March was an extremely busy month for by-elections, with a grand total of 11 spread throughout. We had the last two this week – although recently I’ve taken to doing different wards and councils separately, we’ll see shortly why it’s been easier to combine coverage of them, although they were very different.
In the Midlothian East ward, we were looking at a completely unpredictable three-way marginal prompted by an SNP resignation. Labour had placed third in first preferences here in 2017 but came out on top re-calculating the result for a single seat. At the key elimination stage though both the SNP and Conservatives were just 9 votes behind. The current state of polling and other recent by-elections didn’t exactly give us much in the way of clues for how this would go either.
Almond and Earn in Perth & Kinross was much clearer cut. It arose in the sad circumstances of SNP councillor Henry Anderson’s death to COVID-19, a grim reminder of the severity of this pandemic. The Conservatives had won a whopping 60% of the vote here at the full election, compared to just 30% for the SNP. I thought that made it a pretty easy victory for the Conservatives…
First Preferences - Almond and Earn
… and I was spot on, as for the second week in a row they won a by-election without needing to go to transfers. First preferences in full were (changes versus 2017 election):
Conservative - 1819 (51.2%, -8.4)
SNP - 1327 (37.3%, +7.7)
Liberal Democrat - 267 (7.5%, +1.9)
Labour - 143 (4.0%, +4.0)
Note that in 2017 the Greens won 5.2%.
Although the Conservatives maintained a majority of the vote, they did have a sizeable dip in their share. That was almost matched by the SNP’s increase, halving the gap between the two parties. There were also slight gains for the Lib Dems, who like the SNP increased their absolute number of votes as well, whilst Labour fared slightly less well as fourth placers than the Greens had in 2017.
Transfers - Almond and Earn
Although there weren’t any transfers needed in this by-election so no need for a chart, we can run them anyway to get a “Two Party Preferred” result between the Conservatives and SNP (note that I always like to show exhausted ballots, so it’s slightly different from the Australian style, and changes are versus the 2017 re-calculation for the same two parties):
Conservative - 1987 (55.9%, -6.2)
SNP - 1440 (40.5%, +7.8)
Didn't Transfer - 129 (3.6%, -1.6)
Naturally, that substantial narrowing on first preferences would be replicated if we eliminate all other candidates. Whereas the Conservatives were 29.4% ahead on this measure in 2017, it was 15.4% this time. That’s still a big lead, but it may bode well for the SNP’s chances of holding onto the Perthshire South and Kinross-shire seat in May.
Detailed Data - Almond and earn
Machine counts mean some really juicy data, starting with the breakdown of results per polling district.
There’s a clear east-west split to party support here, with the east leaning towards the Conservatives and the west towards the SNP. We saw a basically identical pattern in 2017, but the Conservative’s larger lead meant the entire map was tinted blue. As at that election, they performed best in the districts covering St Davids’s and Balgowan. The SNP meanwhile saw a particularly large turnaround in the district covering Abernethy to take the lead there.
For the two smaller parties, the Lib Dems did best amongst postal voters, but in terms of in-person votes had their base in Forgandenny and Forteviot. Labour shared their top district, Abernethy, with the SNP.
Looking at the second preferences, there’s a relatively strong mutual transfer relationship between Conservatives and Lib Dems, with the latter also being the most popular choice for Labour voters too. Perhaps due to the absence of a Green candidate, the majority of SNP voters opted not to use any later preferences. Of those that did, Labour were a hair ahead of the Lib Dems.
First Preferences - Midlothian East
Moving onto the other ward, which I had pegged as a three-way tossup.
Considering first preferences alone, things looked a bit less tight this time. From 4.5% between the first and third placed parties in 2017, that widened to 10.8%. First preferences in full were (changes versus 2017 election):
SNP - 1538 (35.4%, +9.2)
Conservative - 1279 (29.4%, +2.5)
Labour - 1070 (24.6%, +1.9)
Green - 282 (6.5%, +1.2)
Liberal Democrat - 178 (4.1%, +4.1)
Note that in 2017 an Independent won 18.8%.
There was a very weighty chunk of the vote going spare since a strong Independent didn’t stand this time, which meant everyone got to be a winner here, at least in terms of swings. The SNP’s increase in share was almost half of what was available, allowing them to overtake the Conservatives to lead on first preferences. As we’ll see in a moment, the size of that lead would put them in prime position to win the seat after transfers.
As no candidate had an outright majority of the vote, transfer rounds were necessary. The quota to reach here was 2174 votes.
Looking now at the transfers for the final head-to-head at stage 4 (changes vs final head-to-head stage in 2017 election, re-calculated to same two parties):
SNP - 1963 (45.2%, +9.1)
Conservative - 1656 (38.1%, -1.3)
Didn't Transfer - 728 (16.7%, -7.8)
For whatever reason, Midlothian opted to be the only council to do a hand count from this batch of by-elections. That means we got to see each of these stages released one at at time on the day, which was exciting for nerds. It also means that unlike a machine count there isn’t the unnecessary but satisfying final stage that shows the split between “any preferences at all for the winner” versus “didn’t preference the winner”.
Anyway, the SNP emerged triumphant over the course of those stages. It did appear quite early on that the Conservatives would struggle to close the gap, and by the time Labour were eliminated it was a distinctly tall order. They’d have needed to win (in relative terms) 24.4% more of the Labour transfers than the SNP did, when in 2017 they’d won around 11% more. This time, the SNP actually gained marginally more of Labour’s terminal transfers than the Conservatives did, to give them a relatively comfortable final lead.
Sadly however, hand counts mean we don’t get any of that more detailed data in terms of polling district level results or direct second preferences.
And that brings us, much to my relief, to the end of by-elections for now. The next one due is Stirling’s Forth and Endrick ward which falls on the same date as the Holyrood election – which is why I’m relieved. There’s a lot of work left to do on BBS ahead of the election, so not having to do too much in the way of by-election stuff gives me more time for that!
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