By-Election Preview: Lomond North (Argyll & Bute) 16th of December 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.

Ward Profile

Both myself and Scotland’s electoral authorities are really regretting our statements that Falkirk South in October would be the final by-election of the term. Since then we’ve very sadly had two deaths causing by-elections, as well as the very bizarre circumstance of the disqualification in Paisley Southeast, though that then led to the equally bizarre cancellation of a by-election!

Voters will be returning to the polls in Argyll & Bute’s Lomond North ward, following the resignation of Conservative councillor Barbara Morgan, who’d served since 2017. This will be the third by-election of this year (and this term) for Argyll & Bute, and notably we’ve never actually been to Argyll for any of them – Bute is obviously, well, Bute, and we’ve had two elections in the Lomond area, which is historically Dunbartonshire.

Per previous comments, I have to admit to being very surprised to see a resignation this late in the term. Two weeks later and this would just have gone unfilled until May’s election, so I’m slightly mystified as to this one. Morgan herself doesn’t seem to have offered any detail, and I emphasise I’m just confused rather than critical. People’s reasons are their own, and more often than not council resignations are for reasons of health, so I wouldn’t care to speculate any further.

Lomond North is one of Argyll & Bute’s 11 wards, and of the 3 making up the Lomond area, and elects 3 councillors at a full election. The ward is effectively defined by three lochs – most notably Loch Lomond, the freshwater loch that gives the ward its name, with the villages of Luss, Tarbet and Arrochar. There are then two sea lochs, with the Gare Loch at the centre, on whose shoes lie Garelochhead, Shandon and Rhu. Finally, nestled between the Gare Loch and Loch Long, is the Rosneath peninsula, including Rosneath itself as well as Cove and Kilcreggan.

For the Scottish Parliament, the ward is within the Dumbarton constituency, emphasising its historically not-Argyll nature. That’s been a Labour seat since the Scottish Parliament was founded. At Westminster it’s part of Argyll & Bute. The SNP have held that seat since 2015, and before that it was held by the Lib Dems. On the old boundaries this had again been in a Dumbarton seat held by Labour. In addition to the people, this ward also has notable residents in the form of the UK’s terrifying nuclear weapons at Faslane and Coulport.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

Argyll & Bute dodged the boundary changes in 2017, so this ward has been the same throughout the STV era. At the first election in 2007 this was a thoroughly Independent ward, electing three of them – Billy Petrie, Danny Kelly and George Freeman, in that order of popularity. Party candidates barely got a look in that year, with all of the SNP, Conservatives and Lib Dems placing behind every Independent.

In 2012, the ward remained largely Independent, though only Freeman was re-elected, this time as the most popular candidate overall. Petrie didn’t stand again, whilst Kelly had a very poor result and was replaced by Robert MacIntyre. The remaining seat was then taken by the Conservatives in the form of Maurice Corry – that name may be familiar to BBS readers. In 2016 he’d be elected to Holyrood, then sunk down the list beyond hope of re-election ahead of 2021.

Come 2017 and both the Conservatives and SNP managed to puncture Independent dominance here to the extent of placing first and second in vote share, albeit the sum of Independent candidates was higher. Whilst the Conservatives and Freeman held their seats, MacIntyre lost his to the SNP, and indeed proved the least popular Independent candidate this time around.

Detailed 2017 Data

Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts gives us a particularly mixed picture. Overall ward leaders the Conservatives found themselves ahead in four districts, around Rhu, Shandon, Cove and Kilcreggan, of which Shandon was their best – that was the top district for Baker and the Lib Dems too. The SNP meanwhile had a strong lead in the directly Lomond-side districts covering Luss, Tarbet and Arrochar. 

Two of the Independents also took leads in individual districts – likely those they lived in. For Freeman that was in the district covering Garelochhead. Though MacIntyyre was the least popular Independent overall, he was highly popular around Rosneath village, which was also where Labour did best. 

Turning to second preferences, and perhaps unsurprisingly this is an almost total Independent-fest. Freeman was not only the most popular Independent candidate, but also the most popular next preference, gaining the plurality of SNP, Baker and MacIntyre voters. Baker’s voters returned the favour, whilst Baker herself was the Conservative’s most common next pick.

That left just Labour and the Lib Dems stubbornly cutting their own partisan path, as voters for each party proved most likely to back the other. 

Candidates

There’s a real lack of parties contesting this by-election, as it’s just the Conservatives and the SNP. Joining them are two Independent candidates, including former councillor for the ward Robert MacIntyre. He seems to be the only returning face, as no one else on the ballot has recently stood for election at any level in the area.

Paul Collins (Conservative)
Mark Irvine (Independent)
Robert MacIntyre (Independent)
Ken Smith (SNP)

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 1683 votes.

As we have two non-returning Independents (on still serving as a councillor, the other simply not on the ballot), we need to pull them out for a full comparison. (Note that the image version shows Baker present – the perils of preparing your data before nominations close. It’s easier to fix on the interactives than the images!)

This shows the Conservatives with a huge lead over the SNP which I don’t think the latter would have much chance of closing in this particular area. However, note that the SNP were barely (1%) ahead of MacIntyre when he dropped out here. If we remove the SNP rather than him at that point, he ends up with 32.1% to the Conservatives’ 41.9%.

I’d be inclined to say the Conservatives are the clear favourites here, but that if they are beaten, it’s going to be by MacIntyre – or perhaps the other Independent, who we have no estimate for beforehand. Remember, this is a ward very keen on Independent councillors, like much of more rural Scotland.

I’ve noted before that Conservative success in the Central Belt can counter-intuitively make SNP victories easier than they’d have been versus Labour. This is kind of the SNP equivalent of that, which is that if the SNP do well enough to remain ahead of Independents, they probably won’t get close to beating the Conservatives, but if they drop out early, they may propel an Independent to victory.

Call: Likely Conservative.

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