By-Election Preview: Inverness West (Highland) 12th of August 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.

NOTE: This by-election may be re-scheduled at short notice due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Ward Profile

It’s a busy day for by-elections on the 12th of August, with a trio of ballots open. Two of those are in Highland Council, so let’s start with the one that’ll be easiest to cover, and work through the other two over the weekend. This one is in Inverness West, and has come about due to the resignation of Independent Councillor Graham Ross for family reasons. Ross was elected in 2012, and had been serving as Depute Provost before his resignation.

Inverness West is one of 21 wards making up the Highland Council area, and one of five covering the city of Inverness, electing three councillors at a full election. As the name implies, it covers the westernmost reaches of the city, including Scorguie, Clachnaharry, Kinmylies and Ballifeary. Though not marked on the map, by my non-local eye I’d also say it covers the east of Dalneigh.

For the Scottish Parliament, the ward is entirely within the Inverness and Nairn constituency, which has been exclusively held (including on previous boundaries) by SNP stalwart and weel-kent dynast, Fergus Ewing. For the UK Parliament the ward is within the Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey constituency. That’s been an SNP seat since 2015, having previously been held by the Lib Dems. A historically Liberal area, the preceding Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber constituency was actually won by Labour in both of the elections it was in existence.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

The ward was expanded slightly at the 2017 election, growing to include what I reckon as the eastern portion of Dalneigh. That’ll only have made a minor difference to the overall electorate however, so we can compare relatively comfortably across elections.

The pattern of representation across the ward has been consistent since it was created in 2007, returning one apiece for the SNP and Lib Dems plus an Independent – with first preferences falling in that order each time too. However only the Lib Dem councillor, Alex Graham, has remained the same. Sadly the Independent elected in 2007, Jimmy MacDonald, passed away in 2009. This prompted a by-election that the Lib Dems won easily.

Though that gave them two of the wards seats, the Lib Dems only stood a single candidate in 2012, and the ward reverted to the status quo, albeit with a fresh SNP councillor, who alphabetically leapfrogged the incumbent, and Graham Ross becoming that election’s Independent.

2017 was therefore much of a muchness. Notably, the SNP councillor elected in 2012 had been expelled from the party a few months before the election and stood as an Independent, placing last and giving the ward its third SNP councillor in as many elections.

Detailed 2017 Data

Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, the SNP replicated their ward-wide lead in three of the four. Indeed, their support in each of those districts was extremely even, to the extent that picking one out as their best area on the basis of less than 0.5% seems silly.

That left the district around Scorguie and Clachnaharry with a narrow Lib Dem lead, which they also held in the postal votes. Graham Ross also had his best result in that district, whilst the Conservatives narrowly did best in Ballifeary. Both Labour and the former SNP councillor, Allan Duffy, drew their strongest support from the chunk of Dalneigh.

Looking at 2017’s second preferences, lots of voters liked the Lib Dems. They were clear favourites for next preference from Conservative, Labour and Ross’ voters. The feeling was mutual for Ross, as he was Lib Dem voters most popular second option.

SNP voters meanwhile were really very split, with a relatively narrow plurality plumping for the SNP Councillor-turned-Independent candidate. Meanwhile, Duffy’s voters were most favourable to Ross.

Candidates

We’ve got four of the Holyrood 5 standing in this by election, with Labour the missing piece. It’s not surprising for the party to be absent in rural areas, but it’s a lot less common for them not to appear in a city like Inverness. Adding some diversity to the ballot are a Libertarian, an Independent, and the third ever appearance of the Independence for Scotland Party.

There are a couple of familiar faces amongst them. Green candidate Ryan Mackintosh stood in the Aird and Loch Ness by-election that took place in March, whilst Libertarian Calum Liptrot was on his party’s list in the Highlands & Islands region at the Holyrood election.

Colin Aitken (Liberal Democrat)
Max Bannerman (Conservative)
Iain Cullens Forsyth (Independence for Scotland Party)
Calum Liptrot (Libertarian)
Ryan Mackintosh (Green)
Kate Maclean (SNP)
Duncan McDonald (Independent)

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 1744 votes.

Stage 6 (final head-to-head stage); 

Lib Dem - 1815 (52.1%)
SNP - 1178 (33.8%)
Didn't Transfer - 493 (14.1%)

That’s a pretty stonking victory for the Lib Dems – very comfortably winning the re-calc for a single seat, and without even having to run it to a (mathematically immaterial) final elimination of the SNP candidate. That suggests they would be in with a pretty good shot here, as clearly the most popular party at the last election.

More than any of the other major Holyrood parties however, the Lib Dems can be quite hard to parse at local level since their collapse. Are long-serving incumbents elected on their party basis, or on a personal basis? We haven’t had another by-election here in that time to see, as that easily won 2009 ballot precedes their entry into UK Government in 2010.

As such, although they’d have had a comprehensive single-seat victory here in 2017, I’m hedging my bets and saying this is a “lean” rather than “likely”. In other words, I reckon the Lib Dems will win this, but given current political context I wouldn’t be shocked if they didn’t. I’d say the SNP would be most likely to pick it up, though always keep an eye on Independents in the Highlands.

Call: Lean Lib Dem.

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