Previewing the Kincorth/Nigg/Cove council by-election

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

There is one local by-election on 5th November 2020:

Kincorth/Nigg/Cove

Aberdeen council; caused by the resignation of Scottish National Party councillor Stephen Flynn, who is now the Member of Parliament for Aberdeen South. He had served since 2012.

Welcome to what’s scheduled to be a relatively busy November in terms of local by-elections, with seven polls pencilled in the diary. All of these are in Scotland, and in five of them the Scottish National Party are the defending party.

As is the case today. We’ve come to the southern end of the city of Aberdeen, to a ward of suburbs and villages on the southern side of the River Dee. Kincorth lies on the southern side of the Dee valley running down to the Bridge of Dee; this was traditionally one of the main entry points into Aberdeen from points south, although the completion of the Western Peripheral Road has hopefully removed a lot of traffic from this congested crossing. On the far side of the Kincorth and Tullos Hills lies Cove Bay, a rapidly-expanding village whose name was added to the ward in 2013. Large industrial estates at Tullos and Altens provide jobs for the locals; employers located here include Royal Dutch Shell, the former Grampian Television, Royal Mail (whose Aberdeen sorting office is here) and the newly-promoted League One football team Cove Rangers. The whole area was incorporated into Aberdeen in 1975, having previously been part of Kincardineshire.

This ward was created in 2007 under the name of Kincorth/Loirston, and originally returned three members of Aberdeen city council. In the 2007 election these seats split one each between Labour’s Neil Cooney, the SNP’s Callum McCaig and the Lib Dems’ Katharine Dean. Dean had previously been councillor for the single-member Loirston ward, while Cooney and McCaig were new faces; particularly so in the case of McCaig, who at the time was a 22-year-old student reading politics at Edinburgh.

McCaig found himself in a ruling party, because the Liberal Democrats and SNP formed a coalition to run Aberdeen. Two by-elections in 2011 meant that the Nationalists overtook the Lib Dems to become the largest party on the city council; the Lib Dem council leader stood down, and Callum McCaig – who had taken over as SNP group leader just a month previously – found himself as leader of the council. He was 26 years old.

The Lib Dem vote collapsed across Aberdeen in the 2012 elections, and their councillor Kate Dean lost her seat in Kincorth/Loirston. Her transfers gave the final seat to independent candidate Andrew Finlayson, who finished comfortably ahead of the second Labour candidate. McCaig and Cooney were both re-elected. McCaig was, however, shut out of the leadership this time as Labour formed an administration to run Aberdeen with Conservative and independent support.

Then came the independence referendum and the subsequent realignment in Scottish politics. The 2015 general election saw the SNP almost sweep the board in Scotland, and one of the seats to fall was Aberdeen South where the party went from fourth to first. Callum McCaig found himself as the first SNP MP for the constituency, defeating the Labour incumbent Dame Anne Begg on a swing of almost 20%. He promptly resigned his seat on Aberdeen city council, and the resulting by-election in Kincorth/Loirston in July 2015 was a huge win for the SNP whose new candidate Stephen Flynn was elected on the first count with 61% of the vote. Labour finished in a poor second with just 19%.

McCaig must have thought he had a guaranteed five years in Westminster; but as it turned out the indyref was only the start of a hugely volatile period of politics. We can illustrate this by looking at the career of the candidate who finished third in Aberdeen South in 2015, a Conservative twentysomething and Aberdeen city councillor called Ross Thomson. In the May 2016 Holyrood elections Thomson finished second in the local seat of Aberdeen South and North Kincardine, behind Maureen Watt of the SNP, and was elected to the Scottish Parliament from third place on the Conservative list for North East Scotland.

Ross Thomson immediately came to prominence as one of the few members of the Scottish Parliament to support a Leave vote in the EU membership referendum. When Theresa May called her snap general election for June 2017, Thomson was reselected as Conservative candidate for Aberdeen South and he defeated Callum McCaig on a swing of 15%. Aged 32, McCaig was now an ex-council leader and ex-MP seeking new employment. (He subsequently became a special adviser to Nicola Sturgeon.)

Ross Thomson’s performance was a good one given that the SNP had clearly won the Aberdeen city council election a month earlier, winning 19 seats against 11 Conservatives, 9 Labour, 4 Lib Dems and two independents. However, that didn’t get the Nationalists into the administration, because the Conservatives, Labour and independents formed a coalition to run Aberdeen with Lib Dem support. This coalition agreement did not go down well with the national Labour party leadership, which suspended the party memberships of the entire Aberdeen Labour group. They are yet to be reinstated.

Following a boundary review and strong population growth, Kincorth/Nigg/Cove ward was awarded a fourth councillor for the May 2017 election on unchanged boundaries. Stephen Flynn of the SNP was re-elected at the top of the poll, and the party’s 41% share of the vote gave them two seats; the Conservatives finished second with 22% to win a seat here for the first time, and Labour won the final seat with 18% of the vote. Outgoing independent councillor Andy Finlayson polled 11% and lost his seat, finishing as runner-up 85 votes behind the lead Labour candidate Sarah Duncan. If the count had been conducted for one seat, Flynn would have beaten Conservative Philip Sellar by a margin of 61% to 39%.

Unlike Callum McCaig, Ross Thomson couldn’t have expected a guaranteed five years in the Commons given the precarious arithmetic in the 2017 parliament. However, as one of the relatively few Hard Brexiteers in the Scottish Conservative caucus, and as the Scottish manager of Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, Thomson must have thought he was doing the right things to get further up the greasy pole. Unfortunately, he had also racked up enemies and controversies; and a series of allegations of sexual misconduct in House of Commons bars prompted his constituency association to pull the plug. Thomson was not reselected for the 2019 general election. Aged 32, he was now an ex-MSP and ex-MP seeking new employment. (The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards subsequently cleared him of any misconduct.)

Thomson’s fall from grace left Aberdeen South as an open seat, and the Scottish National Party subsequently won it back in the December 2019 general election. Stephen Flynn became the seat’s third new MP in five years, pulling off a 10% swing to win the constituency with a majority of 3,990 votes. Like McCaig before him, Flynn resigned from Aberdeen city council expecting a few years on the green benches. This by-election to replace Flynn was originally pencilled in for 14th May, but that earlier date fell victim to COVID.

We continue with the youthful theme of this week’s column, as the defending SNP candidate is 24-year-old Miranda Radley. A recent Aberdeen University graduate, Radley is a caseworker for the Aberdeen North MP Kirsty Blackman.

The Conservatives have selected Christopher Wyles, a brass bandsman and former police call handler who now works at Robert Gordon University. Labour have selected Shona Simpson, the Lady Provost of Aberdeen (her husband is the Lord Provost, Barney Crockett); Simpson was the Labour candidate in Aberdeen South at the December general election, finishing fourth and last with 8% of the vote.

For some reason this by-election has attracted a large amount of interest and the ballot paper will be a long one. Four independent candidates have been nominated, headed by Andy Finlayson who was a NIMBY councillor for this ward from 2012 to 2017. The other three are (in alphabetical order) Lisette Bellizzi Houston, Sochima Iroh and Simon McLean. The Lib Dem candidate is Moira Henderson, Daniel Verhamme stands for the Scottish Green Party, and Bryce Hope completes the ballot paper as the candidate of the Libertarian Party. The usual reminders: this is a Scottish local election so Votes at 16 and the Alternative Vote apply, and the count will commence at 1pm on Friday afternoon in the Kincorth Sports Centre within the ward.

Parliamentary constituency: Aberdeen South
Scottish Parliament constituency: Aberdeen South and North Kincardine
Postcode districts: AB10, AB11, AB12

Lisette Bellizzi Houston (Ind)
Andy Finlayson (Ind)
Moira Henderson (LD)
Bryce Hope (Libtn)
Sochima Iroh (Ind)
Simon McLean (Ind)
Miranda Radley (SNP)
Shona Simpson (Lab)
Daniel Verhamme (Grn)
Christopher Wyles (C)

May 2017 first preferences SNP 2103 C 1113 Lab 908 Ind 562 LD 270 Ind 220
July 2015 by-election SNP 1939 Lab 606 C 313 LD 207 Grn 114
May 2012 first preferences Lab 1541 SNP 1389 Ind 471 LD 331 C 219 Ind 120
May 2007 first preferences Lab 1910 SNP 1883 LD 1429 C 423 Ind 179 Solidarity 58

Andrew Teale