Perth City (Perth and Kinross) By-Elections, 26/11/2020

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NOTE: These by-elections were delayed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and may be re-scheduled again at short notice.

Another Week, Another (Double) Whammy

Following on from the (currently) previous week’s double dunter in North Lanarkshire, the 26th of November isn’t just giving us two Perth and Kinross by-elections, but specifically two Perth City by-elections. Both of these vacancies have arisen due to SNP councillors. In North, Dave Doogan was elected MP for Angus in the December general election, whilst in South, it’s unfortunately due to the death of Bob Band, who had served as a councillor for the ward since 2007. Assuming these by-elections go ahead, it’s almost certain they’ll be the last we see this year.

As these are neighbouring wards, much of the local context applies to both. There are 12 wards in Perth and Kinross overall, and at a full election Perth City North returns 3 councillors, whilst South elects 4. Perthshire as a whole has been a battleground between the SNP and Conservatives for decades. However Perth itself, as a major urban area, has tended to have strong Labour and Lib Dem streaks too.

At the UK Parliament, SNP representation in the area dates back to a 1995 by-election for the then Perth and Kinross constituency covering the city, won by Roseanna Cunningham. The Perth and North Perthshire constituency that these wards lie within has consistently been SNP, though at the 2017 election long-serving MP Pete Wishart was left with a nail-biting majority of just 21 votes over the Conservatives. That majority grew to a more comfortable 14% in December.

For Holyrood, Perthshire’s dividing line runs through the city, with these wards in the Perthshire South and Kinross-shire constituency. That constituency, and the preceding version of it, is the Scottish Parliament’s successor to the old Perth and Kinross seat, and has been SNP since devolution. Roseanne Cunningham won the seat in that first 1999 election, giving her a hat-trick of wins in the same area after the 97 GE and 95 by-election.

Boundaries and Recent Election History - North

Starting with the North ward, this covers an area to the north and west of the railway line through Perth, incorporating the Tulloch, Hillyland and a large chunk of the Letham areas of the city. This ward lost a few chunks in boundary changes, losing the southern portion of the Letham area to the South ward, and a narrow slice between the railway line and Dunkeld Road to the Centre ward. It also lost a councillor.

On the previous boundaries, in 2007 it elected two each from the SNP and Labour, though the Conservatives were close to beating the second Labour candidate. 2012 kept the same pattern, with Dave Doogan being elected for the first time. In 2017, Labour lost one of their councillors to the ward downsizing, and the other to the Conservatives, whilst the SNP held both their seats and came close to an absolute majority of the vote.

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Given the SNP’s substantial lead in the ward overall, it shouldn’t be a massive surprise to see they had a lead in all of the polling districts too. However, note that it was on a knife-edge in the district covering the southern end of Hillyland, as the Conservatives were nipping at their heels. Though Labour lost their seat, particularly strong support was evident in the Letham area.

Candidates - North

Just the Holyrood 5 for this one, and almost all of these are fresh faces. The one exception is the Greens’ Paul Vallot, who stood in the South ward in 2017. As we’ll see when we come to talk about that ward, the Greens have effectively swapped their candidates between those wards. The full list of candidates is:

Nicola Ferry (Labour)
James Graham (Liberal Democrat)
Ian Massie (SNP)
Aziz Rehman (Conservative)
Paul Vallot (Green)

2017 Re-Calculation and Prediction - North

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.

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Stage 7 (final head-to-head stage);

SNP - 1928 (52.9%)
Conservative - 1178 (32.3%)
Didn't Transfer - 541 (14.8%)

It’s not a surprise at all, given the SNP’s commanding lead in first preferences, to see them easily win a single councillor re-calc, without even needing to eliminate every other candidate. There’s a massive gap for the Conservatives to make up here which seems vanishingly unlikely in the current political context.

Call: SNP Win

Boundaries and Recent Election History - South

The southern ward covers a more densely populated area, including Burghmuir, Cherrybank, Woodlands, Craigie, Moncreiffe, and the southern portion of Letham. As noted above, this ward picked up that chunk of Letham from North in the 2017 boundary changes, though that didn’t add any more councillors to the ward.

Despite the otherwise SNP-leaning nature of Perth, the Lib Dems have consistently been the leading party here. In 2007 they won two councillors, with one each for the SNP and Conservatives. In their 2012 setback, they lost one of those to Labour.

By 2017, their vote share had recovered almost to 2007 levels, but standing only a single candidate ensured it was the SNP who took the seat from Labour. Clearly, the Lib Dem councillor (William Wilson) is distinctly popular in the ward. However a 2017 by-election, to replace a Conservative councillor found to possess indecent images, still showed a very strong Lib Dem performance even with a different candidate.

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With such a close split between the top three parties, when you break that by-election down to polling districts each shows areas of particular strength. The SNP came close to two-thirds of the vote in the Letham and Moncrieffe areas, but much lower elsewhere. Burghmuir was the key stronghold for the Lib Dems, whilst the Conservatives led in the district containing the city centre and Cherrybank, as well as the postal vote. Though not as strong as in North, the chunk of Letham in this ward also showed a relatively high Labour figure.

Candidates - South

A slightly wider field for this one, with UKIP joining the Holyrood 5, and more returning faces too, with three from the previous by-election. The Lib Dems’ Liz Barrett contested the 2017 by-election, as did Labour’s Tricia Duncan who’d stood in the Perth City Centre ward at the full election that year, and the Green candidate Elspeth MacLachlan. MacLachlan had previously served as SNP councillor for the North ward before standing there as an Independent in 2017, then joining the Greens ahead of the by-election. The full list of candidates is:

Liz Barrett (Liberal Democrat)
Andy Chan (Conservative)
Lynda Davis (UKIP)
Tricia Duncan (Labour)
Elspeth MacLachlan (Green)
Iain Macpherson (SNP)

2017 By-Election and 2020 Prediction - South

Since this ward has actually had a by-election, we don’t need to go back to the original 2017 election to re-calculate for by-election conditions, and can just use those results.

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Stage 7 (final head-to-head stage);

Conservative - 2381 (42.9%)
SNP - 2227 (40.1%)
Didn't Transfer - 944 (17.0%)

So the Conservatives narrowly clinched that by-election, ensuring the partisan balance set months earlier was maintained. It wouldn’t take too much for the SNP to overtake them and win the seat this time, and the current political circumstances might have made that quite likely if this was a straight fight between those two parties.

But look how close the Lib Dems were when they were eliminated – just 29 votes behind the Conservatives. Overall, at stage 4 it split 33.9% SNP, 31.7% Conservative, 31.2% Lib Dem. That’s extremely narrow. Had the Lib Dems come ahead of the Conservatives, they’d actually have had a much stronger winning margin over the SNP, at roughly 47% vs 35%. Similarly, had the SNP been in third place, they’d have put the Lib Dems well clear of the Conservatives.

Although every ward is unique and we shouldn’t expect them all to follow the same pattern, the current trend has been for Lib Dem transfers to be less favourable to the Conservatives. In the other by-elections we’ve had recently, when they were eliminated their transfers have gone almost entirely evenly to the SNP and Conservatives. If that pattern holds here, it could make this by-election fundamentally about where candidates are placed after UKIP, Green and Labour eliminations, and how close it is.

If Lib Dems place first, they have it. If they place second, they probably have it, as both Conservative and SNP voters prefer them over one another. If it’s SNP 1, Con 2, LD 3, then I’d expect an SNP win. If it’s Con 1, SNP 2, LD 3, then it’ll go Conservative. Basically, the Lib Dems perhaps seem to have the most paths to victory here, though all of this supposes a relatively close race of less than say 5% between them.

If it’s a much wider race, it’ll be a different story, even with those placings. The other recent Lib Dem trend has been losing votes, except in the Edinburgh by-election. It sounds like they’ve been working this particular ward quite hard, so they may similarly buck that trend here. In short though, this is all messy enough to say any one of these three parties could win and it’ll be fascinating to watch! 

Call: SNP-LD-Con Tossup.

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