Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh (Highland) By-Election, 06/12/18

We’re taking a return trip to the Highlands for next month’s by-election in Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh. Just north of the Caol and Mallaig ward that already had a by-election this year, this one has come about following Lib Dem councillor Kate Stephen’s resignation. Although Stephen was first elected to the ward in 2017, she had served as a councillor for Culloden and Ardersier in the previous term. Stephen was elected as the fourth and final councillor for the ward – and was less than 2% ahead of the Greens by that stage of the count, making this seem like a tough one to win at first glance.

Of the 21 wards in the council area, Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh is the example par excellence of how broken local democracy in the Highlands is. Not only is this the largest electoral ward in the UK, it is by itself larger than 27 of Scotland’s 32 councils. It accounts for almost a fifth of Highland council’s entire area and – as people quite like to compare the Highlands to whole countries – is about sizes with Trinidad and Tobago. This absolutely huge ward can be thought of as a triangle with points at Strathpeffer, a bit beyond Ullapool, and Kyle of Lochalsh. These are the largest settlements in the ward, but still only account for about a third of the population, with the rest scattered widely across that vast area.

At Holyrood, most of the ward sits in the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency, with the Lochalsh portion being in Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch. Both constituencies are held by the SNP, as is the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency at Westminster, which includes the ward in its entirety. All of these areas were strongholds for the Liberal Democrats (or their predecessors) from the 80’s up until the SNP’s meteoric rise from 2011, with the Westminster constituency having been represented by the late Charles Kennedy.

The boundaries of the ward are the same as in 2007, when the four seats broke down two independent, one SNP, and one Lib Dem. That pattern held in 2012, but last year as part of their surge the Conservatives displaced one of the independents. It’s notable that the remaining independent, Biz Campbell, had been elected as the Lib Dem in 2007 and 2012, but resigned from the party almost immediately after the election in 2012. Richard Greene, who was the other independent for those 10 years, is seeking to make a comeback this time around. He’ll be re-joined on the ballot paper by the SNP’s 2nd candidate Alex MacInnes and Labour’s Christopher Birt. MacInnes also carried the baton for the SNP in the Caol and Mallaig by-election.

From elsewhere in the 2017 elections, former Lib Dem councillor for Aird and Loch Ness Jean Davis has put herself forward, whilst UKIP’s Les Durance could previously be found in Badenoch and Strathspey. Even the Libertarian Harry Christian is a familiar face, having stood in East Sutherland and Edderton. It’s quite a busy ballot paper, the full list of candidates being;

  • Gavin Berkenheger (Conservative)
  • Christopher Birt (Labour)
  • Irene Frances Brandt (Green)
  • Harry Christian (Libertarian)
  • Jean Davis (Independent)
  • Les Durance (UKIP)
  • Richard Greene (Independent)
  • Alexander MacInnes (SNP)
  • George Scott (Liberal Democrats)

The fact independents are so strong across the Highlands does make re-calculating the 2017 results for a single councillor somewhat tough, but compared to the other Highland by-election this ward wasn’t quite so heavily independent, so I’ve made a go of it anyway. The top half of the chart shows the first preferences last year, as well as the party of the successfully elected councillors. Transfer flows are on the bottom half. Remember that in a single seat election under STV, a candidate needs 50%+1 of the valid votes cast (a quota) to win.

Round 7 (final head-to-head stage):

  • Independent (Campbell) – 2204 (39.2%)
  • SNP – 1884 (33.5%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 1532 (27.3%)

Although the SNP led in first preferences last year, it’s perhaps unsurprising that with only around a quarter of the vote going to the party, transfers favoured one of the independents in the end. Given the Highland’s fondness for independents and the fact Richard Greene has already given the ward 10 year’s service, I’d suggest he probably has the best shot at it. Of course, not being local I can’t say whether he was just a victim of the Tory surge last year or there were other reasons for his failing to be re-elected.

And don’t write off the Lib Dems, even though they look miles behind on these figures. Remember they made quite a comeback in the neighbouring ward this April with an impressive 22% increase in their vote. I’m not convinced either the SNP or the Conservatives, despite reasonably strong showings last year, would be able to attract the transfers necessary, though the SNP would be in a better position to do so.

Call: Most likely an Independent, but watch the Lib Dems.