Previewing the Clackmannanshire East by-election (19 Nov)

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

There were going to be three local by-elections on 19th November 2020; however, two polls scheduled in North Lanarkshire have been postponed at the last moment due to increased restrictions. That leaves one election today, which has appeared in Andrew’s Previews before:

Clackmannanshire East

Clackmannanshire council; caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Bill Mason.

It’s time for what is becoming the annual trip to the Wee County on the north bank of the Firth of Forth. For the third year in a row, Clackmannanshire council is having a by-election.

The returning officer here is used to having to hold by-elections in trying circumstances. A March 2018 by-election in the county’s North ward (Andrew’s Previews 2018, page 89) took place on the 1st of the month, which may be recognised by the Met Office as the first day of spring but was blighted by exceptionally heavy snowfall. This by-election was originally scheduled for 19th March 2020, and a Preview appeared for it at the time, but the poll was cancelled at the last moment due to the onset of coronavirus.

Eight long months later we now have a second attempt at filling the vacancy in the Clackmannanshire East ward, which is based on the towns of Clackmannan and Dollar. Clackmannan may have given its name to a county but it’s a pretty small place, with a population under 3,500. Originally it was a port on the River Black Devon, a tributary of the Forth; but centuries of silting-up mean that the river is now more than a mile away from the town centre. In mediaeval times Clackmannan was associated the Bruce family, who fortified it with the building of Clackmannan Tower. That structure no longer exists today.

Further up in the hills is Dollar, a village whose name may come from a Gaelic word meaning “dark” or “gloomy”; appropriate for the trying times in which we live. By coincidence or otherwise, Dollar is home to Castle Gloom, a 500-year-old building officially called Castle Campbell which was built as a Lowland centre for the Dukes of Argyll. Along with Muckhart, which was transferred into Clacks from Perthshire in 1971, Dollar forms one of the Hillfoots Villages along the A93 road from Stirling towards Fife.

Much of this ward has a coalmining history. In 2003 Labour carried the two wards based on Clackmannan while Dollar and Muckhart was the only part of the Wee County to return a Conservative councillor, Alastair Campbell. The creation of this ward for the 2007 election along with proportional representation enabled the SNP to get a look-in, and the nationalists actually topped the poll in Clackmannanshire East at the 2007 and 2012 elections.

For the May 2017 election the Conservatives took over the lead with 42% of the vote, against 30% for the SNP and 20% for Labour; however, the seat count remained at one councillor for each party. Alastair Campbell stood down and Bill Mason took over as the ward’s Conservative councillor. If the Conservatives had stood two candidates they would have had a good chance of winning two seats here; as it was, Labour won the final seat a massive 468 votes ahead of the Liberal Democrats, with an SNP surplus of 204 left undistributed at the end. As usual, Allan Faulds at the Ballot Box Scotland blog has got his slide-rule out to see what would have happened if the May 2017 votes were for a single seat: the answer is a big win for Mason, with a 59-41 lead over the SNP after redistributions.

The Nationalists are the largest party on Clackmannanshire council, winning eight seats in the 2017 election to five each for Labour and the Conservatives. The SNP have successfully defended two by-elections since then, and if they can gain this by-election from the Tories they will hold half of the 18 seats on the council.

The Wee County is part of the Ochil and South Perthshire parliamentary seat, which has unseated its MP at each of the three general elections over the last five years. Labour’s Gordon Banks lost in 2015 to the SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, who lost in 2017 to the Tories’ Luke Graham, who lost in 2019 to the SNP’s John Nicolson. Clackmannanshire has a longer SNP pedigree in the Scottish Parliament, the party having represented it since 2003 (currently as part of the Clackmannanshire and Dunblane seat).

Bill Mason has stood down on health grounds halfway through his five-year term, prompting this by-election. Five candidates were originally nominated for the aborted March by-election, and four of them have been renominated this time round. Defending for the Conservatives is Denis Coyne, a business advisor from Dollar. The SNP candidate is Stephen Leitch, a community councillor in Dollar. Labour have selected Carolynne Hunter, a former software engineer and now full-time carer for her disabled daughter. The Lib Dems have changed candidate to Jim Hay, and Marion Robertson (who stood here in May 2017) completes the ballot paper for the Scottish Greens.

Parliamentary constituency: Ochil and South Perthshire
Scottish Parliament constituency: Clackmannanshire and Dunblane

Denis Coyne (C)
Jim Hay (LD)
Carolynne Hunter (Lab)
Stephen Leitch (SNP)
Marion Robertson (Grn)

May 2017 first preferences C 1452 SNP 1055 Lab 706 LD 151 Grn 132

If you liked this preview, there are plenty more like it in the Andrew’s Previews books. The 2019 edition is out now and available from Amazon.

Andrew Teale