Penicuik (MidL) By-Election 22/03/18

After a straight run of three in as many weeks, there’s a bit of a breather before Penicuik goes the polls on the 22nd of March. Sadly, this is another that follows the death of a sitting councillor, Labour’s Adam Montgomery. A former council leader and Provost at time of his passing, Montgomery served as a councillor for over 30 years.

Penicuik is one of six wards in Midlothian, and is represented by three councillors. Although the ward covers a significant area, the overwhelming majority of the population is to be found in the town of Penicuik itself. There are four outlying villages or hamlets notable enough to appear on the map too – Silverburn, Nine Mile Burn, Leadburn and Howgate(notburn). Midlothian as a whole has historically been strongly Labour, but the Penicuik area has leaned more SNP in the past decade. In the Scottish Parliament, the ward forms part of the SNP held Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale constituency. For Westminster it’s part of the Midlothian constituency, one of the handful that reverted to Labour last year. Not typically friendly to the Conservatives, this was one of the many areas they made significant gains in last May.

A lack of boundary changes since 2007 makes comparisons with previous elections easy. Back in those first STV elections in 2007, the ward elected one apiece from the SNP, Labour and Lib Dems; notably, this was the Lib Dems best ward in Midlothian, with Labour in third place. Their collapse in 2012 allowed the SNP to narrowly take a seat from them, whilst Labour settled back into second. Finally, last May Labour were again leapfrogged by the Conservatives though Montgomery still won his seat on first preferences. Hoping to hold the seat for Labour is Vivienne Wallace, who faces rather confusingly off against the SNP’s Joe Wallace, who missed out on re-election last year. There’s also a serious contender from the Conservatives, plus a Green to round things out. The Lib Dems are conspicuous by their absence, despite this remaining their best Midlothian ward and one of only two they stood a candidate in last year. The full list of candidates is;

  • Helen Armstrong (Green)
  • Murdo Macdonald (Conservative)
  • Joe Wallace (SNP)
  • Vivienne Wallace (Labour)

As ever, to get the best comparison between the original vote and the by-election, we need to go beyond the surface and re-calculate a result for electing a single councillor. The top half of the chart shows the first preferences last year, as well as the party of the successfully elected councillors. Transfer flows are on the bottom half. Remember that in a single seat election under STV, a candidate needs 50%+1 of the valid votes cast (a quota) to win.

What immediately stands out here is that this is the first by-election I’ve covered so far (only the fourth overall, mind you) where the party with the most first preferences would not have won an election for a single seat. Although the SNP were nearly 10% ahead of Labour on first preferences, and the Conservatives narrowly ahead of Labour, enough preferences would have flowed to Labour to edge Montgomery into second, then Tory transfers would have squeaked him past the SNP by just 164 votes in the penultimate round. That gives Labour a slight edge in this by-election that wasn’t evident on a reading of first preferences alone. It is, however, a slight edge. There’s definitely the prospect for the SNP to pull off a win here. With an even narrower margin between Labour and the Tories last time, it may even be another three cornered contest.


  1. I don’t think that this analysis really works from the point of view that if it were only one seat, the SNP would not presumably have stood two candidates. If both candidates’ first preferences had gone to a single SNP candidate, the Conservatives would still have been second and Labour would have been third and would have been eliminated, their votes probably evenly splitting between Conservative and SNP. They wouldn’t have won the seat.

    • Labour wouldn’t have been third though – they moved ahead of the Conservatives in round 2 on the basis of Green second preferences, and remained there after Lib Dem preferences.

      If every single vote that was with the 2nd SNP candidate when they were eliminated in this recount had rallied behind a single SNP candidate, Labour would have had 2392 votes after the elimination of the Conservative. The SNP would indeed win with 2434.

      But we can’t assume that every voter who didn’t mark a 2nd or later preference for what would have been the leading SNP candidate only did so as a mistake and would have absolutely, definitely voted for them as 1st preference if they were the only SNP candidate. That’s a margin of just 42 votes – a mere 2% of the 1st preferences cast for the SNP candidates.

      I’ll be the first to argue people vote primarily on party lines but – especially in local elections – candidates do matter. So rather than devise my own motivations for how people voted, I think it better to take the ballots as cast and work out the notional result from those figures.

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