By-Election Preview: Arbroath West, Letham and Friockheim (Angus) 25th of April 2024

Ward Profile

Cause of By-Election

For this one we’re taking Ballot Box Scotland’s first by-election trip to Angus. There hadn’t been an unscheduled vote in this council on my watch until now with David Fairweather, Independent councillor for Arbroath West, Letham and Friockheim, having followed through on a pre-announced resignation.

Fairweather was first elected as a councillor in 2007, though he’d only missed out the final first past the post vote for the Harbour ward in 2003 by three votes. After the 2017 elections ejected the SNP from the local administration, Fairweather initially took up office as the Deputy Leader of the council. This wasn’t to last as he first resigned that post, then mounted a comeback to become the overall Leader of the Council. Along with most of the Independent bloc, Fairweather would return to opposition in 2022.

Ward Details

Arbroath West, Letham and Friockheim is one of 8 wards in Angus, and elects 4 councillors at a full election. A classic of the “clue is in the name” genre, the dominant portion is indeed the western chunk of Arbroath, covering the Hospitalfield, Timmergreens, Cairnie and Kirkton areas of the coastal town. The inland village of Letham is about twice the size of neighbouring Friockheim and together make up most of the rest of the ward’s population. Originally drawn as just Arbroath West and Letham in 2007, in the 2017 boundary changes it lost a small stretch around the hamlet of East Haven, countered by the much more significant addition of the Friockheim portion.

For elections to the Scottish Parliament, the ward is entirely within the Angus South constituency which has been held by the SNP since it was created in 2011, and barring one tiny hamlet had been within the original Angus constituency the SNP likewise held from creation in 1999. At the UK Parliament it’s within the Angus constituency that the SNP held in various forms for 30 years until the Conservatives briefly took it in 2017, before the SNP reasserted themselves in 2019. At the next election it will be part of the new Arbroath and Broughty Ferry constituency.

Electoral History

There’s a real neatness to the pattern of representation in the ward, though some of that was by accident rather than design. At the first election in 2007, on the prior boundaries, the ward returned one apiece from the SNP, Conservatives and Lib Dems, plus David Fairweather. For reasons lost to the mists of time, Lib Dem councillor Peter Nield chucked his party at some point that term to sit as an Independent. He and Fairweather would stand on a joint list as Angus Independents in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, though they only won 1.3% of the vote in the Angus South seat. As part of the SNP’s sweep to a majority in 2012 they picked up the formerly Lib Dem seat, though that majority wouldn’t even last a year before their new councillor Ewan Smith left, citing dissatisfaction over schools.

In 2017, the 2007 pattern re-asserted itself in more ways than one. The Lib Dems managed to return to the ward, but not from growth in their own support. Instead, the Conservatives won enough votes for two seats but with only one candidate, a flood of transfers brought Richard Moore into office. That would not prove a particularly positive result, as Moore was found to have harassed four women on the council, leading to him being expelled from his party and sitting as an Independent from 2018 onwards. Though the Conservatives learned their lesson in 2022, this time they didn’t have enough support for a double, and in an echo of 2012 that went to the SNP.

Looking at the voting pattern over the period, and the ward started out relatively typical for Angus – the SNP in the lead, strong results for Conservatives and Independents, and respectable for the Lib Dems. When the Lib Dems collapsed in 2012 it seemed to be the SNP who benefitted most, giving them their best result thus far. They then slipped significantly in 2017 whilst both the Conservatives and Fairweather made big gains. It’s worth noting that the addition of the Friockheim section will be partly why the Conservative vote appears to have nearly doubled, as rural inland Angus is typically more Conservative leaning than the coast, and the ward Friockholm was chiselled out of saw the lowest Conservative swing.

Whilst the SNP managed to relatively narrowly reclaim their lead over the Conservatives in 2022, the key item for this piece is that it was easily Fairweather’s worst performance. He in fact placed narrowly behind another Independent candidate, Ian Wren, on first preferences. It’s not as if Fairweather hadn’t faced off against other Independents before, so I do wonder if this was a case of genuine backlash against him as the then-Leader of the Angus Council.

Councillors and Key Stats

4 Councillors, in order elected:
πŸ”΅Conservative: Louise Nicol
🟑SNP: Serena Cowdy
🟑SNP: Martin Shepherd
βšͺIndependent: David Fairweather
Change vs 2017: +1 SNP, -1 Lib Dem
Turnout: 47.0%
Electorate: 14052
Valid: 6503 (98.5%)
Spoiled: 98 (1.5%)
Quota: 1301

Candidates

🟒Green: Anne Campbell
🟑SNP: Serena Cowdy
βšͺIndependent: David Fairweather
🟠Lib Dem: Rod Falconer
⚫Alba: Lisa Keogh
πŸ”΅Conservative: Louise Nicol
πŸ”΄Labour: Pamela Ruddy
🟑SNP: Martin Shepherd
πŸ”΅Conservative: Juliet Vivers
βšͺIndependent: Ian Wren

First Preferences
Transfers (single winner recalculation)
Two-Candidate Preferred

By-Election

Candidates

This one is a relatively quiet ballot, a purely Holyrood 5 affair with no return for Alba, no Independents, and no micro-parties. Of the candidates, only the Lib Dem’s Sandra O’Shea stood anywhere else in Angus back in 2022, contesting the Kirriemuir and Dean ward. Everyone else is a new face in this cycle.

πŸ”΅Conservative: Jack Cruickshanks
🟒Green: Mark Findlay
πŸ”΄Labour: Mark Hilton
🟠Lib Dem: Sandra O’Shea
🟑SNP: Kathleen Wolf

Analysis

For all that the SNP quite possibly wouldn’t like David Fairweather very much, seeing as he was the council leader whilst they were in opposition, they might also have preferred for him to stay in office. Although the SNP would have been overall winners for a single seat in this ward in 2022, it’s only by a 2% margin over the Conservatives. That’s the kind of lead that can completely evaporate just due to the nature of by-elections favouring the Conservatives, never mind at a time the SNP are doing very poorly.

That said, the Conservatives don’t exactly have their own troubles to seek at the moment, and they are starting from behind. Given what I’ve been saying recently about how the SNP do tend to get beaten by whoever is their strongest opposition, I’d err towards that happening here, but I’d estimate the Conservatives as likely rather than guaranteed winners.

Prediction

Likely Conservative.

2022 Results (Detailed Data)

Transfers (full election)
Results by Polling District
Second Preferences

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