Selkirkshire (SB) By-Election 22/02/18

Coming up just after Falkirk, we have the Selkirkshire ward by-election in the Scottish Borders, due on the 22nd of February. This by-election is a bit of a musical chairs election, coming about as the result of no less then 3 Conservatives getting bumped up into different seats.

In 2016, John Lamont won another Scottish Parliament term as the constituency MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire. He resigned that seat in 2017 to stand for the equivalent UK Parliament constituency at the snap election. That prompted a Scottish Parliament by-election to be held at the same time, which South Scotland Conservative MSP Rachael Hamilton resigned her list seat to stand in. Her replacement on the Tory list was Michelle Ballantyne, who had just been re-elected to a second term as a councillor for Selkirkshire in May. She resigned her council seat in December, which finally takes us to the actual by-election. Phew!

The Selkirkshire ward is one of 11 wards in the Scottish Borders, and normally elects 3 councillors. Although the ward looks quite rural at first glance, the town of Selkirk itself is one of the largest in the Borders. About half the electorate lives in Selkirk, and another 10% or so reside in Newtown St Boswells, the administrative centre for the council. The ward is fully within the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire constituency of the Scottish Parliament, and the Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk constituency of the UK Parliament, both of which are held by the Conservatives.

The boundaries of the ward remain unchanged since STV was introduced for local elections in 2007, but there’s been a fair bit of political churn. The Conservatives are the only constant, winning a seat in all three elections since. At those first elections, the Liberal Democrats actually topped the poll, back when they held the corresponding seats in both Parliaments and the Borders was a stronghold for them, and the SNP won the third seat. In 2012 the SNP were narrowly beaten by an independent, Gordon Edgar, whilst the Lib Dems didn’t suffer as severely as they did elsewhere. Finally, after the incumbent Lib Dem didn’t stand again the party’s vote cratered from 19.7% to just 3.3%, and the SNP returned a councillor to the ward.

There’s a wide field contesting this by-election – each of the parliamentary parties, plus two independents. The Tory candidate, Trevor Adams, was a relatively rare example of someone higher up the alphabet losing out to a same party colleague lower down. He’ll be hoping for better luck as a standalone candidate this time. Three other candidates – Gunn, Harvie and Redpath – are also reprising their May 2017 roles. The full list of candidates is;

  • Trevor Adams (Conservatives)
  • Jack Clark (Liberal Democrats)
  • Kenneth Gunn (Independent)
  • Barbara Harvie (Green)
  • John Mitchell (SNP)
  • Caroline Penman (Independent)
  • Scott Redpath (Labour)

For an indication of who might win the seat, we can re-calculate the results of the 2017 election for only one seat.

The top half of the chart shows the first preferences last year, as well as the party of the successfully elected councillors. There’s a pretty commanding Conservative lead, with 42.1% of the first preferences. There’s also a very clear lead for the combined Tory effort throughout the count. However, combined with exhausted votes, not enough of the 2nd candidate’s votes would have transferred to Michelle Ballantyne to make quota even when it was just her and the SNP’s Elaine Thornton-Nicol left in the race. With only one Conservative to vote for in the by-election, we’ll likely see less of that kind of effect, but it’s somewhat remarkable that even in the Borders the Conservatives couldn’t creak past 50% of the overall vote after it is whittled down to them and the SNP.

Despite the quirks highlighted above, I’d be relatively comfortable in calling this by-election for the Conservatives if it falls along typical partisan lines. The 2017 result may have required every other candidate to drop out to make quota if run as one seat, but they were still miles ahead of anyone else. Their position in each of the parliamentary seats that cover the ward is extremely comfortable, with vote shares over 50%. The Borders has very much become the biggest stronghold of the revived Scottish Conservatives, and I’d be surprised if this by-election was where the tide began to turn back against them. However, the independent Caroline Penman is apparently quite a prominent local figure – for example, being honoured for services to Selkirk in November. In areas that have strong tradition of independent representation like the Borders, predicting the impact of a specific independent would be a fool’s game; but she’s quite likely in with a chance at winning the seat. That could be the contest that matters, rather than Conservative vs SNP.