Leith Walk By-Election, 11/04/19

In another first for Ballot Box Scotland, April will see us taking a trip to the capital for the first City by-election since this project started. Labour’s Marion Donaldson resigned her seat as a councillor for Leith Walk, amidst what have been described – in the absence of explicit reasons from Donaldson herself – as tensions within the Labour group on City of Edinburgh Council. She had first been elected as the second councillor in a rare two-seat by-election in September 2015, following the resignation of the SNP’s Deidre Brock (who had been elected as an MP) and the Greens’ Co-Convener Maggie Chapman (who was focusing on candidacy for MSP the following year.)

Leith Walk is one of 17 wards in Edinburgh, centred on the eponymous street, and electing 4 councillors at a full election. The ward covers Bonnington, Broughton, Pilrig, and Powderhall to the west of the Walk, and to the east is more casually defined as “off Easter Road” I’m told. In Parliamentary terms, the ward is entirely within the Scottish Parliament’s Edinburgh Northern and Leith ward, whilst for the UK Parliament most if it is in the similarly named Edinburgh North and Leith, with the area east of Easter Road in Edinburgh East.

The Holyrood constituency was a Labour-SNP battleground except for 2007 when the Lib Dems came second, and was notably the only constituency Labour held in the Lothian region in the 2011 election. This was perhaps in part down to respected local MSP Malcolm Chisholm, and when he retired in 2016 the constituency went very comfortably yellow.

At Westminster, the Lib Dems kept narrowing the gap on Labour through the 00’s, but in 2015, the SNP vaulted from 4th place with less than 10% in 2010 to winning. They held it in 2017 but this time as a three way marginal with Labour and the Conservatives. And just to really lay on the sense that this is a politically diverse area, the Westminster constituency was one of only a handful where the Greens held their deposit in 2015, and of only three seats they contested nationwide in 2017.

Leith Walk did see some very minor boundary changes ahead of 2017, but nothing that would have had much of an impact on comparing past results. For the first STV elections in 2007 it was a rainbow ward, electing one apiece from Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens. With the Lib Dem collapse in 2012, the other three parties all gained votes, but it was Labour who picked up the seat from them. Then in 2017, it was the SNP who picked up two seats, leaving Labour on one, whilst the Greens remained happily ensconced in their seat. The SNP’s lead on Labour is much wider than the latter’s was the other way in 2012, so that may bode well for the SNP.

Labour will be hoping both to hold the seat and to return former councillor Nick Gardner to the ward, having been that Labour loss in 2017. It’s a very fresh slate of candidates for the other Holyrood parties, none of them having stood anywhere in Edinburgh back then, though the Green’s Lorna Slater did stand the next month in the snap General Election. If the SNP’s Rob Munn can win, that’d bump them back up to two seats in the ward, following Lewis Ritchie’s resignation from the party over issues concerning his conduct. There’s a whole suite of other minor candidates as well, including David Don Jacobson taking another run at the ward for the Socialist Labour Party. The full list of candidates;

  • Steven Alexander (UKIP)
  • Jack Caldwell (Liberal Democrats)
  • Nick Gardner (Labour)
  • Kevin Illingworth (Independent)
  • David Don Jacobsen (Socialist Labour)
  • Tom Laird (Libertarian)
  • Dan McCroskrie (Conservative)
  • Rob Munn (SNP)
  • John Ferguson Scott (Independent)
  • Lorna Slater (Green)
  • Paul Mitchell Stirling (For Britain Movement, actual fascists)

As ever, to get the best comparison between the original vote and the by-election, we need to go beyond the surface and re-calculate a result for electing a single councillor. The top half of the chart shows the first preferences in 2017, 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.

Round 9 (final head-to-head stage);

  • SNP – 4747 (44.6%)
  • Labour – 3942 (37.0%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 1960 (18.4%)

(NB: I did, ahem, lose track of some consequential transfers roughly in the middle of going through this. It’ll be about 30 votes and it won’t have thrown any of the stages off in terms of who dropped out, but whoops. Look, this stuff is mind-melting okay?)

As you might expect given the SNP’s substantial first preference lead, they’d have won a notional single seat election in 2017. Their lead over Labour ends up decent but not overwhelming at that final head-to-head. Much more interesting is the stage before. There wouldn’t have been a huge amount separating the SNP, Labour and Greens at that point, with just (cough, roughly) 112 votes (1%) between the latter two. That hints at a potential three-cornered contest shaping up for the by-election. As with the Fife by-election last year, the fact the council is an SNP-Labour coalition may put an awkward dynamic in play if either party decides to really go for their partners.

The Greens may be eyeing this up as a good prospect for their first ever by-election win, but there are a few hurdles. They could overtake Labour on first preferences, but slip back behind when the Conservatives drop out. If they do end up head-to-head with the SNP, they’d almost certainly be the underdogs, and would need a weighty allocation of transfers from Labour. Looking purely at the “direct” (i.e. not later preferences behind the Lib Dems or whatever) transfer rate from Labour to both the SNP and Greens, they did favour the Greens at a ratio of 1.75:1. That wouldn’t have been enough in 2017, but perhaps this time around – or there could be enough transfers further down the ballot that tip them.

All that said, I still reckon the most likely outcome of this by-election would be to see the SNP facing off against Labour in the final round to clinch the seat. But then, as a certain Green Councillor in Edinburgh who I will not be friends with anymore if he doesn’t stop reminding me of it keeps pointing out, I did ask folk to keep an eye on the Lib Dems in Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh, and look how that turned out… so I wouldn’t put money on my prediction here.

Call: Leans SNP, but three way contest with Lab and Green.