Highland (PK) By-Election 19/04/18

For the second by-election in April, we move confusingly from Highland (Council Area) to Highland (Perth and Kinross Council Ward), due on the 19th. This follows the passing of the Council Leader, Ian Campbell, who had served as a Conservative councillor for the ward since 2007.

One of 12 Perth and Kinross Wards Highland is by far the largest, covering a large chunk of the southern Highlands, and electing 3 councillors normally. The main population centres can be found at Pitlochry, with a ribbon of villages up the A9 and trainline beyond it and Aberfeldy, which is similarly connected to a string of villages along the Loch and River Tay. There’s also a third, much smaller, arm in the middle that hugs Lochs Tummel and Rannoch and gives Perthshire a connection to the West Highland Railway Line. This ward also includes Schiehallion, traditionally seen as the very centre of Scotland – strictly speaking, it’s only the centre of the mainland, and the actual centre is close to but not actually the mountain itself.

The ward is wholly within the Perthshire North constituency of the Scottish Parliament and Westminster’s Perth and North Perthshire constituency, both held by the SNP. These constituencies are notable as Deputy First Minister John Swinney represents the former, whilst the Conservatives came within 21 votes of winning the latter in the snap election last year. Perthshire has long been an SNP-Conservative battleground, and has been swinging back towards the Conservatives after a couple of decades of favouring the SNP.Surprise surprise, this was another ward that escaped the the Local Boundary Commission’s scissors and remains unchanged since 2007. In terms of political makeup though, the ward has shifted dramatically from 2007, going from 2 SNP Councillors and 1 Conservative (a result repeated in 2012) to one apiece for Conservative, SNP and an Independent, Xander McDade. The Conservatives nearly doubled their vote from 24% to 45%, and had they stood a second candidate they may well have been elected at McDade’s expense. John Duff will be aiming to preserve the blue tinge to this ward for the Conservatives, whilst former Strathtay councillor John Kellas carries the SNP standard. The Greens’ candidate from May, Mary McDougall, is the only unsuccessful candidate from last year returning for another crack at the ward. The full list of candidates is;

  • Denise Baykal (Independent)
  • John Duff (Conservative)
  • John Kellas (SNP)
  • Mary McDougall (Green)
  • Jayne Ramage (Labour)
  • Chris Rennie (Liberal Democrats)
  • Avril Taylor (Independent)

Now that we’re back to relatively safe, party-political territory, it’s again possible to run through last year’s result as a single councillor election. The top half of the chart shows the first preferences last year, as well as the party of the successfully elected councillors. Transfer flows are on the bottom half. Remember that in a single seat election under STV, a candidate needs 50%+1 of the valid votes cast (a quota) to win.

45.4% is a pretty unassailable place to be starting from, so it’s no surprise to see that the Conservatives would have come out on top in this single councillor scenario. It is worth noting that this is the first by-election I’ve covered where I didn’t have to eliminate every other candidate to find a winner, as both SNP candidates were still in the running. That’s 1822 votes I didn’t need to work out the transfers for, hurray!

I certainly wouldn’t discount the SNP’s chances here, but it does look like this by-election is the Conservatives’ to lose. This is only the second by-election in what could be seen as a Conservative ward this year, however. The trend in other wards has been for the Tory vote to go up, but where they were defending in Selkirkshire, it went down. That was a by-election with a strong independent challenger who went on to win, so I wouldn’t say it’s comparable in that sense, but rather there may be a different voter dynamic in wards and councils where the Conservatives are in charge.