By-Election Preview: East Garioch (Aberdeenshire) 17th of June 2021

If you feel a bit stumped by any of the information here, or wonder how it’s possible to get this level of depth, you can check this little guide to how I preview By-Elections.

NOTE: This by-election may be re-scheduled at short notice due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Ward Profile

With less than a year left of this council term, we’re also coming to the end of by-elections that will compare with 2017. Very sadly, most of what remain therefore result from the deaths of incumbent councillors. For Aberdeenshire’s East Garioch ward, it’s the untimely passing of Lib Dem councillor Fergus Hood that has prompted a return to the polls. Hood had served as a councillor for the ward since 2007, having initially been elected for the SNP.

East Garioch is one of 19 wards that make up Aberdeenshire Council, and elects 4 councillors at a full election. As you may guess from the name, the ward covers the eastern portion of the Garioch area – that’s pronounced like “geary”, by the way! Wrapped around the northwest of Aberdeen city, the ward incorporates Blackburn, Kintore, Hatton of Fintry, Newmachar and Kingseat.

The ward is divided between constituencies in both parliaments. At Holyrood there’s a pretty even split down the middle, with two districts in each of the Aberdeenshire East and Aberdeenshire West seats. East was held narrowly by the SNP last month, whilst West has been in Conservative hands since 2016. When the Scottish Parliament was founded, this was a strongly Lib Dem area, though support has plummeted over the past decade.

At Westminster the split is between the Gordon and West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine seats, with only the district around Blackburn in the latter. Both of these were historically Lib Dem too, and since 2015 we’ve seen Gordon going SNP-Conservative-SNP over the course of the past three elections, whilst WAK was SNP at the 2015 election only, and Conservative since.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

There haven’t been any boundary changes since the ward was created for 2007, though the ward gained an additional seat in 2017. At the first STV election in 2007, the ward elected two Lib Dem councillors, plus the late Fergus Hood in his initial guise as an SNP councillor. In 2009 one of the Lib Dems, Martin Ford, resigned from the party after years of opposition to Donald Trump’s development at the Menie Estate, subsequently joining the Greens.

2012 elected exactly the same councillors as in 2007, though with Ford under the banner of the Greens. One year into his second term, Fergus Hood would also change his affiliation, joining the Lib Dems.

At the most recent election in 2017, the expanded ward saw one apiece from the three parties who’d been elected in 2012, plus the additional seat going to the Conservatives. They did so well here that they leapt from fourth to first place. Despite the expanded number of seats, Hood was the only Lib Dem to stand, with the ward’s original Lib Dem opting to retire.

I’m a noted personal vote sceptic for the most part, as I think the evidence points towards most people voting on a party basis. However, local elections are where personal votes do most strongly and genuinely exist and have the greatest effect, and I think this ward exemplifies that by re-electing two councillors following party shifts. For the Greens in particular, I’d be pretty certain the bulk of their vote is in fact personal to the councillor rather than linked to the party.

Detailed 2017 Data

Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, we see the Conservatives were ahead in most of them, most strongly around Hatton of Fintray, which was also the Greens’ strongest area. The only district not led by the Conservatives was for the SNP, covering Newmachar and Kingseat, and this was the Lib Dems’ best chunk as well. 

Relatively strong mutual preferencing between Conservative and Lib Dem voters here, with Labour also proving most favourable to the Lib Dems.

Although SNP voters have their usual strong next preference for a Green, Green voters here appear to buck the usual trend of returning that favourability. However, bear in mind my note about the personal vote above. If we consider that most of Martin Ford’s voters are personal to him, it’s not a surprise the largest share of them are next most favourable to his former party.

Candidates

It’s a standard Holyrood 5 affair for this by-election, with only a couple of familiar faces. Labour candidate Andy Brown was his party’s candidate for Aberdeenshire West in the Holyrood election, whilst Lib Dem Trevor Mason contested the Ellon and District by-election here in Aberdeenshire late last year. The full list of candidates is:

Andy Brown (Labour)
David Keating (Conservative)
Trevor Mason (Liberal Democrat)
Jamie Ogilvie (Green)
Dan Ritchie (SNP)

2017 Re-Calculation and Prediction

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. For this re-calculation, that was 2280 votes.

Stage 5 (final head-to-head stage); 

Conservative - 2200 (48.3%)
SNP - 1655 (36.3%)
Didn't Transfer - 704 (15.4%)

If 2017 had been for a single councillor, the Conservatives would have managed a pretty comfortable win, with a 12% lead over the SNP. In true STV style however, that’s not the whole story. If we take a step back one stage, Hood wasn’t very far behind his erstwhile party, with votes splitting 35.0% Conservative, 31.3% SNP, 29.5% Lib Dem.

That may appear to suggest there’s a chance of Lib Dem victory here, especially when considering what Martin Ford’s voters may do without him on the ballot. If we eliminate the SNP from the re-calc, the Lib Dems do pull ahead of the Conservatives at 41.6% vs 37.7%. 

However, if we’re working on the basis there are a lot of personal votes here, that applies equally to Hood as to Ford. Especially given the extremely poor Lib Dem performance for the list vote in Aberdeenshire the other week, where they dropped a weighty 5% vs 2016, I’d be very surprised if they were in genuine contention here with a new candidate.

I’m therefore inclined to say that given the typical dynamics of a by-election, the result here in 2017, and the strength of Conservative support for Holyrood that they are the most likely victors. I certainly wouldn’t write the SNP off, but this is likely to be a challenge for them.

Call: Likely Conservative.

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