By-Election Preview: Murdostoun (North Lanarkshire) 24th 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

When it comes to elections, North Lanarkshire is clearly the place to be. Back in March, there were two council by-elections here. Obviously, we then had the Holyrood elections on the 6th of May. Then a week later it was time for a Westminster by-election. Next month, we’re off to the Murdostoun ward. Tragically however, this one isn’t down to resignations or the usual electoral calendar, but instead the death of a sitting councillor. Independent Councillor Robert McKendrick, who had served the ward since 2007, very sadly passed earlier this year.

Murdostoun is one of 21 wards making up North Lanarkshire Council, and elects 4 councillors at an ordinary election. It effectively covers a cluster of estates and villages on the eastern edge of Wishaw. The most notable would appear to be Newmains, Crindledyke and Cleland, which my data identifies as standalone villages, whereas Bellside, Knownoble, Coltness and Cambusnethan show as suburbs.

For the Scottish Parliament, the ward is entirely within the Motherwell and Wishaw constituency. This was a Labour seat until 2016, when it went with the rest of the Central Scotland region to the SNP. Most of it is also likewise in the UK Parliament’s Motherwell and Wishaw constituency, which was similarly Labour until going SNP in 2015. However, the district around Newmains and Crindledyke is instead part of the Airdrie and Shotts constituency, which has followed the same partisan pattern, and therefore some of the voters here will find themselves turning out a third time in two months.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

The ward did undergo relatively small boundary changes in 2017. These added a very small area to the southwest of Coltness to the ward, whilst removing the village of Morningside. The bulk of the ward remained the same however, so we can compare pretty comfortably across the period.

At the first STV election in 2007, the seats went two to Labour who easily led in first preferences, one to the SNP, and the last to Robert McKendrick. In his first victory here he won 15% of the vote, a result that’s pretty creditable for an Independent in the Central Belt.

McKendrick clearly established himself as a very popular local figure very quickly, because he then more than doubled his share of the vote to 32.1% in 2012. That made him the most popular individual candidate, and was only 4% shy of the combined total for Labour. No seats changed hands though, holding steady on the same balance as previously.

As it had at the previous two elections, the ward once again returned McKendrick alongside two Labour councillors and one from the SNP in 2017. McKendrick’s vote did drop a bit but he remained very popular and was easily elected on first preferences, whilst the combined vote for the SNP’s two candidates narrowly squeaked them into a first preference lead – meaning Labour won their two seats from third place.

Detailed 2017 Data

Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, the district map shows a pretty neatly divided ward. Labour were the leading party in the north, in the districts around the village of Cleland. The SNP held sway in the mid west of the ward, which includes Coltness and Cambusnethan. Finally, McKendrick was utterly dominant and completely unchallenged in the east around Newmains.

As those Labour-led districts had their boxes merged during the count, we can’t get Labour’s best result any more local than to say it was in that cluster, whilst McKendrick’s was obviously in Newmains. The SNP’s strongest section was in the very southwest of the Coltness segment, whilst the Conservatives did best in Cambusnethan. 

Looking at 2017’s second preferences, it’s unsurprising to see that voters backing the other two Independent candidates were most likely to put McKendrick next – as were Labour voters. The SNP and Conservatives meanwhile were most favourable to Labour, and UKIP to the Conservatives. This may not be an entirely useful metric for this by-election however given you might expect McKendrick’s support to now go elsewhere – but as we’ll see in a second, there’s an interesting complication to that usual assumption this time.

Candidates

As with the March by-elections, we’re one short of the Holyrood 5 here, as the Lib Dems have opted not to contest. Of these, the Conservative’s Cindy MacKenzie is a returning face from the 2017 election here, and the rest are newcomers. I’d hazard a guess that Labour’s Chris Roarty may be some relation to local councillor Louise Roarty, but you never know!

Speaking of relations, you’ll almost certainly be drawn to Robert John McKendrick below. He’s the son of the late Robert McKendrick Senior, and looking to take up his father’s seat. Meanwhile one more Robert, surname Arthur, is a returning face from 2017.

The two other candidates are also of note. Julie McAnulty used to be an SNP councillor for Coatbridge North and Glenboig, but contested the successor Coatbridge North ward in 2017 unsuccessfully as an Independent. She’s making a small bit of history here as the first ever ballot appearance for the Independence for Scotland Party, after they withdrew from Holyrood in Alba’s favour. Reform UK’s Billy Ross is the first outing for his party in a Scottish Council by-election, which may come as a surprise given that (as the Brexit Party initially) they’ve been on the scene since 2019.

The full list of candidates is:

Robert Arthur (Independent)
Nathaniel Hamilton (Green)
Cindy MacKenzie (Conservative)
Julie McAnulty (Independence for Scotland Party)
Robert John McKendrick (Independent)
Chris Roarty (Labour)
Billy Ross (Reform UK)
Julia Stachurska (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 3204 votes.

Stage 8 (final head-to-head stage); 

McKendrick (Ind) - 2884 (45.0%)
SNP - 2005 (31.3%)
Didn't Transfer - 1517 (23.7%)

McKendrick (Sr) would have pretty easily beaten the SNP to win a single seat election in 2017. Normally I’d remove any major Independents not on the ballot for a by-election from the “primary” re-calculation, but the fact McKendrick (Jr) is on the ballot instead is a potential complication.

I’m not a local, so I can’t speak to whether the son will be able to bank on the support of the father, but if nothing else we do know his father was very well respected locally. That could possibly carry with the family name, especially if McKendrick (Jr) is clearly seen by the local community to be carrying on his father’s work.

It’s obviously very hard to say for sure, however. If we do exclude McKendrick (Sr) from the 2017 re-calculation, we instead see the SNP eke out a narrow victory over Labour at 35.4% vs 33.6%, with a whopping 31.0% not transferring. If it did come down to a head-to-head between those two, expect fewer exhausted ballots in a by-election, and a continued close contest given Labour’s recent council-level successes here but the SNP’s strong parliamentary showings.

It’s really very hard to say which way this could possibly go then, and I’d be completely unsurprised if any of McKendrick (Jr), the SNP or Labour emerged the victors on the day.

Call: Ind-SNP-Lab tossup.

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