By-Election Preview: Mid-Formartine (Aberdeenshire) 19th 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

Summer by-elections continue (and, barring any surprises) conclude with Aberdeenshire’s Mid-Formartine ward on the 19th of August. SNP Councillor Karen Adam became SNP MSP Karen Adam in May, when she narrowly held the Banffshire and Buchan Coast seat for the party. Although Councillor MSPs generally to hold both posts for the year between the two elections, Adam stated before the election she’d prefer to focus entirely on being an MSP for the whole period, and duly resigned her council seat.

Mid-Formartine is one of 19 wards in Aberdeenshire, and elects 4 councillors at a full election. I’d describe this ward as classical Aberdeenshire in the sense that it contains a large number of relatively small towns and villages. The largest of these is Oldmeldrum, but even then it’s not much more than 3,000 residents. Other notable settlements in the ward include Balmedie, Belhelvie, Potterton, Cultercullen, Pitmedden, Tarves and Daviot.

At the Scottish Parliament, the ward is entirely within the Aberdeenshire East constituency. That’s been held by the SNP since it was created in 2011, and the preceding Gordon seat was won by then-leader of the SNP Alex Salmond in 2007, having been Lib Dem at the first two elections. For the UK Parliament the ward, bar one farmhouse, is part of the Gordon seat. That’s currently SNP held, having been Conservative in 2017, and Lib Dem before Salmond briefly gained it for the SNP in 2015.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

The ward experienced mild boundary changes in 2017, losing the village of Methlick and its surrounds – a change that will have had very minimal impact on the overall results.

At the first STV elections in 2007, the Lib Dems emerged as the strongest party and won two of the seats here, with the others going one apiece to the closely second-place SNP and much more distantly third Conservatives. In 2012 the Lib Dems lost both seats here, but only one actually changed councillor, as Paul Johnston was re-elected as an Independent. Their second seat went to the SNP, who led the vote as well.

In common with most of Aberdeenshire, the ward swung massively Conservative in 2017, with the party doubling their vote share, whilst the SNP experienced a sharp decrease. It’s highly likely that had the Conservatives foreseen their success here, they’d have stood two candidates, and probably elected both. They didn’t, and therefore their transfers saw a Lib Dem councillor returned to the ward in place of the second SNP, whilst Paul Johnston easily held onto his Independent seat.

Detailed 2017 Data

Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, the Conservatives did best in most of them – in Daviot, Oldmeldrum, their strongest share in Cultercullen, Belhelvie and Potterton. Paul Johnston meanwhile held sway in two districts, doing best in Tarves but also polling strongly in Pitmedden. That left one district leaning SNP around Balmedie.

Balmedie was very narrowly also where the Lib Dems polled most strongly, and more notably so for Labour. Finally the second Independent candidate, Jeff Goodhall, showed a concentration of support in Oldmeldrum.

Looking at 2017’s second preferences, it’s mostly pretty weak relationships. There’s a mutual plurality between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, but it’s only a bit over a quarter. Labour also favoured the Lib Dems, but again to a similar level.

SNP voters proved most favourable to Paul Johnston, as did Jeff Goodhall’s. The latter’s voters were by far the most emphatic in their choice of second preference, whereas the return wasn’t nearly so weighty.

Candidates

There’s a pretty quiet ballot for this one with just four candidates – it’s the Holyrood 5 but sans Labour. You’ll have spotted an immediately recognisable name here, as 2017 (and 2012) Independent Jeff Goodhall is now standing under the Lib Dem banner. Green candidate Peter Kennedy stood next door in Ellon & District’s by-election last October, and was on his party’s North East list in May. By contrast, the candidates of the likely winner parties are fresh faces.

Jeff Goodhall (Liberal Democrat)
Peter Kennedy (Green)
Jenny Nicol (SNP)
Shiela Powell (Conservative)

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 2597 votes.

A quick initial re-calc on this has the Conservatives relatively narrowly beating Johnston by 43.1% versus 39.0%, and 17.9% exhausting. Obviously as a serving councillor Johnston isn’t on the ballot, so we need to pull him out. 

Stage 6 (final head-to-head stage); 

Conservative - 2664 (51.3%)
SNP - 1743 (33.6%)
Didn't Transfer - 785 (15.1%)

That’s an extremely easy victory for the Conservatives over the SNP if we were running 2017 for a single councillor. I’d be inclined to say they are the clear favourites here, however I thought that ahead of last year’s Ellon & District by-election, and then the SNP won that by a whisker. That’s the next ward over to the east, so I’m therefore hedging my bets and saying whilst I still reckon the Conservatives will emerge victorious, it’s just a lean rather than likely.

There’s also the fact that Conservative Councillor Jim Gifford left the party after he was removed as Council leader, which could have local repercussions. The SNP were run pretty close in the Holyrood constituency in May, but rather than reflecting a recent loss of support, it was simply Holyrood results catching up with the sea-change of the 2017 elections, so I don’t consider that to have much impact on their chances relative to the last council election here.

You might be looking at the chart and thinking the combined Lib Dem – Goodhall vote in 2017 was pretty substantial. At the point Goodhall drops out of the re-calc, they totalled 26.1%. However, we can’t assume the two voter blocs will fully merge in the by-election. Instead, I’d be watching to see whether Goodhall can improve on the Lib Dem result at all – if not, their chances of holding their seat here next May may be very low indeed.

Call: Lean Conservative.

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