Previewing the Perth City council by-elections (26 Nov)

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

Two local by-elections on 26th November 2020:

Perth City North; and
Perth City South

Perth and Kinross council; caused respectively by the resignation of Dave Doogan, who is now the MP for Angus, and by the death of Bob Band. Both were Scottish National Party councillors.

Welcome to the Fair City of Perth, the gateway to the Highlands and the northern end of the UK’s motorway network. Perth has been a major city since the 12th century when King William the Lion gave it the status of a Royal Burgh; the city benefited from its location at the head of the Tay estuary and its closeness to Scone Abbey, one of the centres of the Scottish monarchy, to become a major port trading with continental Europe. Industry came in the eighteenth century, and in the Victorian era Perth developed into a major railway junction where main lines to Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness all met. Today there is a diverse economy with a significant financial services presence: the largest employers are the local council and the bus company Stagecoach, which is based here, and the city (formally re-created as such for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012) is a major service centre for the local area.

For electoral purposes the city is divided into three wards: the City Centre ward east of the railway lines, and the City North and City South wards to the west. These wards were originally drawn up for the 2007 elections to Perth and Kinross council and returned four councillors each; slight boundary changes for the 2017 election saw the North ward go down from four seats to three.

The North and South wards are rather different in character. South ward, running along the Glasgow Road to the Broxden roundabout, is based on Burghmuir which is Perth’s most desirable residential area. North ward is based on the Hillyland and Tulloch areas along the Crieff Road, which are much more downmarket; although there are some jobs within that ward at the Inveralmond industrial estate. Since 2017 the deprived Letham area has been divided between the two wards.

This social divide is reflected in the wards’ election results. In both the 2007 and 2012 elections North ward returned two SNP councillors and two Labour councillors. The boundary changes for the 2017 election shook things up a bit by removing one of the four councillors and some of the some best traditionally-Labour areas in Letham, and this combined with the crash in the Scottish Labour vote after the 2014 indyref to result in major changes. In May 2017 the Scottish National Party carried the ward again with 49% of the vote, and won 2 out of 3 seats; the Conservatives finished second on 26% and picked up a seat here for the first time; Labour crashed to just 16% and were shut out. The SNP’s Dave Doogan topped the poll with 35% of the first preferences, to win a second term as councillor.

Perth City South, on the other hand, is dominated politically by long-serving Liberal Democrat councillor Willie Wilson. Wilson has topped the poll here in all three ordinary elections, and he got a running-mate in at the 2007 election where the other two seats split between the Tories and SNP. Labour gained up one of the Liberal Democrat seats in 2012.

In May 2017 Willie Wilson, like Dave Doogan in the neighbouring ward, topped the poll in Perth City South with 35% of the first preferences. Had the Lib Dems stood a second candidate, 35% would have given them a good chance of winning 2 seats out of 4. The SNP polled 26%, the Conservatives 25% and Labour just 6%. Although Labour did pick up most of the unionist transfers, that was too far behind to come back from, and the SNP gained the Labour seat by 42 votes in the final count to win a second seat in South.

The Conservatives had changed candidate for the 2017 election, after their long-serving Perth City South councillor Alexander Stewart was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2016 (he represents the Mid Scotland and Fife region). In retrospect the Tories made a poor choice of candidate to replace Stewart in the council chamber. New councillor Michael Jamieson was forced to resign within months of his election, after police raided his home on suspicion of possession of indecent images. He subsequently pleaded guilty to that crime before Perth Sheriff Court, being spared prison in the final reckoning.

The resulting Perth City South by-election in November 2017 (which you can read about in Andrew’s Previews 2017, page 347) was very close. On first preferences the SNP led with 32%, the Conservatives were second on 31% and the Liberal Democrats were third on 29%. Transfers from Labour and the Greens enabled the Lib Dems to narrow the gap, but they were eliminated 29 votes behind the Conservatives and 150 votes behind the SNP. The Liberal Democrat transfers then broke in favour of new Tory candidate Audrey Coates, who overtook the SNP in the final count to hold the by-election by 52% to 48%, a majority of 154 votes.

So, South ward is very much game on with the November 2017 by-election suggesting that three parties have a genuine chance of winning. This South ward by-election follows the death in March of SNP councillor Bob Band, who had served the ward since 2007; he was 72 years old and had been suffering from cancer. The council intend to keep councillor Band’s name alive in the ward by naming part of the new Perth High School building after him.

The 2017 elections to Perth and Kinross council returned 17 Conservatives, 15 Scottish Nationalists, 4 Lib Dems, 3 independents and a Labour councillor (for the unlikely-looking Labour area of Carse of Gowrie). The Tories run the council as a minority, and that is unlikely to change as a result of these by-elections. Both North and South wards are part of the Perth and North Perthshire parliamentary constituency, which was a photofinish in June 2017 when the SNP’s Pete Wishart was re-elected just 21 votes ahead of the Conservatives; Wishart won a further term much more comfortably in December 2019. The local Holyrood seat, Perthshire South and Kinross-shire, is represented by the Nationalists’ Roseanna Cunningham, who has been the MSP or MP for Perth continuously since winning the Perth and Kinross by-election in May 1995; this makes Cunningham the longest continuously-serving current parliamentarian in Scotland. She will retire from Holyrood next year.

Defending Band’s seat for the SNP is Iain Macpherson, who has worked in counselling and social work. The Conservatives, who won the November 2017 by-election, have selected local businessman Andy Chan. The Liberal Democrats, who topped the poll here in May 2017, have reselected Liz Barrett who was their candidate in the November 2017 by-election. Also standing for Perth City South are Tricia Duncan for Labour, former SNP councillor Elspeth MacLachlan for the Greens and Lynda Davis for UKIP. Usual Scottish reminders apply: Votes at 16 and all that jazz, and – after it made all the difference three years ago – the Alternative Vote will again be in use.

The SNP should have an easier time defending Perth City North, where their defending candidate is businessman Ian Massie. The Conservatives have selected Aziz Rehman, won runs two takeaway businesses. The Labour candidate is Nicola Ferry, a trade union youth officer who works in the postal service. Also standing are James Graham for the Lib Dems and Paul Vallot for the Green Party, who will presumably be hoping that the voters fill out the top of their ballot for Vallot.

Perth City North

Parliamentary constituency: Perth and North Perthshire
Scottish Parliament constituency: Perthshire South and Kinross-shire
Postcode district: PH1

Nicola Ferry (Lab)
James Graham (LD)
Ian Massie (SNP)
Aziz Rehman (C)
Paul Vallot (Grn)

May 2017 first preferences SNP 1770 C 933 Lab 577 LD 126 Ind 113 Ind 91 Ind 37

Perth City South

Parliamentary constituency: Perth and North Perthshire
Scottish Parliament constituency: Perthshire South and Kinross-shire
Postcode districts: PH1, PH2

Liz Barrett (LD)
Andy Chan (C)
Lynda Davis (UKIP)
Tricia Duncan (Lab)
Elspeth MacLachlan (Grn)
Iain Macpherson (SNP)

November 2017 by-election SNP 1780 C 1734 LD 1597 Lab 314 Grn 102 Ind 25; final C 2381 SNP 2227
May 2017 first preferences LD 2417 SNP 1793 C 1757 Lab 444 Ind 253 Grn 213 Ind 96

Review of the Year

The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?

The Germans and Scandinavians know how to celebrate the New Year. As well as all the drunkenness and festivity you might expect, the television broadcasts a very old comedy sketch called Der 90. Geburtstag or, as the original English title has it, Dinner for One. Every New Year’s Eve half of all Germans tune in to watch this piece of quintessentially British nostalgia, in the original English.

As time goes on a number of people, not least James the butler, have asked whether this sketch has outstayed its welcome? The answer from the public and Miss Sophie is always no. As time goes on a number of people, not least James the butler, have asked whether it is appropriate to keep doing the same thing over and over again? The answer from the public and Miss Sophie is always yes, and deal with the consequences yourself.

This is the last Andrew’s Previews of the year, and the tradition of this column is to mark that occasion by summing up the old year, looking forward to the new and expressing the wish that the new year be better than the old. For some years now, in writing these pieces I have wrestled with the question as to whether it is appropriate to keep making that wish over and over again. Can we reasonably expect the coming year to be an improvement on the last?

The previous time I considered that question was in the 2019 annual review, following my article on the undercard to the December general election. Yes, it’s still less than a year ago that Boris Johnson won his majority. In that one week I previewed 34 local by-elections, as well as noting three unopposed City of London aldermanic elections the following week.

That’s 37 polls in one Preview; more than have occurred in the twelve months since. Perth City North and South are the 35th, 36th and final by-elections of 2020. We all know the reasons for that, and I don’t propose to dwell on the old year any further on the principle of “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything”.

So let’s look forward to the New Year, starting from the premise that at some point the insanity has to stop. The important date to note in your diary is the next ordinary local elections scheduled for Thursday 6th May 2021, which look set to be possibly the most complicated set of local elections aver staged in the UK. All of Great Britain will go to the polls, and the vast majority of voters will have multiple ballot papers to juggle and multiple electoral systems to tackle. In London, the Mayor and Assembly will be up for election; in the rest of England, the county councils, the Police and Crime Commissioners (or their Greater Manchester equivalent, the Mayor), and those district councils which elect by thirds will hold elections; in Wales there will be polls for Senedd Cymru together with the Police and Crime Commissioners; and in Scotland voters will elect their new members of the Scottish Parliament. And combined with all of those will be hundreds of local by-elections, as the floodgates which have held local democracy back during the pandemic are finally opened. Your columnist’s list of casual vacancies already stretches to over 260 council seats, and there is plenty of time for that list to be added to over the next six months. The prospect of organising all this is no doubt already causing some returning officers to wake up in the middle of the night.

And that all needs organising against the backdrop of the current emergency. The Scottish Government, being cognisant of its responsibilities, has introduced a bill to Holyrood setting out a number of contingency plans for the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. Options set out in the bill include an all-postal election, extending polling over multiple days, not dissolving the current Parliament until the day before polling day in case a decision needs to be voted on at the last moment, and the nuclear option of postponing the election by up to six months (this option is at the discretion of the Presiding Officer, with the paperwork to be kept in a box marked “in case of emergencies break glass”). The bit about MSPs remaining in office during the election campaign has caused some raising of eyebrows, but local councillors (who normally remain in office until the fourth day after their successors are elected) will be well used to the concept of being subject to an elected representatives’ code of conduct while seeking re-election.

The Scottish Government may appear from your columnist’s vantage point to be sat in Miss Sophie’s chair, looking serene and in control of events; but by contrast the UK government give the impression of going out of their way to trip themselves up. English local government has been distracted from dealing with the emergency by being sent round and round in circles over further proposed bouts of reorganisation, which would inevitably result in the most remote local government in Europe becoming even more remote.

The reason for this, of course, is money. A decade of local government cuts, combined with the pandemic destroying the income streams of many local councils, has left our town halls in dire financial straits. My own council lost millions of pounds from its budget overnight when the holding company for Manchester Airport scrapped its dividend. Last November this column discussed Croydon town centre, which at the time (Andrew’s Previews 2019, page 347) was slated for a massive redevelopment that has since fallen through. Croydon council had sunk millions of pounds into buying commercial and office space in the town centre and emptying it in advance of that redevelopment, and are now left with a large property portfolio that is no longer worth what they paid for it and isn’t generating any rent. Earlier this month Croydon became the first local authority for two years to issue a section 114 notice, banning all non-essential spending. They are unlikely to be the only council to run out of money in the near future.

Over the border in Wales, Senedd Cymru has recently passed a local government reform bill which would allow Welsh local councils to merge and reorganise fairly easily. The bill also makes changes to Welsh local elections going forward, including extending the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds, allowing councils to adopt a proportional voting system (the 2027 local elections are the earliest point at which this could be introduced), and officially extending council terms in Wales from four years to five.

One thing you can guarantee from the 2021 local and devolved elections is that the results will be confusing, not least because of the multiple timelines. For some councils (those whose elections got postponed from this year) the comparison is with May 2016, when the two main parties were very close to each other in the results; for others (mainly the county councils and some of the metro mayors) the comparison is with May 2017 whose local elections were generally a big win for Theresa May’s Conservatives. If the opinion polling is to be believed, the current political profile is somewhere closer to 2016 than to 2017, which suggests that the Conservatives will need to improve their position somewhat to hold their own in the county councils. There’s plenty of time before May for things to change, of course.

There’s also plenty of time before May for you to remember happier times with a read of those nice paperback volumes in fetching teal covers. The four Andrew’s Previews books are all available now to buy from Amazon, and if you are reading and enjoying this column then any one (or more) of them would make an excellent Christmas present for you. You can order the 2019 edition here. The forthcoming 2020 edition is likely to be slimmer than previous years’ compilations, but there will also be some bonus material in it to make it worth your while. As always, the royalties from the books will help to pay for future previews.

And with a bit of luck and a following wind, this column will be ready in good time before 6 May to set the scene for Britain Elects readers, as the electoral cycle restarts and Andrew’s Previews does (subject to the demands of the public, the Britain Elects team and Miss Sophie) the same procedure as every year.

The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
The same procedure as every year, James!

Well, I shall do my very best. Before then, the mulligatawny is bubbling on the hob, the haddock is cooking in the oven and the white wine is cooling in the fridge: it’s time for yet another of my own personal Dinners for One as Andrew’s Previews goes back on furlough for the winter. It is time to close down for the year in the form of words which has become traditional. This column will return in time for the first local by-elections of 2021, currently scheduled for North Lanarkshire on 4th March; until then, on behalf of all at Britain Elects may I wish you a very merry Christmas, and may your 2021 be an improvement on your 2020.

Andrew Teale