By-Election Preview: Hillhead (Glasgow) 7th of March 2024

Ward Profile

Cause of By-Election

After our first two elections this year arose in the “not ideal, but also not awful” circumstances of councillors resigning for health reasons, I’m afraid we’re back to an all too common death in office for this one. Labour councillor for Glasgow’s Hillhead ward, Hanzala Malik, sadly passed away in December.

Malik was a very long serving and well-respected councillor, first elected for the old FPTP Woodlands ward in 1995 before it was merged into Hillhead with the advent of STV in 2007. He’d have been a councillor for the whole time since were it not for an accidental spell as MSP between 2011 and 2016, which led to his absence from the City Chambers between 2012 and 2017. You might be wondering how one “accidentally” becomes an MSP, and this is a tale that I will never tire of telling as an electoral systems nerd.

If you cast your mind back to the time before the 2011 Scottish Parliament election turned Scottish politics on its head, you’ll recall that Labour had been utterly dominant in the urban Central Belt for a long time. Despite the SNP’s narrow overall victory in 2007, in constituency seat terms they’d only won a paltry 6 out of the 38 constituencies covering the four core Central Belt regions (West, Glasgow, Central and Lothian), versus 29 for Labour. Labour just assumed that would always be the case, and certainly had no reason to believe it wouldn’t after they’d steamrollered the Scottish element of the 2010 UK election.

Therefore, they also saw no reason to change their ridiculous internal policy which stated that sitting constituency MSPs generally would not be allowed to stand for the list – the one exception in 2011 being if they had notionally lost their seat on boundary changes, which Sarah Boyack would eventually prove extremely grateful for. In the west Central Belt (i.e. excluding Lothian from the four regions listed earlier), Labour had never won any list seats and didn’t expect to. Therefore whilst all their senior figures and strongest performers were constituency MSPs, with no disrespect meant to the late Mr Malik or the numerous other accidental Labour MSPs, their list candidates ended up as a distinct second tier. They were people who were never actually intended to be elected.

With hindsight, we all know how ill-advised that would prove. Constituency after constituency fell to the SNP and since the losing Labour MSPs had been barred from the list, a huge chunk of their experienced front bench was swept out of office. In their place came a bunch of bewildered councillors and activists who three months previously had thought the only way they’d cross the Holyrood threshold was as staffers for the MSPs they instead inadvertently displaced.

This was so unimaginably, catastrophically, and, I’m sorry but objectively there’s no denying it, hilariously stupid of Scottish Labour that it took on an international dimension. When New Zealand reviewed their similar voting system the following year, their centre-right government having failed to get voters to support bringing FPTP back at a referendum, the Electoral Commission used the party as an example of why banning what is formally known as “dual candidacy” was a bad idea:

“An example of banning dual candidacy can be seen in the 2011 elections to the Scottish Parliament. Only 19% of one party’s candidates stood as dual candidates (compared to 70- 80% for the two other main parties). Many experienced members of this party lost their electorate seats and were thus unable to return to Parliament. The loss of so many experienced members has made it more difficult for the Opposition to effectively scrutinise the activities of the current majority government.” (p38)

Needless to say, Scottish Labour very much learned their lesson after this embarrassment. Since then, candidates have been able and indeed encouraged to stand across both ballots. This minimises the chances of repeating their 2011 calamity, albeit in reverse where they might now have seen experienced list MSPs displaced by constituency novices, if their revival continues as they hope. Despite his incumbency, Scottish Labour evidently did not see Malik as a priority for re-election in 2016 now that they were putting their big hitters atop the list, his 11th placing being far too low to have any chance of re-election. Duly defeated, he went back to his previous beat as a councillor in 2017.

Ward Details

Hillhead is one of 23 wards in Glasgow, and elects 3 councillors at a full election. Sitting at the very heart of the city’s West End, in addition to Hillhead itself the ward contains North Kelvinside, Woodside, Woodlands and Kelvingrove Park. That’s a substantial redrawing compared to the original 2007 ward, which lacked North Kelvinside and only contained the part of Kelvingrove on the right bank of the river, whilst extending further west to include Dowanhill and Hyndland. The changes also caused the ward to drop down from 4 councillors.

For elections to the Scottish Parliament, Hillhead is entirely within the Glasgow Kelvin constituency. This was one of the formerly Labour seats that fell to the SNP in that 2011 surge. For elections to the UK Parliament most of the ward is within the Glasgow North constituency, whilst the left bank of Kelvingrove and the Park District are in Glasgow Central. Both seats were obviously SNP gains from Labour in 2015. Under the new boundaries, the ward will be entirely covered by the redrawn Glasgow North.

Electoral History

At the very first STV election in 2007 Hillhead was one of Glasgow’s mega-diverse wards, electing one councillor apiece from Labour, the SNP, Greens and Lib Dems, with Hanzala Malik as the Labour councillor. SNP councillor George Roberts sadly didn’t see a full term, passing away in 2011, and was replaced by party colleague Ken Andrew. Sitting alongside the Greens’ Martha Wardrop, that created a set of councillors that would only be disrupted by the 2012 election.

In that election, following Malik’s surprise election to Holyrood and the complete collapse in Lib Dem support, two fresh Labour councillors were elected instead. Malik returned in 2017 as his party’s sole councillor in the drop to 3 members, and the same trio of Green-SNP-Labour councillors were returned in 2022.

The mega-diverse nature of the ward in 2007 wasn’t just shown up in the four-party seat split, but also in the fact this was Labour’s lowest vote share anywhere in Glasgow, just squeaking over a quarter of the vote. That’s the only time they’ve led in the ward, with the SNP overtaking them in the 2011 by-election and not relinquishing that advantage since. The fact that Labour nonetheless won two councillors here in 2012 came down to transfers, with the second SNP candidate just under 1% behind the second Labour councillor at that election.

The big story on this chart, which is going to set the theme for the rest of this piece, is the Green line. Although they took at hit at the 2011 by-election and didn’t fully recover in 2012, since then their share has increased dramatically. It’s been long enough now that I think I can share with you all that in 2017 Martha put the absolute fear into everyone else on the Green count team when she emerged sobbing from her pre-declaration briefing. Group leader wards were being counted first, so naturally we thought “bloody hell, if Martha’s lost her seat, what hope does everyone else have?!”, until we realised it was because she was overwhelmed she’d just become the first Glasgow Green ever to be elected on first preferences alone.

That success continued into 2022, when she won the largest vote share of any Green candidate in Scotland to date. That made Hillhead the only ward in the country where the Greens were the largest party, and one of only four where that has ever been the case. This is the most notable example however, as one of those was in Nairn in the 90’s under FPTP, and the other two were Edinburgh wards in 2012 that were so politically fragmented that even winning the most votes didn’t put the respective Green councillors over the electoral quota at the first stage.

Councillors and Key Stats

3 Councillors, in order elected:
🟢Green: Martha Wardrop
🟡SNP: Ken Andrew
🔴Labour: Hanzala Malik
Change vs 2017: No change
Turnout: 37.7%
Electorate: 18586
Valid: 6925 (99.0%)
Spoiled: 73 (1.0%)
Quota: 1732

Candidates

🟡SNP: Ken Andrew
🟠Lib Dem: Theo Lockett
🔴Labour: Hanzala Malik
🟤Freedom Alliance: Colin McMillan
🔵Conservative: Mark Russell
🟢Green: Martha Wardrop

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

By-Election

Candidates

As you’d expect in one of the big cities, we’ve got the full Holyrood 5 here, though this is a notably short ballot by the standards of Glasgow by-elections. The only other folk standing are odd fringe candidates both playing up “we’re the real Greens” angles of the back of this being the Greenest ward in Scotland. One of them is a notional Independent with the backing of the Freedom Alliance, their election agent being that party’s candidate from the South Kintyre by-election. I ask you all to pray for my email inbox, that being the case…

The other is head of “Independent Green Voice”, a deceptively named far right party without any meaningful existence. They got a bit of spotlight in 2021 for having managed to confuse just enough voters to cost the actual Scottish Green Party certainly one (South) and possibly two (Glasgow) MSPs.  If you think voters did actually intend on voting for a party whose sole online presence is a manifesto from 2007, I have some very reasonably priced magic beans I’m sure you’ll be interested in!

If the aim is to similarly act as a spoiler here, they might be tripped up by STV allowing confused voters the safe option of a 1-2 vote. That’ll perhaps comfort the Greens enough that they won’t be trying to see if they can do a repeat of a rather more famous Hillhead by-election (which had two Roy Jenkins on the paper) and get permission to put up signs saying “the real Green Party candidate is Seonad Hoy.”

Returning to the serious political parties, we’ve got a fair few returning faces from across the city here. Labour’s Ruth Hall stood in the Govan ward back in 2022. Conservative candidate Faten Hameed was the candidate for East Centre ward; she’d actually previously been a Labour member, contesting Glasgow Central for that party at the 2017 and 2019 UK elections. And Green Seonad Hoy stood in the neighbouring Canal ward. The SNP however have gone way off-trend here, as their candidate Malcolm McConnell is neither a 2022 candidate nor a woman with a surname beginning with H.

🔴Labour: Ruth Hall
🔵Conservative: Faten Hameed
🟢Green: Seonad Hoy
🟤Independent Green Voice: Alistair McConnachie
🟡SNP: Malcolm McConnell
🟠Lib Dem: Daniel O’Malley
Independent: Ryan McGinley

Analysis

In 2022 terms, the Greens’ solid first preference lead becomes a very comfortable margin indeed after transfers, beating the SNP by 48.9% to 33.4%, with 17.7% not transferring. Their margin against Labour would have been wider still, at 57.6% to 34.2%, leaving 8.2% spare. That means going into this by-election it’s the Greens that are the strict defending party in electoral terms. If they were to win this, it’d be a big moment for the party, giving them both their first ever by-election victory and first ever ward with two Green councillors (even were a sitting other party councillor to defect to the Greens, the party does not allow anyone not elected under their banner to formally designate as a Green). However, there are a couple of things counting against them.

The first is something I’m always talking about here on BBS – “by-election dynamics”. By-elections have lower turnout and that’s especially true of younger and poorer people. Who votes Green? Younger people. This is an extremely student-heavy ward, containing Glasgow University itself, so any reduction in already low youth participation naturally hurts the Greens. Labour meanwhile have recently tended to have a slightly older voter base. We can see that in the chart below in the postal votes, which are used more by older voters, where the Greens and Labour are actually on a straight tie.

The other is that Wardrop will certainly have a decent personal vote. Alongside Southside and Newington’s Steve Burgess in Edinburgh, she’s the joint-second longest serving Green in Scotland, approaching two whole decades in office. Having canvassed (alongside Seonad Hoy, oddly enough) in her ward a couple of times back in the days where I was politically involved, I can say she’s weel-kent as a casework councillor who gets the bins sorted. There’s therefore no guarantee everyone who voted for Martha Wardrop will vote for A N Other Scottish Green Party candidate.

Counting in the Greens’ favour though is the fact that given their government partner’s current struggles, it’s hard to see the SNP doing particularly well on first preferences. Add in a small boost from the residual Lib Dem vote being more Green than SNP favourable, and that increases Green chances of staying ahead of the SNP. Even if Labour place first overall, so long as the Greens keep to second they’ll benefit from a flood of SNP transfers which in 2022 favoured them 3:1 over Labour. If the Greens do slip to third, it’s then the SNP benefitting from a similar flow.

Whether that will be enough for the Greens though is hard to say. Labour have had some very good recent by-elections, and although the Greens’ polled vote share is holding up better than the SNP’s, they aren’t quite as high as they were in May 2022. Overall, I think this is has the potential to be a very messy by-election. Nonetheless, taking all of that into consideration, for the first time in Ballot Box Scotland history I’m making a prediction that explicitly identifies the Greens as the most likely winner, if only marginally.

Prediction

Lean Green.

2022 Results (Detailed Data)

Transfers (full election)
Results by Polling District
Second Preferences

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