By-Election Preview: Fort William and Ardnamurchan (Highland) 2nd of December 2021

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Ward Profile

Both myself and Scotland’s electoral authorities had really hoped the Falkirk South by-election on the 14th of October would be the last of this Council term. Rules state that any vacancies arising within six months of the full election don’t need filled, and anyone pondering resignation would have been highly unlikely to think it worth their while just a couple months before that window. That meant the only thing likely to trigger a further by-election was the death of an incumbent.

I’m very sad indeed to say that’s exactly what happened, as Fort William and Ardnamurchan’s Conservative councillor Ian Ramon tragically passed in September. Ramon had only been freshly elected in 2017, when Highland elected its first Conservative councillors since 1995.

Since my first draft of this piece, it has become unclear whether this contest in awful circumstances will indeed be the last. Willie Innes, the Labour leader of East Lothian Council, unfortunately passed away recently as well, whilst Barbara Morgan, a Conservative councillor in Argyll & Bute, resigned. Both of these have come close to the cut off point for by-elections, so may yet lead to a return to the polls for their wards.

Fort William and Ardnamurchan is one of 21 wards making up the Highland Council area, and one of two covering the Lochaber area, electing four councillors at a full election. The eastern portion of the ward centres on Fort William itself, as well as the area around Loch Leven, including Glencoe. It doesn’t include Caol and Corpach, which lie in the other ward. That means the western section, including the Ardnamurchan, Morvern and Sunart districts, don’t have a direct connection to the bulk of the ward.

At the Scottish Parliament, the ward is entirely within the Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch ward. On previous boundaries, it had been within Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber. Despite the traditionally liberal bent of the Highlands, that seat was SNP from the word go in 1999.

In a similar break from tradition, the identical UK Parliament seat was won by Labour in 1997 and 2001, having previously been Lib Dem or Liberal. When redrawn boundaries placed it within Ross, Skye and Lochaber in 2005 it was represented by the Lib Dems’ then-leader Charles Kennedy, who held the seat until the SNP’s current Westminster leader Ian Blackford won it in his party’s 2015 landslide.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

There haven’t been any boundary changes (on dry land) since the ward was created for 2007, so it all compares easily. At that first election the seats went one apiece to an Independent, the Lib Dems, SNP and Labour, with a crowded field of six further Independents with only modest support making Independents the most supported “group” in the ward.

In 2012 the Independent councillor, Donald Cameron, opted not to re-contest. I can’t actually determine whether this is the Donald Cameron that went on to be a Highlands & Islands Conservative MSP, but I’m going to assume it’s not. In his place, 2007’s definitely Conservative candidate Andrew Baxter stood as an Independent and was successfully elected, joined by the previous election’s second most popular Independent Thomas MacLennan. He displaced the Lib Dem councillors, whilst the SNP and Labour held their seats.

MacLennan didn’t stand again in 2017, and Baxter emerged as by far the most popular of the two Independents standing this time, doubling his share compared to 2012. Labour meanwhile did very poorly and lost their seat, with the two vacancies then being filled by a second SNP councillor and Ramon as Conservative. By the time of his sad passing, the ward had become two SNP, two Conservative, as Baxter returned to his roots and joined the Conservatives.

Detailed 2017 Data

Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, Baxter broadly led in the more rural components of the ward not included in the name, whilst the SNP were ahead in Fort William and Ardnamurchan themselves. Baxter was extremely popular around the north and east of Loch Leven, with the district covering North Ballachullish, Kinlochleven and Kinlochmore going almost two-thirds in his favour. Of the Fort William districts, the southeast of the town was most SNP-leaning.

The Conservatives and Lib Dems both had their best result in Sunart (around Strontian), whilst Labour’s support was notably strong in a merged box cluster that I have to assume is dominated by the northwest of Fort William, as I’m not convinced Morvern is natural Labour territory. Though she was the least popular candidate overall, Independent Joanne Matheson placed a solid third in the districts around Acharacle in eastern Ardnamurchan.

Looking at 2017’s second preferences, given this is the Highlands it’s absolutely no surprise to see almost everyone had an Independent as their most likely second preference. Baxter was the next pick for the largest group of SNP, Conservative, Labour and Matheson voters, whilst his voters kept it Independent by leaning Matheson. That left the Lib Dems as the odd ones out, with an almost three-way tie led by the Conservatives, followed by Labour, with Baxter third.

Candidates

For this by-election, we’ve got four of the Holyrood 5. I have to admit to being a bit surprised at which party is absent – I’d expected it’d be the Greens, but it’s actually Labour. The party candidates are then joined by three Independents, with Joanne Matheson returning from the 2017 election here. The only other sort of returning face is the SNP’s Sarah Fanet, who was on her party’s list in May’s Holyrood election.

Mark Drayton (Independent)
Sarah Fanet (SNP)
Roger Liley (Liberal Democrat)
Joanne Matheson (Independent)
Andy McKenna (Independent)
Ruaraidh Stewart (Conservative)
Kate Willis (Green)

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 2082 votes.

Obviously, as is the case with very strong Highland Independents, Baxter would have easily won a single-seat by-election, with 53.5% to the SNP’s 33.4% after transfers. That’s not much use to us as he won’t be on the ballot in this by-election, so the re-calculation has to remove him early on.

With Baxter out of the equation, 2017 comes down to an SNP vs Conservative scrap, which the SNP would have won reasonably comfortably. Though Baxter has since went blue again, it’s not really typical in the Highlands to vote primarily for Conservative candidates. I’m therefore inclined to say that if it was a purely party contest, it’ll be likely to go the SNP’s way. The Lib Dems can often surprise in the Highlands, but my gut feeling is perhaps not here.

However, as I say for every Highland by-election, an Independent could easily clinch it. It’s impossible to say in advance what Independent support will be like, but it’s always a safe bet that it’ll be pretty strong. Indeed, though placing last in first preferences in 2017, you’ll note that in the re-calculation Matheson nearly overtakes the Conservatives. She’d have lost to the SNP by 30.3% to their 40.3%, but given the number of exhausted ballots that involves and how different by-elections can be, that wouldn’t be enough to write her off.

That said, in an odd turn of events, she has explicitly asked voters not to vote for her. It turns out she isn’t sure she’d be able to fully commit to the role, and had put herself forward again out of concern that there weren’t going to be many candidates. As it turns out there are plenty, but once the notice of poll is out there, you’re on the ballot paper. So, if there is to be an Independent victory, perhaps not Matheson!

Call: SNP/Independent Tossup.

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