North Lanarkshire By-Elections, 04/03/2021

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Background to a Double Whammy

NOTE: These by-elections were delayed until November 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and then further delayed until the 4th of March 2021.

Coming up on the 19th of November 4th of March, we have a double-whammy of North Lanarkshire by-elections. One of these, in Thorniewood, follows the election of SNP councillor Stephen Bonnar as MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. Bonnar was himself first elected at a by-election in 2015 following a party colleague having made the same councillor to MP transition. The other is in Fortissat, where SNP-turned-Independent councillor Tommy Cochrane has resigned, having first been elected in 2012 before leaving the party in 2018.

Since 2017 North Lanarkshire Council, which has 21 wards, has had three by-elections. These will be the fourth and fifth. They won’t however be the fourth and fifth wards to see by-elections – incredibly, both have already had a by-election! North Lanarkshire loves a by-election so it does, but it can’t be having with Cumbernauld or Airdrie, it just needs to re-tread the same south of the M8 ground.

These by-elections also both come with the potential to give Labour a clean-sweep of every councillor in the ward. When the SNP (briefly) managed this in Dundee’s North East ward in 2019, I made the point that STV isn’t really built for that. I won’t re-hash that entire argument again here, but suffice it to say there is a difficult balance to strike here. Voters deserve a say over who represents them, but the reason we have STV is to try and ensure that diversity of opinion is recognised. Wards ending up solely with representatives from one party thanks to later by-elections fail to live up to the spirit of STV, even if they meet what we perceive to be the democratic necessity of directly electing a specific councillor.

Ward Profile - Thorniewood

The Thorniewood by-election was in September 2019 – if not for the pandemic, voters here would have had two by-elections in the space of a year, plus two national elections. That was the result of a rather late resignation by Labour councillor Hugh Gaffney, who had been elected MP for that Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill constituency in 2017. I’m not going to repeat the details that can be found in the preview post for that by-election, as it’s still the same ward with the same voters. This is the first time Ballot Box Scotland has returned to a ward for a second by-election, it’s weird.

What has changed since then is, obviously, that the SNP have re-taken the Westminster constituency covering the ward. It’s quite possible that the good people of Thorniewood are the most-polled voters in Scotland in recent years, given this is the third by-election in the ward in recent years, plus all the other normal elections!

Boundaries and Recent Election History - Thorniewood

I’m not re-writing the same stuff as the last one, but I did make another map for it, since my mapping style changed in 2020 (which is the final major BBS brand change, I promise!) I’ve also literally just this week (that this was originally published…) started showing the results by polling district on maps rather than just tinting the ward the colour of the vacating party.

What this shows is that Labour’s win in the previous by-election was driven by strong support in the big polling district covering Calderbraes, Birkenshaw and the north of Tannochside plus the postal vote, whilst the SNP took a lead on the in-person votes cast in every other district in the Viewpark area.

Candidates - Thorniewood

There’s a reasonable variety of candidates for this one, with UKIP and an Independent joining the Holyrood 5. Perhaps unsurprisingly given how recent that previous by-election was, some parties have chosen to stand exactly the same candidates – the SNP’s Eve Cunnington and Greens’ Rosemary McGowan, who has since added the 2019 vote in Airdrie and Shotts to her belt.

UKIP candidate Daryl Gardner contested Airdrie North in 2017, then the first Fortissat by-election. Although the Lib Dems had nominated Colin Robb, who stood in the previous by-election, for the initially scheduled date, they didn’t nominate anyone for this rescheduled vote. The full list of candidates is:

Ajala Oyebola (Conservative)
Joseph Budd (Independent)
Eve Cunnington (SNP)
Daryl Gardner (UKIP)
Helen Loughran (Labour)
Rosemary McGowan (Green)

2019 By-Election Result and 2021 Prediction - Thorniewood

Normally we’d have to do the whole re-calculate 2017 for a single councillor thing, but since it’s had a by-election for one councillor we can just use that, nice and easy. The top chart shows the first preferences in September’s by election, and the bottom chart shows the transfers. The image version (click to expand) also shows the comparison with the 2017 election.

Image Version
Image Version

Stage 4 (final head-to-head stage);

Labour - 1528 (49.7%)
SNP - 1271 (41.3%)
Non-Transfer - 275 (8.9%)

Labour came out reasonably ahead in September, and whatever changes may have taken place in the December General Election, this is still a pretty strong Labour area. However, the SNP are substantially up in recent polls, and as we saw in Ellon are capable of delivering big swings at the moment. I’m therefore putting this one down as a complete tossup, having initially pegged it as leaning Labour.

Call: Lab-SNP Tossup

Ward Profile - Fortissat

The other by-election is a few wards over in Fortissat, which normally elects 4 councillors. The centre of this ward is the town of Shotts, and there are then a string of other villages along major roads to the north, including Salsburgh and Harthill, and the south, including Allanton.

As with the rest of North Lanarkshire, this is also a strongly Labour area in historic terms. In both parliaments, this ward is part of an Aidrie and Shotts constituency, which Labour long held. The Holyrood constituency went to the SNP in 2011, and the UK constituency in 2015. They held the latter by a tiny margin in 2017, but were far more comfortable again in 2019.

Boundaries and Recent Election History - Fortissat

There has been a very small boundary change since 2007, with the ward expanding to take in the village of Morningside near Wishaw. It also previously had 3 councillors. In 2007, those went one each to Labour, the SNP and an Independent. That same spread continued into 2012, though the SNP stood two candidates and it was their incumbent who lost out.

In 2017, with another councillor up for grabs, there was more of a shakeup. Labour picked up a second seat, and the Conservatives also elected a councillor, leaving the Independent out in the cold, with the SNP remaining steady with one. What was then really interesting here was the almost immediate by-election. In a quite bizarre turn of events, the Conservative councillor actually refused to sign his acceptance of office – it’s quite possible he had expected to simply be a “paper” candidate and not be elected at all, and was not best pleased when he was.

That by-election was won by Labour, and as with Thorniewood, it means we have a more recent single-councillor election to compare and don’t need to recalculate the original 2017. Even more interestingly, the SNP were pushed into third at that by-election. Not by an established party, but by (what is now called) the British Unionist Party. They had already done well for a minor party in the full election with 11% of the vote, but surged to 23.3% in the by-election.

Looking at the by-election in terms of polling districts (sorry for the double-map in this case…) we can even see that the British Unionists led in the two districts up around Harthill and Eastfield, which they’d achieved at the original election too. They also pulled over a third of the vote in the district covering Shotts.

Labour’s support was strongest in and around Shotts as well as the postal vote, whilst the SNP led in Allanton and Bonkle areas. The area around Salsburgh and Hartwood had its boxes merged but shows a close competition between Labour and the SNP, so it’s possible those were more split between the parties than the merger suggests.

Finally, perhaps reflecting the relative weakness of the British Unionist Party in those areas, the Conservatives showed by far the most strongly in the south and west of the ward.

Candidates - Fortissat

After all that chat above about how well the British Unionist Party had done, they are conspicuous by their absence this time. They are still a registered party so that absence seems very odd. If you were a party with no elected representation which had garnered enough support to elect a councillor in 2022, wouldn’t you want to take every opportunity to nurture that vote to ensure future victory? I’m here to cover elections not give advice, but I can’t quite wrap my head around the strategy there.

Since it’s been a lot longer since the previous by-election here, we have fewer returning candidates. Note that just like in Thorniewood, the Lib Dems opted not to nominate a candidate this time, having previously done so for the original date with John AH Cole. Since the UKIP candidate shifted to Thorniewood, it’s just the Greens’ Kyle Davidson, who also contested Airdrie North in 2017.

Other familiar faces are the Conservative Ben Callaghan, who contested Coatbridge North in 2017 and then a by-election next door in Coatbridge South in 2018, and Neil Wilson, who also stood in that by-election, plus in Motherwell Southeast and Ravenscraig in 2017, plus Motherwell and Wishaw in December’s snap election. The full list of candidates is:

Ben Callaghan (Conservative)
Kyle Davidson (Green)
Peter Kelly (Labour)
Sarah Quinn (SNP)
Neil Wilson (UKIP)

2017 By-Election Result and 2021 Prediction - Fortissat

Again, we can use the by-election as our main indicator rather than re-calculating the 2017 result. Top chart shows the by-election first preferences, bottom shows the by-election transfers. The image version (click to expand) also shows the comparison with the full 2017 election.

Image Version
Image Version

Stage 6 (final head-to-head stage);

Labour - 1827 (49.5%)
British Unionist - 1139 (30.9%)
Non-Transfer - 723 (19.6%)

Labour had a pretty solid lead over the British Unionists, and I don’t think anyone needs to double check the 2017 ballots to figure out that people voting for the British Unionist Party weren’t going to give a preference to the Scottish National Party. But I did check because I’m thorough – and it was necessitated by circumstance. That recalculation comes down to 48.2% Labour, 24.0% SNP and a staggering 27.8% not fancying either.

Even allowing for the Labour slump and SNP bounce since then, I reckon Labour go into this the clear favourites. Even if the SNP were to take a lead in first preferences, transfers here will not be their friend. Yes, I made the mistake of assuming that in Ellon, but voters who went British Unionist at the last by-election would be taking a much bigger leap than Lib Dems were in transferring to the SNP!

Call: Likely Labour

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