Council by-election previews: 04 March 2021

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

Spring is in the air. The days are drawing longer. The skies have dried up and the sun occasionally shines. The daffodils are sprouting from the ground. Nature is reasserting itself.

Democracy is also returning to our attention. Welcome out of hibernation (or, as it’s called these days, furlough) to a new year of Andrew’s Previews, that weekly column for Britain Elects whose aims are amply summed in the above misquote from Eric Morecambe to the original Andrew Preview. As well as the UK set pieces of general elections, devolved parliament elections and the local government elections which take place every May, the meat and drink of this column is by-elections. These don’t just happen for vacancies in Parliament, and indeed tomorrow we will break the record for the streak of time between parliamentary by-elections: the last one was Brecon and Radnorshire in August 2019, and despite everything that has happened since every one of the 650 MPs elected in the December 2019 general election are still with us and still in post.

We are also in a record-breaking streak of time between local by-elections in England. The last poll to take place in England or Wales was a by-election to Coventry city council on 19th March 2020, at the start of the first lockdown. Since then we have only had occasional Scottish local by-elections to entertain us while the vacancy list in England and Wales has grown like topsy. After a year of electoral inactivity, your columnist’s latest count of vacancies in British local councils stands at over 390, of which at least 15 are a direct result of COVID-19. Some councils stand more than 10% short of their full membership. Once the notices for the 6th May elections are published at the end of this month, my estimate is that the final vacancy count will be somewhere between 450 and 500.

Even those May elections will not fully resolve this democratic deficit. Last week it was announced that the county and district council elections due this year in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset would be postponed by a year while a consultation takes place on local government reorganisation in those counties. The Cabinet minister responsible, Robert Jenrick, has defended this decision on the grounds that it would prevent councillors being elected for short terms, which is not a statement that stands up to scrutiny particularly well. Consider: at one end of the scale, every winner in this year’s Reading council elections will only serve a one-year term, because the whole of Reading council will come up for re-election in May 2022 on revised ward boundaries. At the other end of the scale, the eleven members of Craven district council in North Yorkshire who were elected in 2016 and were due for re-election in 2020 have already seen their terms extended by one year due to COVID, and are now to see their terms extended by a further year due to this consultation, and probably by a further year on top of that if reorganisation actually happens. That’s a four-year term extended to six years, potentially seven years, which is unfair on the councillors concerned and a denial of democracy to their constituents. All this when there’s not even an indication in any of these areas that there is a settled plan for what form reorganisation should take. Maybe the better option would have been to allow the local elections in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset to proceed and sort out the consequences afterwards.

In support of that opinion, your columnist would point out that there’s not even a financial saving to be made from postponing this year’s local elections in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset. The electoral services teams within those counties still have elections to organise in May regardless: those for the police and crime commissioners. These form just one part of the polls on the 6th May 2021 which will be the most complicated set of local elections ever staged. All the remaining county councils and the elections to the Senedd and the Scottish Parliament will be combined with everything held over from last year: the police and crime commissioners, most of the combined authority mayors, those English unitary and second-tier districts which hold elections by thirds or halves, and the Mayor and Assembly in Greater London. Once by-elections, parish councils and a few local referendums are added into that mix, we can see that most voters will have a large number of ballot papers to juggle and most counters will have a large number of ballot papers to separate before they can even start on the vote counting.

All of this, of course, has to be done under the terms of the current emergency which has occasioned some changes to the normal rules. If you are required to isolate at the time of the poll due to a COVID-related reason then you will qualify for an emergency proxy vote; your polling card will tell you how to organise that. The signature requirement for candidate nomination papers in England and Wales has been drastically reduced. The polling stations will be run in a safe manner; but if for whatever reason you don’t want to attend the polling station then you can apply for a postal vote, and I would recommend that you do that now and beat the rush.

Given the number of simultaneous elections involved, it will probably take a few days to finish the count. The Electoral Management Board for Scotland have already decided that they will not attempt an overnight count for the Scottish Parliament this year, and this column would expect many returning officers outwith Scotland to come to the same decision in organising their counts.

So this May’s counts will probably be a slow process, but accuracy is more important than speed and we can have confidence in the abilities and accuracy of our counting teams. A recent case in the Election Court has borne this out. Back in January 2020 a by-election took place for two seats in the Barnhill ward of the London Borough of Brent, which the Labour slate of Mansoor Akram and Gaynor Lloyd held with unusually small majorities of 112 and 70 votes over the lead Conservative candidate Kanta Mistry. Mistry and her running-mate Stefan Voloseniuc launched a legal case to request a recount, which was duly held in July and found no significant error in the original result. They could and probably should have applied to withdraw the case at that point, but that would have involved paying the legal costs of the Labour slate and the returning officer; so it appears that Voloseniuc and Mistry did nothing more to resolve the case until the returning officer escalated the matter to the High Court in London. Voloseniuc and Mistry comprehensively lost in the High Court last month, and their legal bill has doubled to an estimated £60,000.

Let the experience of Voloseniuc and Mistry stand as an expensive lesson to those who believe the Wild Twitter Rumours which habitually fly around from counting centres and elsewhere early on election night. As we saw over the pond in November, partial counts can be very unrepresentative of the final result. The Britain Elects team are of course here to cut through all that nonsense and bring you cold, hard facts as they emerge from the declarations, and your columnist encourages you to follow us on the nights and days after 10pm on 6th May while we make sense of it all. We have some exciting things lined up.

Before then, we have some by-elections to bring you. There are nineteen polls in Scotland and Wales scheduled over the next five weeks to ease us back into the democratic routine, and here are the first two of these. Not necessarily in the right order…

Fortissat; and
Thorniewood

North Lanarkshire council, Scotland; caused respectively by the resignations of Tommy Cochrane and Steven Bonnar. Both were originally elected for the Scottish National Party, but Cochrane had left the party in 2018 and was sitting as an independent councillor. Cochrane resigned in March 2020 due to pressure of work, having represented the ward since 2012. Bonnar, who is now the MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, had served since winning a by-election in 2015.

So, we kick Andrew’s Previews off for 2021 in North Lanarkshire to see whether the Scottish National Party can overcome a recent bout of infighting. There are two by-elections in North Lanarkshire district today, both of which were originally scheduled for November but were postponed at the last moment due to increased COVID restrictions in the Central Belt. Both of these are wards which have appeared in this column before but whose names may not be immediately helpful to the outsider.

Such as the Thorniewood ward, which lies just outside the eastern edge of Glasgow between the M8 and M74 motorways. This is an area where the population boomed after the Second World War due to new industry coming in, such as a coalmine and a large Caterpillar factory. To house the people needed to run these industries, the town of Viewpark was born.

Viewpark combines with the neighbouring areas of Tannochside and Birkenshaw to form the Thorniewood ward. In case you have never heard of these places and are wondering why that is, none of these areas are recognised as towns by the Royal Mail, which classifies almost every address within the ward as “Uddingston, Glasgow”. To confuse matters further, Uddingston proper is in South Lanarkshire, beyond the district boundary and the M74 motorway. The postal boundaries of Uddingston have caused some confusion for outsiders, as this column will discuss in more detail in a couple of weeks’ time. The ward name “Thorniewood” is shared by Thorniewood United, a local junior football team. Your columnist has been confused by this concept before, so let me explain: in Scottish football “junior” refers not to the age of the players but to the level of football, roughly equivalent to non-league in the English system.

Further to the east the M8 motorway passes through Fortissat ward. Despite the name (which refers to an old estate that covered most of the area), this ward is based on the town and hinterland of Shotts, located on high ground roughly halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Shotts was traditionally an ironworking and mining town, but with the end of industry its population has declined; one of the major local employers now is HMP Shotts, a high-security prison. The town lies on a recently-electrified railway line between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

These wards in the heart of the Central Belt were created in 2007 when Scottish local elections moved to using proportional representation. Until the Indyref Thorniewood was one of the strongest Labour wards in Scotland, with the party polling over 68% of the first preferences and winning two out of three seats in the 2007 and 2012 elections. The remaining seat was held by the SNP, who successfully defended it in a by-election in 2015 at the height of the party’s powers: that by-election saw the Nationalists’ candidate Steven Bonnar lead Labour candidate Hugh Gaffney 47-43 in the first round and win by 52-48 after transfers.

Gaffney eventually get elected to North Lanarkshire council two years later. On revised boundaries in May 2017 Labour polled 50% in Thorniewood ward and the SNP 39%, the seat count remaining at 2-1 to Labour. A month later Gaffney was elected to the Westminster Parliament, defeating single-term SNP MP Phil Boswell by 1,586 votes on a swing of over 13% in the local seat of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. The SNP hold the local Scottish Parliament constituency of Uddingston and Bellshill, having gained it from Labour in 2016.

The Fortissat ward also originally elected three councillors, and in 2007 it returned one Labour councillor, one SNP member and independent Charlie Cefferty. The 2012 election here is notable for Labour candidate Francis Fallan topping the poll but not getting elected. On first preferences he was one vote ahead of his running-mate Jim Robertson and two votes ahead of Cefferty, but there was an SNP quota, Cefferty was elected on Conservative transfers and Robertson (who was seeking re-election) picked up more transfers from the Tories and SNP than Fallan did.

The 2017 boundary review for North Lanarkshire expanded Fortissat ward from three councillors to four, with the addition of the village of Morningside from Murdostoun ward. In May 2017 the expanded ward gave 36% to Labour, 29% to the SNP, 13% to the Conservatives, 11% to a “No Referendum Maintain Union Pro-Brexit” candidate (that is a registered description of the British Union and Sovereignty Party, now the British Unionist Party) and 10% to Cefferty. Labour won two seats, the SNP one and the Conservatives one; during the count Cefferty overtook the pro-Brexit candidate on SNP transfers and the pro-Brexit transfers went strongly to the Conservatives. Labour and the Tories followed up that good performance in June’s general election in the local seat, Airdrie and Shotts, which the SNP held over Labour by just 195 votes.

Since June 2017 both Fortissat and Thorniewood wards have had by-elections. Fortissat was first out of the blocks, because the newly-elected Conservative councillor Sandy Thornton appears to have decided that he didn’t actually want to be a councillor after all. He didn’t sign his declaration of acceptance of office, and once the deadline for doing so had expired his seat was declared vacant.

The resulting Fortissat by-election in September 2017 ((Andrew’s Previews 2017, page 242) saw the Labour vote increase from 36% to 38%, the British Union and Sovereignty Party move into second place with 23% and the SNP fall to 21%. The Conservatives, who were defending the seat, finished fourth with just 11%. Labour picked up most of the SNP transfers to comfortably defeat the BUSP 62-38 in the final count and gain the seat.

The Thorniewood by-election came two years later in September 2019 (Andrew’s Previews 2019, page 292) after Labour councillor Hugh Gaffney MP decided to concentrate on his parliamentary duties. Labour held the resulting by-election with a clear swing to the SNP since May 2017: the Labour lead was 44-39 on first preferences and 55-45 after transfers. In retrospect, that was a bad move for Gaffney: when a general election came around three months later he saw his majority of 1,586 over the SNP turn into a 5,624-vote majority for his former ward colleague Steven Bonnar. Bonnar has now resigned from North Lanarkshire council in his turn, and given the changed parliamentary arithmetic he can reasonably expect a longer term on the green benches than Gaffney enjoyed.

The Nationalists may be riding high in the polls but they will be doing well if they hold either of these by-elections – and they will need to win both to become the largest party on North Lanarkshire council, which currently stands at 30 Labour councillors (who form a minority administration), 29 for the SNP, eight Conservatives, eight independents and these two vacancies.

For the Thorniewood by-election the Scottish National Party have reselected Eve Cunnington, who was the runner-up in the previous by-election. The Labour candidate is Helen Loughran, a Tannochside community councillor. Also standing in Thorniewood are Oyebola Ajala for the Conservatives, Rosemary McGowan for the Greens, independent candidate Joseph Budd and UKIP’s Daryl Gardner.

The defending SNP candidate for Fortissat is Sarah Quinn, a third-year university student who until recently represented the local constituency of Airdrie and Shotts in the Scottish Youth Parliament. Labour, who won the previous by-election, have selected Peter Kelly who is described as a local community activist. Despite their second-place finish last time there is no British Unionist Party candidate now, so it will be interesting to see what happens to their vote. Perhaps it could end up predominantly with one of the other candidates: the Conservatives’ Ben Callaghan, the Greens’ Kyle Davidson or UKIP’s Neil Wilson.

All of these candidates were originally selected for the aborted by-elections in November and have been renominated for these polls. If they had gone ahead the November by-elections would also have had Lib Dem candidates, but that party appears to have decided not to bother this time round.

Fortissat

Parliamentary constituency: Airdrie and Shotts
Holyrood constituency: Airdrie and Shotts (almost all)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Motherwell and Airdrie
Postcode districts: EH47, ML1, ML2, ML7

Ben Callaghan (C)
Kyle Davidson (Grn)
Peter Kelly (Lab)
Sarah Quinn (SNP)
Neil Wilson (UKIP)

Sept 2017 by-election Lab 1420 British Union and Sovereignty Party 858 SNP 761 C 424 Ind 184 Grn 24 UKIP 18
May 2017 first preferences Lab 1840 SNP 1465 C 670 No Referendum Maintain Union Pro-Brexit 559 Ind 509

Thorniewood

Parliamentary constituency: Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill
Scottish Parliament constituency: Uddingston and Bellshill
ONS Travel to Work Area: Motherwell and Airdrie
Postcode districts: G69, G71

Oyebola Ajala (C)
Joseph Budd (Ind)
Eve Cunnington (SNP)
Daryl Gardner (UKIP)
Helen Loughran (Lab)
Rosemary McGowan (Grn)

Sept 2019 by-election Lab 1362 SNP 1202 C 296 LD 168 Grn 46
May 2017 first preferences Lab 2354 SNP 1811 C 519

Andrew Teale