By-Election Preview: Inverness South (Highland) 11th of April 2024

Ward Profile

Cause of By-Election

This by-election is something of a rarity, though in some respects that is to be welcomed. All too often by-elections arise from the unfortunate death of a councillor, for reasons of ill-health, or just because they feel it’s about time to retire. In this case however Colin Aitken, who had been a Lib Dem councillor for Inverness South, was easily one of the youngest faces in the chamber, and has resigned due to other employment commitments.

Aitken had first been elected for the Inverness West ward at a 2021 by-election, shifting to Inverness South for the full 2022 election. If they had gotten the right vote split between two candidates and were able to benefit from Labour and Conservative transfers they’d probably have been able to squeak two councillors in that ward, but it would have been squeak, so they must have decided simply to run with their original incumbent and set Aitken up where a party colleague was standing down.

Ward Details

Inverness South is one of 21 wards in Highland, and elects 4 councillors at a full election. The overwhelming majority of this ward is based in the southeastern portion of Inverness, around the areas of Slackbuie, Milton of Leys, Inshes, Cradlehall and Westhill. It also has a massive rural spike within which only Tomatin is of any notable size. Although Highland as a whole had some substantial boundary changes in 2017, this ward remained entirely within its original 2007 form.

For elections to the Scottish Parliament, the ward is entirely within the Inverness and Nairn constituency which, along with its predecessor Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber seat has been held by the SNP since 1999. For the UK Parliament it’s within the Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey seat which the SNP gained from the Lib Dems in 2015. Under the new boundaries just coming in, it’ll be part of Inverness, Skye and West Ross-shire.

Electoral History

At the very first election seats went one apiece to what at the time were the main Highland parties – the SNP, Lib Dems and Labour – plus Independent Jim Crawford. At the time Labour had a substantial group overall, and only one of the five Inverness wards didn’t have a Labour councillor. That changed in 2012 when in a rare Lib Dem bright spot in what was otherwise a shocker they managed by a whisker to pick up a second seat at Labour’s expense, the original Labour councillor having resigned and triggered a by-election in late 2011 that went to Lib Dem Carolyn Caddick.

The Lib Dems didn’t attempt to defend their double in 2017 and resurgent Conservatives were able to elect their first Highland councillors since 1995, including a seat in this ward. At the same time new Independent Duncan MacPherson beat Crawford to take the last seat. That pattern held in 2022 albeit with new Conservative and Lib Dem councillors, with the outgoing Conservative actually standing (and winning) in Wick and East Caithness instead.

Looking at how the votes have shifted over the years, and the SNP have always maintained a lead that were it not for a 2011 by-election would have shown a consistent upwards gradient. In both 2007 and 2012, plus that by-election, the Lib Dems held a comfortable second place, an against-trend performance given an overall decrease in support in Highland (and nationally) at that time. Labour had the opposite problem, losing ground here in 2012 whilst gaining regionally and nationally. Political gravity caught up with the Lib Dems in 2017 and they slipped to third behind the Conservatives, who managed to just get over the quota, whilst MacPherson only beat Crawford by about 1% in first preferences.

2022 saw further against-trend Lib Dem results, with Aitken winning only a bit more than half the vote Caddick had in 2017, compared to significant growth in vote share across the council as a whole. In fact the only thing that delivered a Lib Dem seat here was the SNP failing to stand a second candidate to take advantage of their best share yet, and indeed as you can see in the full transfers chart down at the bottom of this piece that very nearly handed a surprise seat to the Greens. MacPherson meanwhile enjoyed the fruits of being the sole Independent on the paper for the first time to replace the Conservatives, themselves slumping a bit, in second/

Councillors and Key Stats

4 Councillors, in order elected:
🟡SNP: Ken Gowans
Independent: Duncan MacPherson
🟠Lib Dem: Colin Aitken
🔵Conservative: Andrew Sinclair
Change vs 2017: No change
Turnout: 44.4%
Electorate: 12571
Valid: 5543 (99.3%)
Spoiled: 37 (0.7%)
Quota: 1109


🟠Lib Dem: Colin Aitken
Alba: Jimmy Duncan
🟢Green: Claire Filer
🟡SNP: Ken Gowans
🔴Labour: David Jardine
Independent: Duncan MacPherson
🔵Conservative: Andrew Sinclair

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



Ballot options for voters this time around aren’t very far off what they were in 2022, with the Holyrood 5, Alba and an Independent all on the paper. If Alba aren’t Independence-fundamentalist enough for a given voters liking however, they are also joined this time by a candidate for Sovereignty (FKA Restore Scotland), one of a handful of hardliner micro-parties in that vein.

There’s one direct return from 2022 which is the Alba candidate, whereas the Conservative and Independent (both Inverness West) and Green (Inverness Central) stood elsewhere in the city. Everyone else is a totally fresh candidate relative to 2022, though the Sovereignty candidate stood under their old Restore Scotland name for both the Inverness and Nairn constituency and Highlands and Islands region in 2021.

🟠Lib Dem: Jonathan Chartier
Alba: Jimmy Duncan
🔵Conservative: Ryan Forbes
🟤Sovereignty: Andrew MacDonald
Independent: Duncan McDonald
🟡SNP: Gordon Shanks
🟢Green: Arun Sharma
🔴Labour: Ron Stevenson


Based on 2022 results alone, the SNP start with the edge over all of their competitors here. Although they only beat MacPherson by about half a percent in 2022, obviously as a sitting councillor he won’t be on the ballot this time. The alternative head-to-head was then with the Conservatives, which saw the SNP with much more comfortable 22.3% margin. The Conservatives are not, generally speaking, a popular transfer option in Highland, and if that ended up the contest again this time I’d expect the SNP to win, even in their currently weakened state.

If we eliminate the Conservatives instead of the Lib Dems, the SNP win by 48.5% to 32.3%, a smaller but still substantial margin. That’s rooted in the fact the Lib Dems had their weakest result in the ward so far, but the thing about Highland is that party has real form for doing pretty poorly in a ward one election, then absolutely powering out front the next – see them winning just 10% in the Fort William and Ardnamurchan by-election in December 2021, then surging to nearly 40% at the full election five months later. Without being a local, I basically cannot even begin to guess whether or not that’ll happen here, only say it’s a real possibility.

When writing about Highland by-elections, I often also add that Independents are an unpredictable factor, and there is indeed one on the ballot here. I’d even said as much in my tweet with the by-election infographic. I’m not actually sure that’s likely here, having thought about it some more. For one thing, Inverness is very different to the rest of Highland Council. Across the council overall, 28% of councillors elected in 2022 were Independents. In Inverness, it was 6%. That’s one councillor, this ward’s Duncan MacPherson! Given this election’s Duncan, McDonald this time, stood in Inverness West in 2022 and only won 4.9%, that doesn’t exactly suggest he’s either especially local or weel-kent, so I’d assume his chances are basically nil.

As such, I’m viewing this as primarily an SNP versus Lib Dem contest. As the SNP had such a strong 2022 result here and because it’s impossible to determine if the Lib Dems will surge or not, I’m opting to say this leans the SNP’s way, which is the first time I’ve had the SNP marked as the most likely winner, to any level of confidence, since last February’s Dyce, Bucksburn and Danestone by-election. Readers, the SNP did not win that one, with my alternative scenario of a Labour win from behind on transfers playing out. Lean is by its very nature not a confident call, so the SNP will have their work cut out if they want this to be their first win in about eighteen months.


Lean SNP.

2022 Results (Detailed Data)

Transfers (full election)
Results by Polling District
Second Preferences

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