GE19 – Bring on the By-Elections

For something a bit less numerically minded today, let’s look at one of the common consequences of parliamentary elections – council by-elections. It’s quite common for councillors to be selected as party candidates for parliament, as they already have existing profile within their party and community as well as experience of holding public office. Those that are successfully elected to parliament usually, if there’s a long wait until the next council election, resign as councillors and thus prompt by-elections.

Folk may remember 2015 as being particularly busy on that front given the huge number of newly-elected SNP MPs. This time around it’s somewhat quieter as only 4 of Scotland’s new MPs are also councillors, though there’s an interesting “could have been” that I’ll mention at the end. I’ll quickly talk about the previous result in each ward but the full preview and analysis will not happen until by-elections are actually called. We’ll work our way from north to south for these.

First up is Aberdeenshire’s Ellon and District ward, where Gordon MP Richard Thomson has been a councillor since 2012. Back in 2012 the SNP had a very clear lead in the ward, and in fact won a very narrow majority of the vote. By 2017 the Conservatives had surged at both council and Parliamentary level, giving them the lead in the ward and the MP’s seat. With Gordon now on a tight SNP-Conservative margin of 1.4%, the winner of any by-election in this ward is going to depend on how those votes were distributed throughout the constituency and where transfers go.

In neighbouring Aberdeen, a by-election was guaranteed as both prospective winners in Aberdeen South were city councillors. The SNP’s Stephen Flynn came out on top, which raises the prospect of a by-election in his Kincorth/Nigg/Cove ward. Last time the SNP were the clear first preference winners here, and if they were to win as many votes against so fractured an opposition again, two years experience running this website tells me that’s too big a gap to close via transfers.

This one’s a bit different to the others as the SNP’s new MP for Angus, Dave Doogan, is a councillor but not in the area he now represents in Parliament. He’s a wee bit over the way, holding a seat on Perth and Kinross’ Perth City North ward. In 2017 the party came within touching distance of a majority of the votes on this ward, and last week substantially increased their vote share in the overlapping constituency. Out of the four prospective by-elections, this is the one that strikes me as being easiest to just say the SNP have it in the bag.

Slightly different format of chart here, you may notice, as I’ve lazily just used the one from September’s by-election. With Thorniewood, I can’t help but laugh just a little bit at circumstances. Let’s go back to 2015. The SNP councillor for the ward resigned (not due to becoming an MP), and the SNP’s Steven Bonnar defeated Labour’s Hugh Gaffney in the resulting by-election. In 2017, Hugh Gaffney was elected as one of the ward’s councillors at the full election. The next month, he was elected as MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. Fully two years later, Gaffney finally resigned his council seat prompting a by-election which was won by Labour. The dust had barely settled on that by-election before the General Election was called, and Steven Bonnar once again defeated Gaffney but this time for MP. Quite the tale of bad timing and misfortune.

Should Bonnar and the SNP decide it’s necessary to resign the seat, the good people of Thorniewood are going to be one of the most polled electorates anywhere in the UK with their third by-election in recent years. If Perth City North is the easiest for the SNP to hold, this would be the hardest. Labour were already rather rock-bottom at the time of the September by-election, so it’s hard to imagine how much further they could fall. If the SNP don’t beat them in the event of a by-election, they’ll get at taste of their own Dundee North East medicine where they are entirely locked out of the ward as Labour hold every seat on it. It could be poetic justice if Hugh Gaffney returned to do that.

Ah, it’s almost as if it’s fundamentally silly to put so much focus on specific, individual candidates when most people vote on party lines…


Finally, the by-election that won’t be, which is a shame because I enjoy these dominoes. In Stirling, the new SNP MP Alyn Smith doesn’t hold a council seat… but he did hold an MEP seat until today. It’s not legally possible to sit in both a national and the EU parliament, and so Smith had to relinquish the seat regardless. Generally, the seat would go to the next person on the list. The next two candidates are already MEPs, so it falls to number 4, Margaret Ferrier. She’s just been elected MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, so she’s also not eligible.

So it’d then go to 5th, which is Heather Anderson, councillor for Tweeddale West in the Scottish Borders. However! Given Boris Johnson’s majority, it’s all but certain the UK will leave the EU on the 31st of January. It’s highly unlikely Anderson will be certified as a UK MEP by that point, and she certainly wouldn’t resign her council seat to be an MEP for a week or two. One of the SNP’s other MEPs, Christian Allard, has continued to hold his Aberdeen City Council seat on the explicit expectation that he could cease to be an MEP at any point.

Don’t worry though, if you’re eager for a fifth by-election, you may have forgotten that Dumfries and Galloway is having one for Mid Galloway and West Dumfries ward at the end of January. That’ll be the first full by-election preview post of 2020, coming slightly later than normal due to all this GE coverage.