Keith and Cullen (Moray) By-Election, 21/11/19

The next in our sudden spate of by-elections is up in Moray, where Independent Councillor for the Keith and Cullen Ward Ron Shepherd has announced his resignation. Shepherd has served a solid two decades on the council, having originally been elected in 1999. That wasn’t his only spell in local government in the area however, having previously served on the old burgh council for Cullen before the dramatic changes brought in with the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973.

Keith and Cullen is one of 8 wards making up Moray council, and elects 3 councillors at an ordinary election. Keith lies at the inland extreme of the ward, with the small village of Milltown of Rothiemay at the opposite inland corner. Cullen is on the coast, as is the neighbouring village of Portknockie. Between these two areas is a large, sparsely inhabited, rural tract.

The current Moray council area is actually a merger of most of historic Moray plus the southern and western parts of historic Banffshire. This ward lies in the Banffshire end, but both areas have been SNP-Conservative battlegrounds for decades. At UK level for example they went SNP in the 1974 elections, reverting to the Conservatives in 1979, SNP again on new boundaries in 1987, and then once more Conservative in 2017. Since 2005 that Westminster constituency has been coterminous with the Moray council area, and the defeat of SNP Depute and Westminster leader Angus Robertson by the Conservative’s Douglas Ross was one of the biggest upsets of that 2017 snap.

For the Scottish Parliament, Moray is split between two constituencies, and it’s this ward that does the splitting. Keith lies in the Moray constituency, whilst the rest of the ward is in Banffshire and Buchan Coast. That also means it’s a rare ward that is split between two different Holyrood regions, with the former constituency in Highlands & Islands and the latter in North East. Both constituencies and their preceding forms have been held by the SNP since the first elections in 1999. Just to further muddy the waters though, most of the inland portion of the ward was in the Gordon constituency for the first three elections, which was Lib Dem at first and SNP in 2007. There’s a point in there about the inconsistency of “local” representation across levels with First Past the Post, but that’s a tangent for another day.

There haven’t been any boundary changes to the ward since its creation in 2007, so past results compare neatly. At both the 2007 and 2012 elections the ward elected two independent and one SNP councillor. Notably the SNP’s two candidates in 2012 had enough votes between them to notionally achieve two seats, but the independent councillors were popular enough to draw a number of the stronger SNP candidates’ surplus votes and preserve the 2:1 balance. In 2017 the other Independent councillor didn’t re-stand and the Conservatives picked up his seat.

As with the 2017 election, there’s a much narrower field of candidates than we usually see in mainland councils, though the Lib Dems join the SNP and Conservatives this time. Rob Barsby, the unsuccessful independent from last time, is the only returning candidate. Full list of candidates;

  • Ian Aitchison (Liberal Democrat)
  • Rob Barsby (Independent)
  • Jock McKay (SNP)
  • Laura Powell (Conservative)

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 4 (final head-to-head stage);

  • Conservative – 1703 (46.2%)
  • SNP – 1597 (43.3%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 390 (10.6%)

This is a particularly interesting recalculation – although the SNP had a lead over the Conservatives on first preferences, it’s the Conservatives who would have won a notional election for a single councillor. Since launching, Ballot Box Scotland has covered around two dozen council by-elections, but despite the transferable voting system this is only the third one where the 2017 recalc has thrown up this kind of result, after Penicuik last year and Dunfermline Central the week before this one. However, that is an extremely close call with less than 3% between the two parties at that point. This one is definitely too close to make any firm predictions for.

Call: Tight Con-SNP contest.