Mid Galloway and Wigtown West (Dumfries and Galloway) By-Election, 23/01/2020

For the New Year – and new decade – we’re going straight into the Mid Galloway and Wigtown West by-election in Dumfries and Galloway. Unfortunately it’s not a very happy way to start, having been prompted by the passing of Conservative councillor Graham Nicol. He’d served as a councillor since 2007, and had a spell as the Conservative group leader in the session before this one. Apologies too that this preview has arrived later than normal. That was thanks to the General Election excitement taking all the attention before the festive season, and given I’m a big fan of local government I didn’t want this to be overshadowed!

This is one of the 12 wards in Dumfries and Galloway, and one of the 5 that specifically cover the Galloway area, electing 4 councillors at a full election. I have a bit of an objection to the ward name though. Mid Galloway is accurate, as this ward straddles the boundary between the two historic Galloway counties of Wigtownshire and the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. However, Wigtown West? It covers the eastern portion of Wigtownshire! Mid Galloway and the Machars would have been more appropriate.

Anyway, this is a largely rural ward, especially on the Kirkcudbright side where the largest settlement is the village of Creetown. Although the Wigtown end consists of the bulk of the ward, it’s got a reasonable number of important towns and villages, most notably Newton Stewart, the old county town of Wigtown, and the historically important burgh of Whithorn. Naming objection aside, I also have a fondness for the area as it’s where one side of my family are from. Plenty of summer weekends as a wean were passed scrambling over the rocks around the cairn at the Isle of Whithorn where my grandpa lived. I have however resisted asking my great-aunt and uncle in Newton Stewart to serve as my by-election correspondents!

For the Scottish Parliament the ward is entirely within the Galloway and West Dumfries constituency which has been held (in some form) by the Conservatives since 2003. The 2007 to 11 term Presiding Officer, Alex Fergusson, represented the constituency until his retirement in 2016. At UK level it’s in the Dumfries and Galloway constituency, which the Conservatives won in 2017 after a brief SNP stint, the latter having taken it from Labour in their 2015 landslide.

Overall, Galloway has had quite a mix of representatives over the years –  it was one of the SNP’s handful of seats in 1997 UK and the first Holyrood election, then electing Scotland’s only Tory MP in 2001. In the Machars in particular, the SNP used to be the leading party before the Conservatives reasserted themselves post-referendum.

Dumfries and Galloway dropped 4 councillors and thus a whole ward in the boundary changes, so there are quite substantial differences compared to the first two STV by-elections. A small portion around Creetown was part of the Dee ward, which I’ll skip over here as it’s a small part. The bulk of the ward was previously in Mid Galloway, which was Graham Nicol’s original ward, where he was joined in 2007 by an SNP and a Lib Dem councillor. By 2012, the Lib Dem didn’t even stand for re-election and was replaced by the Independent Jim McColm.

Although probably only a small-ish portion of the population of it, the rest of the area was in Wigtown West. That ward has one apiece for the SNP, Labour and Conservatives in 2007, with the Labour councillor going Independent before his successful re-election in 2012. In 2017 the new ward saw Graham Nicol joined by Jim McColm as continuing councillors, alongside a second Conservative and an SNP councillor.

For this by-election we’ve got a relatively small field with the Conservatives, SNP, Labour and Greens on the ballot. Despite their recent by-election bounces and having previously had some strength here – back in 2003 they held the single member wards on either side of the Cree – the Lib Dems haven’t opted to stand a candidate. That means there hasn’t been a Lib Dem up for a council election in Wigtownshire since 2007. It’s all fresh faces versus 2017, the full list of candidates being;

  • Tony Berretti (SNP)
  • Peter Barlow (Green)
  • Gill Hay (Labour)
  • Jackie McCamon (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 8 (final head-to-head stage);

  • Conservative – 2245 (41.7%)
  • Independent (McColm) – 1943 (36.1%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 1194 (22.2%)

Jim McColm is such a popular local Independent that he’d have come pretty close to winning if 2017 was for a single seat. That’s not much use for us since as a sitting councillor he won’t need to re-stand in the by-election. So let’s eliminate him (like Inverness Central this is an oversimplified just knocking him out instead of the next closest party candidate, rather than going all the way back to the start);

Stage 8 (final head-to-head stage);

  • Conservative – 2662 (49.5%)
  • SNP – 1520 (28.2%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 1200 (22.2%)

When it’s re-worked to Conservative vs SNP, there’d have been a truly huge lead for the Conservatives – within touching distance of quota. On the basis I’d be inclined to say this should be an easy one for the Conservatives to win. I am hedging my bets very slightly however, as the SNP managed a substantial comeback in the Westminster seat at the snap election, cutting the Conservative majority from 10.9% to 3.5%. Only folk who were sampling at the count will know how that vote was distributed – it’s not impossible, given the Machars’ historic penchant for voting SNP, that they could run this much closer. That said I’d still think it’s highly unlikely it’ll be anyone other than Jackie McCamon taking up the seat.

Call: Likely Conservative