Cause of By-Election
After a four week lull after our early Autumn spate of by-elections, we swing back into action for South Kintyre in Argyll and Bute, where Independent councillor Donald Kelly has stood down citing frustrations at how the council operated. Although elected as an Independent in 2022, he had served for over two decades as a Conservative, having first been elected at a 2001 by-election for an old First Past the Post ward, also called South Kintyre, which was basically the area south of the A83 excluding most of Campbeltown but including the Kilkerran area of the town.
In a pattern the party repeated in a few other bits of Scotland, such as Prestwick in South Ayrshire, the Conservatives made the mistake of deselecting a popular and long-serving councillor ahead of the 2022 election, prompting Kelly to stand under his own steam. The break with his former party was clearly decisive, as although four Independents would join up with the Conservatives and Lib Dems to form the local administration, Kelly was not one of them. That gives us not just our second by-election of the term for Argyll and Bute, but also the second in Kintyre, following last year’s Kintyre and the Islands vote.
South Kintyre is one of 11 wards in Argyll and Bute, and elects 3 councillors at a full election. Naturally, this one covers the southern end of the Kintyre peninsula, most notably Campbeltown which accounts for around three-quarters of the ward’s population. The rest of the ward is overwhelmingly rural, with other important villages at Machrihanish and Southend. There haven’t been any boundary changes here since the ward was created in 2007, so results map neatly across all elections.
For elections to both parliaments, the ward is entirely within the respective Argyll and Bute constituencies. The SNP hold both seats, having gained from the Lib Dems at Westminster in 2015, and at Holyrood earlier in 2007. For Westminster the seat is due to expand slightly into Argyll, Bute and South Lochaber once the new boundaries go live at the next election.
Representation in the ward has tended to be pretty stable, with the exact same three councillors elected in both 2007 and 2012. When SNP councillor John Donald Semple stood down in 2014, he was replaced at the by-election by his party colleague John Armour, who then became part of the same trio in the uncontested 2017 election. Change to the composition finally came in 2022, when Kelly’s return as an Independent came at the expense of the Lib Dem’s Rory Colville. The Conservatives aren’t having much luck in this part of the council lately though, as their new councillor Tommy MacPherson didn’t even make it until Christmas before leaving the administration citing similar discomfort with how the council operates.
The pattern of vote shares across the elections reveal precisely how ill-advised the Conservatives were to deselect Kelly ahead of 2022. Although the party stood two candidates in 2007, and weren’t a million miles off getting both in, Kelly won almost 43% of the vote to his colleague’s roughly 5%. His transfers also contributed to pushing the Lib Dems ahead of Labour, who had narrowly beaten them on first preferences. In 2012, Kelly held onto nearly all of the total share, very comfortably winning re-election.
However, come that 2014 by-election, and you’ll notice that the Conservative vote absolutely cratered, losing over two-thirds of their share and placing behind the Lib Dems for the first and only time. Some of that will of course be down to the remarkable surge in SNP support immediately following the 2014 Independence Referendum, but it’s of such a magnitude that I think it paints a clear picture: Kelly’s support was substantially personal rather than partisan. Although there was no vote in 2017 to compare with, as the ward was one of the first to go uncontested in the STV era, when Kelly stood under his own banner last year he easily topped the poll, a bit ahead of the SNP and leaving his former party in third place.
Councillors and Key Stats
3 Councillors, in order elected:
Independent: Donald Kelly
SNP: John Armour
Conservative: Tommy MacPherson
Change vs 2017: +1 Independent, -1 Lib Dem (Independent was previously the Conservative councillor)
Valid: 2358 (98.0%)
Spoiled: 47 (2.0%)
SNP: John Armour
Lib Dem: Rory Colville
Independent: Donald Kelly
Conservative: Tommy MacPherson
Transfers (single winner recalculation)
A relatively quiet ballot for this one, with only three out of the Holyrood 5, albeit it’s the ones most common in Argyll and Bute. They’re joined by an Independent in the form of Jennifer Kelly who I’m told is Donald Kelly’s daughter, and the Freedom Alliance. The only local returning face here is the Lib Dem candidate who stood next door in last year’s Kintyre and the Islands by-election, but the Freedom Alliance candidate stood in the Kirkintilloch East, North and Twechar ward of East Dunbartonshire in 2022, which is where he gives his address.
🔵Conservative: Joe Cunningham
⚪Independent: Jennifer Kelly
🟠Lib Dem: Kenny Mackenzie
🟤Freedom Alliance: Alan McManus
🟡SNP: John Richardson
Absolutely nobody will be surprised to hear that if 2022 had been a single-seat election, Kelly would have won handsomely. Eliminating him from consideration instead sees the SNP beat the Conservatives by a margin of nearly 15%. That’s interesting and feeds into that point I made earlier about Kelly’s vote being significantly personal, as you’d assume if it was people who had always been Conservative-leaning but were loyal to Kelly, they’d have been inclined to mark his former party as their second preference.
In actuality, the SNP got more second preferences both from Kelly’s voters and from the Lib Dems’. Indeed, allowing for Kelly 1, Lib Dem 2, and Someone Else 3 votes, the Independent bloc split 410 votes to the SNP versus 282 to the Conservatives. Whilst there may also be a personal vote going to the SNP’s John Armour after nearly a decade in post, this strongly suggests an electorate that despite big Conservative leads in the past was much more supportive of Donald Kelly as a person than as a partisan.
All of that said, the SNP have been having a torrid time of recent by-election results, so whilst they have a clear 2022 advantage here, it’s likely to be very vulnerable to erosion and their voters simply staying at home. I’m inclined to see this then as too close to call between the SNP and Conservatives.
At least, that’s what I’d drafted before learning there was another Kelly on the ballot. It would be foolish to assume interchangeability between the two related candidates, but it would be similarly daft to pretend the father’s endorsement won’t be helpful for the daughter. Throw in the fact that both SNP and Conservative voters will likely favour an Independent over the other party and she’s got a good chance at victory. I did consider going with a “Lean Independent” prediction but opted to hedge my bets with a three-way tossup, albeit I think the odds are more like 40-30-30 than an even split.
2022 Results (Detailed Data)
Transfers (full election)
Results by Polling District
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