By-Election Preview: Wick and East Caithness (Highland) 12th of August 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

For the second of our trio of by-elections due on the 12th of August, we’re heading further north in the Highlands for Wick and East Caithness. Independent Councillor Nicola Sinclair has vacated her seat as she moves back into journalism, having first been elected in 2017.

Wick and East Caithness is one of 21 wards making up the Highland Council area, and one of two covering the historic county of Caithness, electing four councillors at a normal election. Accounting for most of the area of Caithness, it includes the entirety of the east coast from Newport through Lybster, the major burgh of Wick, Reiss and up to John o’ Groats, famed as Great Britain’s most north eastern point. There’s a sparsely populated inland area centred on Watten, plus the now-uninhabited Isle of Stroma.

At Holyrood, the ward is within the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency, which has been SNP held since 2011. On previous boundaries, it had been a Lib Dem seat, which has been the historic condition of the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross seat at the UK Parliament, barring a brief SNP interlude at the 2015 election.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

There were very substantial changes to the Caithness wards ahead of the 2017 election, where there had previously been separate wards for the major towns of Wick and Thurso plus a Landward Caithness ward for the rest. The review split the latter down the middle, merging each burgh in with some of the surrounding countryside. As such, there’s a bit of complexity for the first two STV-era elections.

If we look first at the Wick ward, the three councillors it elected in 2007 were two Independents and a Lib Dem. One of the Independents, Bill Fernie, led in terms of votes, and then Katrina MacNab’s resignation prompted a 2011 by-election that was won easily by the SNP’s Gail Ross. She was successfully re-elected in 2012 with a stonking vote share that ate away at Fernie’s vote but didn’t prevent his re-election, whilst the Lib Dem was displaced by a Labour councillor.

The Landward Caithness ward had four councillors, and in that first 2007 election plumped for one apiece from the Lib Dems and SNP, the former leading in vote terms, plus two Independents, Willie MacKay and Robert Coghill. The SNP councillor David Bremner was soon expelled from the group, but re-elected in 2012 as an Independent. The Lib Dems didn’t contest the ward in 2012 so it was effectively their seat he gained, with a fresh SNP councillor taking the fourth seat, and MacKay taking the vote lead.

The redrawn ward in 2017 saw two of the Wick councillors, Fernie and Labour’s Neil MacDonald, fail in their bids for re-election. Of the Landward councillors, only MacKay contested this ward, and was elected as the most popular candidate overall, not too far ahead of Nicola Sinclair. Amongst a very busy field of candidates, the Conservatives did the next best and also secured a councillor, with the fourth placed SNP taking the final seat in the ward.

Detailed 2017 Data

Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, and that chart just looks really chaotic with nine different candidates! In spite of that chaos, there’s a very neat division in who had the lead in each district. MacKay took the lead in every one of the districts that came from his former Landward ward, doing particularly well in Watten. He only squeaked ahead of the Conservatives by one vote in Lybster, however. Sinclair then had the lead in all of the Wick districts, especially in the east of the town.

The SNP’s strongest area appears to have been Newport, whilst Labour did best in John o’ Groats. That was also where a third Independent, Linda Malik did best. Former Wick councillor Bill Fernie naturally did best in Wick, specifically the northwest, which was also the final Independent candidate Catherine Patterson’s best area. Finally, the Lib Dems drew their most support from the northeast of Wick.

Looking at 2017’s second preferences, and we can see just how much the voters of this ward favour Independent candidates. Voters for six of the eight other candidates put Willie MacKay as their second preference, whilst MacKay’s voters themselves were most favourable to Bill Fernie.

The exceptions were Linda Malik’s voters, who favoured Nicola Sinclair, and the Lib Dems, who were most favourable to the Conservatives. Indeed, the latter were (narrowly) the only group of voters not to have a majority give a second preference to an independent, albeit they still totalled more than the preferences for parties, with sole votes making up the difference.

Candidates

Although we’ve got five candidates standing here, it’s not the Holyrood 5, as neither Labour nor the Greens opted to contest the by-election. Of the other major parties, there aren’t any returning faces as far as I can determine. That former Landward Caithness councillor, Bill Fernie, is back on the ballot in the hopes of regaining his seat. Libertarian Harry Christian stood just to the south in the East Sutherland and Edderton ward in 2017, as well as in both the Holyrood constituency and the regional list in May. 

Michael Cameron (SNP)
Harry Christian (Libertarian)
Bill Fernie (Independent)
Daniel Ross (Conservative)
Jill Tilt (Liberal Democrat)

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 2339 votes.

As you’d imagine given his lead in first preferences and strength amongst second preferences, MacKay would have won a single seat election, at 42.1% to Sinclair’s 37.6%. Since he’s obviously not in this by-election, we need to remove him – and the departing Sinclair, who’d have beaten the Conservatives 46.5% vs 25.7%. I’ve also removed non-contesting Independents and Labour early in the process too.

Stage 8 (final head-to-head stage); 

Fernie (Independent) - 1626 (34.8%)
Conservative - 1289 (27.6%)
Didn't Transfer - 1761 (37.7%)

With the two successful 2017 Independents removed, former councillor Bill Fernie undergoes a dramatic climb from sixth place to triumph over the Conservatives in this scenario. However, note that the Didn’t Transfers are the largest pile – most voters only use a small handful of their preferences, so when you’re eliminating this many candidates, exhausted ballots pile up. That won’t happen to the same degree in this by-election, and I think that’s going to be to Fernie’s benefit.

This is a part of the country that loves an Independent, and he’ll be a weel-kent face in much of the ward still, so that’ll give him a continuing edge over a new Conservative candidate. I wouldn’t write off an SNP surge either, if their candidate is popular – think back to how well Gail Ross did in the preceding Wick ward. All things considered though, I’d put Fernie as the favourite.

Call: Lean Independent.

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