Previewing the Scottish council by-elections of 11th March

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

Three local by-elections in Scotland on 11th March 2021:

Aird and Loch Ness

Highland council; caused by the death of Conservative councillor George Cruickshank who had served since 2017.

Welcome to the heart of the Scottish Highlands. We’re in the Great Glen, a massive geological fault which runs in a straight line from Inverness to Fort William and creates a natural travel route through the mountains. The Great Glen is navigable to vessels on the Caledonian Canal, which links together a series of lochs along the route of which the largest is Loch Ness.

It’s difficult to overestimate the scale of Loch Ness. This is the second-deepest loch in Scotland and the largest body of water by volume in the UK, containing more water than all the lakes in England and Wales put together. The water is extremely murky thanks to all the peat in the surrounding soil. Over the years a large number of people who should probably have known better have claimed to see something unexplained swimming in the loch’s waters, and the so-called Loch Ness Monster has been a boon to Scottish tourism for decades.

The Loch Ness Monster has had political consequences as well. In 1962 the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau was founded, with a brief of looking for the monster, by a group of worthies including the WWF conservationist Sir Peter Scott and the naval war hero David James. At the time James was the Conservative MP for Brighton Kemptown, which you might notice is quite a long way from Loch Ness. Legend has is that his neglect of his constituency in favour of searching for a non-existent Scottish animal was one factor in James losing his seat to Labour by seven votes in the 1964 general election.

The area around Loch Ness is sparsely populated compared to the Aird, which lies immediately to the west of Inverness along the south bank of the Beauly Firth. The Beauly Firth terminates at Beauly, which as its French name (beau lieu) suggests is a beautiful place. Beauly is the railhead for the Aird and Loch Ness ward, being the first stop out of Inverness on the Far North Line.

This area was controlled for centuries by the Lords Lovat from their base at Beaufort Castle near Beauly. Unfortunately aristocracy doesn’t pay what it used to, and the 15th Lord Lovat, Simon Fraser, sold Beaufort Castle to the Stagecoach millionaire Ann Gloag in 1995 to meet an inheritance tax bill. Lovat’s Second World War service was even more high-profile than James’; as an officer in the Commandos, he was involved in the Lofoten, Hardelot and Dieppe raids, and he was piped ashore at Sword Beach on D-Day by his personal piper. Hitler put a price of 100,000 Reichsmarks on his capture, dead or alive.

That prize was never claimed, and once the war was over Lovat served for decades on the Inverness county and district councils. These were swept away in 1996, the year after his death, in favour of the modern Highland Council. Originally this was elected by first-past-the-post, which led to an independent majority and a large number of unopposed returns. The introduction of proportional representation in 2007 led to contested elections throughout and resulted in established parties winning seats.

Aird and Loch Ness ward dates from the introduction of PR in 2007. Its first two elections, in 2007 and 2012, both returned two independent councillors (Margaret Davidson and Helen Carmichael) and one each from the SNP (Drew Hendry) and the Lib Dems (Hamish Wood). SNP councillor Drew Hendry became leader of the Highland council after the 2012 election, and in May 2015 he was elected as MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. He resigned from the Highland council to concentrate on his Westminster duties, and the resulting by-election in October 2015 was won by the Lib Dem candidate Jean Davis.

Going into the 2017 election, fought on slightly revised boundaries, the Lib Dems were defending two seats here and lost them both. Independent councillor Margaret Davidson topped the poll with 28% of the first preferences and was re-elected on the first count; the SNP polled 22% with Emma Knox avenging her defeat in the by-election; the Conservative candidate George Cruickshank polled 20% and was elected here after two previous failed attempts; and independent councillor Helen Carmichael was re-elected to the final seat with 12% of the vote, ahead of the Lib Dems’ Jean Davis who polled 10%. On the decisive fifth count, Carmichael was 289 votes ahead of Davis with only an SNP surplus of 258 left to transfer.

The 2017 Highland council election returned a hung council, with 28 independent councillors, 22 for the SNP, 10 each for the Tories and Lib Dems, 3 Labour and a single Green councillor. The current administration is a coalition of the main independent group, the Lib Dems and Labour, and is unlikely to be affected by the outcome of this by-election.

The usual Scottish disclaimers apply here: Votes at 16 and the Alternative Vote are in use, and with a political scene as fragmented as that transfers could turn out to be very important. Defending for the Conservatives is Gavin Berkenheger, a geologist who runs a company looking for gold in Scotland. Berkenheger failed to strike gold with his previous attempt to win election to the Highland council, finishing as runner-up in the 2018 Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh by-election (Andrew’s Previews 2018, page 428). Maybe this area will prove to be a better prospect? With 40% of the first preferences going to independent candidates you cannot rule out a challenge from the single independent this time: David Fraser gives an address in Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness, where he is chair of the Glen Urquhart community council. The SNP have selected Gordon Shanks, who came to the Highlands over 20 years ago to study forestry and never left. The Lib Dem candidate is Martin Robertson, and completing an all-male ballot paper are Ryan Mackintosh for the Scottish Greens and the ward’s first Labour candidate since 2012, Bill Moore.

Picture of Loch Ness by Sam Fentress, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Parliamentary constituency: Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (part: former Kirkhill, Loch Ness East and Loch Ness West wards); Ross, Skye and Lochaber (part: former Beauly and Strathglass ward)
Holyrood constituency: Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch
ONS Travel to Work Area: Inverness (most), Fort William (south-west corner)
Postcode districts: IV2, IV3, IV4, IV5, IV6, IV63, PH32

Gavin Berkenheger (C)
David Fraser (Ind)
Ryan Mackintosh (Grn)
Bill Moore (Lab)
Martin Robertson (LD)
Gordon Shanks (SNP)

May 2017 first preferences Ind 1405 SNP 1128 C 998 Ind 625 LD 515 Grn 388

Leaderdale and Melrose

Scottish Borders council; caused by the death of Scottish National Party councillor Kevin Drum at the age of 60. He had served since 2017.

From the Highlands we come south to the border region, an upland area dividing Scotland from Northumberland. Part of the border between England and Scotland is formed by the River Tweed, whose valley forms an easy route into the interior. This may not have the grandeur of the Highlands, but the Borders have a charm all their own as this view demonstrates.

This is Scott’s View, a favourite place of the author Sir Walter Scott whose baronial pile at Abbotsford is somewhere beyond the Eildon Hills in the middle distance. To the right of those hills is the town of Melrose, which grew up in the twelfth century around a Cistercian abbey founded by King David I. The abbey thrived up to the wars of religion in the 17th century, and a number of Scottish kings are buried there including the heart of Robert of Bruce; the casket containing his heart was twice excavated in the twentieth century before being reinterred.

In recent years Melrose has been opened up to tourists without access to road transport. The Borders Railway opened in September 2015, terminating at Tweedbank station a couple of miles away from the town and within the boundary of this ward.

To the right of Scott’s viewpoint is the valley of the Leader Water, called Leaderdale in this ward name and Lauderdale in nearly every other context. With its north-south orientation Lauderdale was a natural route for Dere Street, the main Roman road from Hadrian’s Wall to the Antonine Wall; Dere Street and its modern replacement, the A68 Edinburgh-Jedburgh-Carter Bar road, have formed a major transport link through the borders for centuries. The major population centre in the valley is Lauder, which is just about within commuting distance of Edinburgh and as such has a fast-growing population.

Lauderdale had been covered by a number of Conservative wards in the 2003 elections to Scottish Borders council, but Melrose and Tweedbank had voted for independent candidates that year. In 2003 independent councillor David Parker thrashed the Conservative candidate in Lower Langlee and Tweedbank ward by 1,113 votes to 69, and Parker has continued in that vein by topping the poll in all three ordinary elections to the expanded ward since 2007. In 2007 he polled 30% of the first preferences, far ahead of a packed field for the other two seats: the Conservatives started in second place in 16%, the Lib Dems and the Borders Party, a localist group opposed to the planned rail link to Edinburgh, polled 15% each and the SNP 14%. In the final count the SNP were eliminated, and their transfers gave the final two seats to the Lib Dem candidate John Paton-Day and the Borders Party candidate Nicholas Watson. The Conservatives missed out. Paton-Day lost his seat to the SNP in 2012 by the narrow margin of 21 votes.

In 2013 the Borders Party councillor Nicholas Watson resigned, prompting a by-election. Without David Parker on the ballot, this time the Conservatives’ Rachael Hamilton polled the most first preferences: 28%, to 23% for the new Borders Party candidate Iain Gillespie, 21% for the Lib Dems and 18% for the SNP. The SNP and Lib Dem transfers went to Gillespie, who overtook the Conservatives to hold the by-election for the Borders Party by a 53-47 margin over Hamilton. Rachael Hamilton has bounced back from that disappointment: she is now the MSP for the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire constituency, the safest Conservative seat in Scotland (although might not be saying much these days).

The most recent election for this ward was in May 2017 and saw the Conservatives finally break through here: they had 32% of the first preferences against 25% for David Parker, 18% for the new SNP candidate Kevin Drum, and 11% for the outgoing Borders Party councillor Iain Gillespie who sought re-election as an independent candidate and nearly got it when the Unionist transfers lined up behind him. Drum eventually won the final seat by a margin of 44 votes.

Again, this is a ward with a large independent vote. Had the May 2017 votes been for one seat then David Parker would have won it with a 406-vote margin over the lead Conservative Tom Miers; if we exclude Parker from the reckoning, then Iain Gillespie would have beaten Miers by 100 votes. In neither case are the SNP particularly close to winning, which will concern the Nationalists as they are the ones defending this by-election. A Nationalist loss here would likely be a boost to the Conservative-Independent coalition running Scottish Borders council; the 2017 election here returned 15 Conservatives, 9 for the SNP, 8 independents and two Lib Dems.

The defending SNP candidate is John Paton Day, who has contested every previous election in this ward as the Liberal Democrat candidate and was a Lib Dem councillor here from 2007 to 2012. The Conservatives have selected Jenny Linehan, a lawyer from Melrose. There are two independent candidates: Mary Douglas gives an address in Galashiels, while Karen Wilks works for the Citizens’ Advice Bureau in Musselburgh. Also standing are Jonny Adamson for the Liberal Democrats, Michael Needham for the Greens and Scott Redpath for Labour.

Picture of Scott’s View by “Kharasho2”, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Parliamentary constituency: Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk
Scottish Parliament constituency: Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale
ONS Travel to Work Area: Galashiels and Peebles
Postcode districts: TD1, TD2, TD3, TD4, TD5, TD6

Jonny Adamson (LD)
Mary Douglas (Ind)
Jenny Linehan (C)
Michael Needham (Grn)
John Paton Day (SNP)
Scott Redpath (Lab)
Karen Wilks (Ind)

May 2017 first preferences C 1457 Ind 1149 SNP 811 Ind 510 LD 426 Ind 202
May 2013 by-election C 956 Borders Party 814 LD 744 SNP 613 Lab 235 UKIP 105; final Borders Party 1444 C 1283
May 2012 first preferences Ind 1304 Borders 621 SNP 558 C 441 LD 439 Lab 225
May 2007 first preferences Ind 1362 C 713 LD 703 Borders Party 692 SNP 640 Ind 394 Ind 78

Livingston South

West Lothian council; caused by the resignation of Scottish National Party councillor Peter Johnston, who retired last year after a 35-year career in local government. He was first elected in 1985 to the former West Lothian district council, had led the West Lothian SNP group since 1992, and twice served as Leader of the Council.

And now for something completely different. We return to the Central Belt of Scotland for a trip to the southern of three wards covering the town of Livingston. This is a New Town, built in the 1960s on land whose main previous use had been for mining shale oil. In the days before the discovery of liquid oil reserves West Lothian was the centre of the world’s first oil boom, and by 1870 shale was being mined here at the rate of 3 million tons a year.

Shale mining finally ended in 1962 with the designation of Livingston as a new town. After six decades of development, Livingston is now the eighth-largest settlement in Scotland and has a diverse economic base, with electronics, distribution, a Sky TV call centre being major employers. Much recent attention has focused on the Valneva biotech factory, which is busily making a proposed new COVID-19 vaccine that’s currently at the clinical trials stage.

Valneva’s factory is within the boundary of this ward, next to the Edinburgh-Shotts-Glasgow railway line. On this line is the Livingston South railway station, which has recently been rebuilt as part of an electrification scheme. The railway station is some distance from the town centre, which lies within this ward on the south bank of the River Almond. Transport geeks will also note that along the ward’s eastern boundary is the Cousland Interchange, Scotland’s only surviving cloverleaf road junction and one of only two in the UK.

The boundaries of this ward have been unchanged since 2007. In its first two elections Labour and the SNP were very close to each other and both above 40% of the vote, which gave both parties two seats: Lawrence Fitzpatrick (the current council leader, who has topped the poll here in every election to date) and Danny Logue for Labour, Peter Johnston and John Muir for the SNP. In 2017 the Labour vote fell below 40% and Danny Logue lost the second Labour seat to the Conservative candidate Peter Heggie; on the SNP side John Muir retired and was replaced by Moira Shemilt. Shares of the vote were 41% for the SNP, 36% for Labour and 19% for the Conservatives. Had the votes been counted for one seat, Labour’s Fitzpatrick would have benefited from Conservative transfers to beat the SNP’s Johnston by 54-46.

The SNP are in opposition on West Lothian council, which is run by a Labour administration with Conservative support. Going into this by-election the Nationalists and Labour are on 12 seats each with 7 Conservatives and an independent holding the balance of power, so a Labour gain will result in them overtaking the SNP to become the largest party on the council.

Defending for the SNP is Maria MacAulay. Labour have selected Gordon Connolly, a former bandsman in the Royal Scots who manages the village hall in Murieston. The Conservatives had to re-run their selection after their original candidate Eddie Millar was dropped for dubious social media posts; the replacement Tory candidate is Douglas Smith. Also standing are Cameron Glasgow for the Scottish Green Party, Caron Lindsay for the Liberal Democrats, the aforementioned Eddie Millar as an independent candidate, and John Mumford for UKIP.

Parliamentary constituency: Livingston
Scottish Parliament constituency: Almond Valley
ONS Travel to Work Area: Livingston
Postcode districts: EH53, EH54, EH55

Gordon Connolly (Lab)
Cameron Glasgow (Grn)
Caron Lindsay (LD)
Maria MacAulay (SNP)
Eddie Millar (Ind)
John Mumford (UKIP)
Douglas Smith (C)

May 2017 first preferences SNP 3359 Lab 2919 C 1594 Grn 200 LD 144
May 2012 first preferences Lab 3288 SNP 2890 C 374 Action to Save St John’s Hospital 312
May 2007 first preferences Lab 3665 SNP 3422 C 527 LD 420 Ind 341 SSP 115

Andrew Teale