as well.

Call: Leans SNP

Looking now at Dunfermline Central, it takes in the central strip of Dunfermline including the Halbeath, Touch, Garvock, Hospital Hill, Pittencreiff and Lady’s Mill areas as well as the town centre, plus the neighbouring village of Crossford. Minor boundary changes from 2007 removed the Parkneuk area from the ward whilst adding a rural stretch to the south and a few streets in the north east. Having always elected four councillors, in 2007 this was a strong enough Lib Dem area to elect two councillors, plus one each from Labour and the SNP. In their 2012 slump the Lib Dems wisely only stood a single candidate, leaving the second seat to go Labour. The party slumped yet further in 2017, shedding their last remaining councillor to the Conservatives.

This one also has a few returning faces from neighbouring wards. The Lib Dems’ Aude Boubaker-Calder stood for the West Fife and Coastal Villages ward, Labour’s Michael Boyd in Dunfermline North, and the Greens’ Fiona McOwan in Rosyth. Full list of candidates;

  • Aude Boubaker-Calder (Liberal Democrat)
  • Michael Boyd (Labour)
  • Keith Chamberlain (Libertarian)
  • Chloe Dodds (Conservative)
  • Derek Glen (SNP)
  • Fiona McOwan (Green)

Running that single councillor re-calculation again;

Stage 8, final head-to-head round;

  • Labour – 3012 (41.1%)
  • SNP – 2467 (33.7%
  • Didn’t Transfer – 1845 (25.2%)

This recalculation is a really excellent bit of STV. Although the SNP had a first preference lead, they don’t win. Although the Conservatives who vacated the seat look strong after various transfers it isn’t enough to overtake Labour, who then go on to win the seat. It’s worth taking one step back to stage 7 to see how close that was;

  • SNP – 2395 (32.7%)
  • Labour – 2253 (30.8%)
  • Conservative – 2184 (29.8%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 492 (6.7%)

Beautifully, chaotically marginal. That said, that winning Labour candidate would have been Jim Leishman, a very weel kent and popular figure who has both played for and managed the local football team, Dunfermline Athletic (aka the Pars). Twitter murmurings reckon that counted heavily in Labour’s favour, and obviously that won’t be the case in this by-election. Still, this looks like a particularly unpredictable one, particularly if you throw in the likely Lib Dem surge.

Call: Tight three way Lab-SNP-Con contest.