Previewing the Ellon and District by-election (15 Oct)

“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order”

There is one local by-election on 15th October 2020:

Ellon and District

Aberdeenshire council; caused by the resignation of Scottish National Party councillor Richard Thomson, who is now the Member of Parliament for Gordon. He had served since 2012.

Have you missed party politics? Well, frankly it would be a welcome distraction from the disaster we have to put up with at the moment. And if you have missed party political elections then this is your lucky day. The waiting is over. 30 weeks after our last party political election in Coventry, local by-elections are back. Welcome to Aberdeenshire.

For this week’s single poll we have come to Ellon, a town of around 10,000 souls located sixteen miles north of Aberdeen on the River Ythan. In case you’re fed up of islands after the last two weeks’ offshore Previews, there is no relief here because Ellon is named after an island in the Ythan; the name comes from Eilean, the Gaelic word for “island”. The island formed a place where the Ythan could be forded at the head of its estuary, and a town sprang up. This is the main town in the agricultural Formartine area, but Ellon itself has become a dormitory town for Aberdeen and many of its jobs are underpinned by the North Sea oil industry. The ward associated with Ellon takes in a large number of villages, of which possibly the largest is Newburgh further down the estuary.

The list of famous people associated with Ellon is an eclectic one. In sport we have Paul Sturrock, an Ellon-born striker who was capped 20 times for Scotland; he spent the whole of a stellar playing career with Dundee United before going into football club management in Scotland and England, with some success. In music we have the percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, who attended the local secondary school (now called Ellon Academy). In business we have the noted publicity-seekers Brewdog, a brewery and pub chain which has been based in Ellon since 2012. Their Punk IPA is one of the UK’s bestselling craft beers, while the company has also hit the front pages with a number of claims on the “strongest beer ever made” record. Brewdog have noisily done their bit for the current emergency by reworking their production lines to make hand sanitiser for the local hospitals.

Perhaps some of that hand sanitiser might be useful for a recovering COVID patient associated with Ellon and District, who makes Brewdog look like amateurs when it comes to attracting publicity. An American TV personality and businessman called Donald Trump bought a plot of sand dunes partially within the ward boundary in 2006, with the intention of building the world’s best golf course. The Trump International Golf Links development was thrown out by Aberdeenshire council’s planning committee, but subsequently granted permission following a Scottish government inquiry at which Trump himself testified. The golf course opened in 2012 notwithstanding a tantrum thrown by the Donald over an offshore windfarm development near the site; the resulting legal action ended up in the UK Supreme Court, which after due consideration rejected Trump’s case in 2015.

As we all know, Donald Trump subsequently entered a different sphere, becoming yet another controversial politician from the country which once gave us a controversial Congressional candidate described as a “wacky alt-scientist who believes urine holds the secret to human life extension”. Here in what is for now the United Kingdom, it’s a bit more difficult for outright weirdos like that to get electoral traction; but that doesn’t mean we don’t have controversial politicians, of course.

Since 1983 Ellon has been part of the Gordon parliamentary constituency, which is still named after a local government district which was abolished in 1996. Gordon was a Liberal Democrat seat until 2015, when it was gained by Alex Salmond who rode the SNP wave into Parliament as the Nationalists won 56 Scottish seats out of a possible 59. Salmond can take some credit for that Nationalist landslide, having served as First Minister from 2007 until 2014 and having led the SNP on and off since 1990. He had represented Gordon (and its successor seat, Aberdeenshire East) in the Scottish Parliament since 2007; in May 2015 Salmond won the Gordon parliamentary seat on a 14-point swing from the Lib Dems, and became the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesman in Westminster.

Back in May 2007, on the same day that Alex Salmond became an MSP there was an election to Aberdeenshire council, the first under the proportional representation system used for Scottish local government. In 2003 the SNP had carried the single-member Ellon Town ward but the three wards covering the rural areas around Ellon had all voted Lib Dem, and that was reflected in the candidate list for the new ward of Ellon and District. The Lib Dems had two candidates for the four available seats, with the other major parties nominating one candidate each. This decision backfired badly on the SNP, as their candidate Rob Merson topped the poll with 41% against 32% for the two Lib Dem candidates. A second Nationalist candidate would have stood a very good chance of election; instead the Lib Dems won two seats with the SNP and Conservatives getting one each.

No such mistake was made in 2012, as the SNP polled 50% of the first preferences and easily gained a second seat from the Lib Dems. The additional SNP councillor was Richard Thomson, who two years previously had come second to the long-serving Lib Dem MP Sir Malcolm Bruce in the 2010 Westminster general election for Gordon. In that poll Richard did finish well ahead of his near-namesake Ross Thomson, a young Conservative who subsequently had a controversial time in the Scottish Parliament and later the House of Commons from 2016 to 2019.

The May 2017 election to Aberdeenshire council was the first hint of what was to come in the general election five weeks later. It’s one of those occasions where a picture paints a thousand words:

Across Aberdeenshire district, the Conservatives polled 40% of the first preferences against 28% for the SNP and 14% for the Liberal Democrats. It’s fair to say that the Aberdeenshire Conservatives either didn’t see this result coming or didn’t believe it was coming. With favourable transfers, they would have had a chance of an overall majority on the 70-seat council – but the party had only nominated 23 candidates among the 21 wards, and all 23 of them were elected with lots of room to spare. The SNP did not benefit from this undernomination because of the transferable-vote system: the Conservative vote here was strongly Unionist, and in nearly every ward their spare transfers went on to pull Liberal Democrat or independent candidates over the line ahead of the Nationalist slate.

Ellon and District was about the only exception to this pattern. Long-serving Conservative councillor Gillian Owen topped the poll with 41% of the vote and was elected on the first count, the SNP candidates Richard Thomson and Anouk Kahanov-Kloppert had 32% between them, and outgoing Lib Dem councillor Isobel Davidson started just a few votes short of the 20% required for election. The Tory surplus went strongly to Davidson, and the Lib Dem surplus then went strongly to the Labour candidate John Morgan. Labour had started on 7.5% of the vote, which in the end was too far behind to come back from; Morgan can consider himself unlucky to have ended up eight votes behind Kahanov-Kloppert in the final count. The seat count in Ellon and District remained at 2 SNP, 1 Conservative and 1 Lib Dem.

The blue tide in Aberdeenshire may not have affected the second nationalist seat in Ellon; but five weeks later it swept away Alex Salmond, who lost the Gordon parliamentary seat to the Conservative candidate Colin Clark on a similar swing of 20 percentage points. Clark subsequently resigned his seat on Aberdeenshire council and the Conservatives held the resulting by-election in Inverurie. (You can read about that contest in Andrew’s Previews 2017, page 283.) When the December 2019 general election rolled around Salmond couldn’t try and make one more political comeback because he was awaiting trial on rape and sexual assault charges (of which he was subsequently acquitted); Ellon councillor Richard Thomson returned as SNP candidate for Gordon, and defeated Clark on a 3% swing with a slim majority of 819 votes.

The SNP go into next year’s Holyrood elections defending a larger majority in the local Aberdeenshire East constituency. At the last Scottish Parliament elections in 2016 the SNP’s Gillian Martin had held Alex Salmond’s former seat with a 5,837 majority over Conservative candidate Colin Clark. Also on the ballot in Aberdeenshire East that year was Lib Dem candidate Christine Jardine, who the following year was elected as MP for Edinburgh West.

This by-election will be closely watched as it’s only the third party political by-election in Scotland since the 2019 general election, following a Conservative hold in Galloway in January and an independent hold on the Isle of Skye on 12th March. (One thing that stuck out when I did the research for that Skye poll was that four of the six candidates worked or had worked in the accommodation/hospitality industry; goodness knows what experience they’ve had since.) As it’s a Scottish local by-election the Alternative Vote is in effect, and on the basis of the May 2017 result that should favour the Conservatives who in May 2017 would have won Ellon and District 61-39 after transfers in a straight fight with the SNP. We can take that as the par score, so the Nationalists have an uphill struggle in holding their seat.

Defending for the SNP is Louise McAllister, the vice-chair of the Ellon community council; she is a humanist celebrant. Hoping to clean up at the polls is the Conservative challenger John Crawley, who has travelled the world in the Royal Navy and now runs a power washing business in Ellon. The Liberal Democrats have selected Trevor Mason, who has lived in Ellon for 36 years and is chair of the community council. Completing the ballot paper are two candidates from further afield: John Bennett (from Stonehaven) for Labour and Peter Kennedy (from Aberdeen) for the Scottish Green Party.

There will now be a two-week circuit break before we come to the next local by-election, which will take place in Aberdeen on Thursday 5th November. Expect fireworks for that one.

Parliamentary constituency: Gordon (almost all)
Scottish Parliament constituency: Aberdeenshire East
ONS Travel to Work Areas: Aberdeen (most), Peterhead (eastern part)
Postcode districts: AB23, AB41, AB42

John Bennett (Lab)
John Crawley (C)
Peter Kennedy (Grn)
Trevor Mason (LD)
Louise McAllister (SNP)

May 2017 first preferences C 2258 SNP 1755 LD 1087 Lab 415
May 2012 first preferences SNP 2118 C 705 LD 689 Lab 399 Ind 300
May 2007 first preferences SNP 2458 LD 1931 C 872 Lab 456 Ind 352

Andrew Teale