Council by-election previews: 25 March 2021

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

There are three local by-elections on 25th March 2021 and it’s a Nationalist Special with all three seats being defended by Plaid Cymru or the Scottish National Party. With whom we start, as Andrew’s Previews considers the last two local by-elections in Scotland before the Holyrood elections on 6th May. Read on…

Midlothian East

Midlothian council; caused by the resignation of Scottish National Party councillor Kenneth Baird, who had served since 2017.

We start south-east of Edinburgh with the county of Midlothian. The Midlothian council area has six electoral wards, of which three cover the district’s major towns of Bonnyrigg, Dalkeith and Penicuik and the other three are more rural areas. Such as Midlothian East, which stretches north-west from Soutra Hill (a summit on the A68 road from Edinburgh to Lauderdale), and runs between Bonnyrigg and Dalkeith to the Sheriffhall Roundabout on the Edinburgh city bypass. The six-way roundabout at Sheriffhall is a notorious traffic blackspot and the powers that be have been talking about rebuilding it for years, but the fact that the junction is built on unstable ground over old mineworkings makes grade separation difficult to achieve.

It’s the mineworkings that have traditionally been the mainstay of this area’s economy. In fact, they spawned a new village. Mayfield was built in the 1950s to house workers for the collieries at Newtongrange and Easthouses; the collieries are gone, but the village remains.

East ward’s other principal population centre is rather different in character. Eskbank is a suburb of Dalkeith and traditionally a well-heeled area; and that will only have increased with the reopening of the Borders railway line, which includes a station at Eskbank. With trains to central Edinburgh twice an hour, Eskbank handled 367,000 passengers in 2018-19 just three years after it had opened.

With a bona fide commuter area, a pit village and a large rural hinterland Midlothian East has something for everyone. The ward was created in 2007, when it elected one councillor each from the SNP, Labour, and the Lib Dems. The Lib Dem councillor then defected to Labour and stood for re-election in 2012 as a Labour candidate, but polled poorly and lost her seat to independent candidate Peter de Vink. The SNP and de Vink formed an administration to run Midlothian council, and East ward’s SNP councillor Lisa Beattie briefly served as leader of the council following the 2012 election.

The Labour councillor for Midlothian East resigned in 2014, and the resulting by-election resulted in a narrow Labour hold; the first preferences were 33% for Labour, 32% for the SNP and 20% for independent candidate Robert Hogg, and a 34-vote lead for Labour on first preferences turned into a 69-vote lead over the SNP in the final count. This by-election came two months after the independence referendum while Scottish politics was in the middle of realigning, and was generally seen at the time as an impressive Labour performance. Mind, given that the winning Labour candidate had previously worked for the then party leader Ed Miliband as a press officer, perhaps a positive spin on the result was to be expected.

It was all change here for the May 2017 Midlothian council election, with all three incumbent councillors for East ward standing down and boundary changes removing a small corner of the ward into Bonnyrigg ward. There was a very close four-way result on the first preferences, with the Conservatives coming from nowhere to top the poll on 27%, the SNP polling 26%, Labour 23% and independent Robert Hogg on 19%. The three seats went to the Conservatives, Labour and the SNP with the Tories picking up Peter de Vink’s seat. Labour went on to pick up the Midlothian constituency at the Westminster general election a month later, but lost the seat back to the SNP in December 2019. Colin Beattie, husband of former SNP ward councillor Lisa Beattie, has represented the ward in Holyrood since 2011 when it was included within the Midlothian North and Musselburgh constituency.

In last week’s four Scottish by-elections we saw two occasions in which the candidate trailing on first preferences came from behind to win in the final count. Transfers can be crucial, and this could well be the case here as well given the fragmented political scene we start with. The usual Scottish disclaimer of Votes at 16 applies, too.

The 2017 Midlothian council election resulted in a three-way split on the council, with seven Labour councillors, six SNP and five Conservatives. The SNP subsequently became the largest party by winning a by-election in Penicuik, gaining the seat from Labour. Despite that, Labour run Midlothian council as a minority with Conservative support.

Defending for the SNP is Stuart McKenzie, from Dalkeith. The Conservatives have selected Alan Symon, who sits on the community council for Eskbank and Newbattle. The Labour candidate is Hazel Flanagan, a senior childcare practitioner who grew up in Mayfield. There is no independent candidate this time, so completing the ballot paper are Joy Godfrey for the Greens and Margaret Davis for the Liberal Democrats. The Midlothian Advertiser has interviewed all the candidates, and you can find out more here (link).

Parliamentary constituency: Midlothian
Holyrood constituency: Midlothian North and Musselburgh (Lothian region)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Edinburgh
Postcode districts: EH17, EH18, EH19, EH22, EH23, EH37

Margaret Davis (LD)
Hazel Flanagan (Lab)
Joy Godfrey (Grn)
Stuart McKenzie (SNP)
Alan Symon (C)

May 2017 first preferences C 1522 SNP 1481 Lab 1284 Ind 1064 Grn 301

Almond and Earn

Perth and Kinross council; caused by the death of Scottish National Party councillor Henry Anderson who had served since 2012.

For other Scottish by-election we return to another ward which has appeared in Andrew’s Previews before. The Almond and the Earn are two rivers in Perthshire, the Almond flowing into the Tay immediately north of Perth and the Earn reaching the sea at the head of the Firth of Tay.

The two rivers give their name to an electoral ward which covers the southern and western hinterland of the city of Perth. The largest population centre is Bridge of Earn, a commuter village south of Perth at the lowest crossing-point of the Earn. To the west of Perth on the road to Crianlarich is Methven, a village which was the location of a victory for England in 1306 in the days when England and Scotland faced off on the battlefield instead of the rugby field.

Methven (then part of the Strathalmond ward) voted SNP in the 2003 Scottish local elections, but the Almond and Earn ward took in better Conservative territory in Bridge of Earn and its first election in 2007 was a Conservative win on first preferences, with 46% against 37% for the SNP and 17% for the Liberal Democrats. However, with three seats available 46% was short of two quotas, and the SNP surplus ensured that the final seat went to the Lib Dems rather than the second Conservative candidate.

The winning Conservative here was Alan Jack, who had represented Bridge of Earn since 1999. He fell out with the Tories in the 2007-12 term and stood for re-election in 2012 as an independent. The first preferences split 41% for the Conservatives, 30% for the SNP and just 12% for Jack, but the Conservatives had only stood one candidate and Jack picked up transfers from all over the place to be re-elected. His final margin was 14 votes over the second SNP candidate. This was not without controversy: Alan Jack was subsequently fined £450 for going over the campaign spending limit, but for reasons which this column doesn’t fully understand he was allowed to keep his seat.

Alan Jack died in 2016 at the age of 76, and the resulting by-election (Andrew’s Previews 2016, page 75) was a gain for the Conservatives who led the SNP 48-39 on the first count and 51-41 after transfers (with a Labour vote of 8% still to distribute). The Conservatives confirmed that by-election gain in the May 2017 local elections; on unchanged boundaries, their first preference lead over the SNP was a whopping 60-30, resulting in two seats for the Conservatives and one for the SNP.

Overall the Conservatives won the 2017 Perth and Kinross elections, with 17 seats against 15 SNP, 4 Lib Dems, 3 independents and 1 Labour councillor (for the unlikely-looking Labour area of Carse of Gowrie). The Conservatives run the council as a minority and have successfully defended two previous by-elections in this council term.

In December 2020 the SNP councillor for Almond and Earn, Harry Anderson, had put a strongly-worded post on his Facebook aimed at anti-vaxxers, subsequently telling the Perthshire Advertiser that he and his family would get the COVID-19 vaccine as their “civic duty” (story here (link) from the Daily Record). He never got the chance. By the end of the month, Harry Anderson was dead from COVID-19.

This is the first council by-election to be a direct result of the current pandemic. It will not be the last. This column maintains a list of local councillors who were taken from us by COVID-19; that list currently has seventeen names on it, including Anderson’s. Given that the demographic upon which COVID wreaks the greatest havoc is the same demographic that tends to serve in our council chambers, the list could have been a lot longer.

It will be an uphill struggle for the SNP to hold the 2021 Almond and Earn by-election from a 30-point deficit on first preferences. Their defending candidate is Michelle Frampton. The Tories will have reasonable hopes that they can win here in the first round; they have selected former golf professional Frank Smith. Also standing are Claire McLaren for the Lib Dems and Craig Masson for Labour.

Parliamentary constituency: Ochil and South Perthshire
Holyrood constituency: Perthshire South and Kinross-shire
ONS Travel to Work Area: Perth
Postcode districts: KY14, PH1, PH2, PH3, PH7

Michelle Frampton (SNP)
Craig Masson (Lab)
Claire McLaren (LD)
Frank Smith (C)

May 2017 first preferences C 2441 SNP 1212 LD 230 Grn 214
April 2016 by-election C 1651 SNP 1327 Lab 219 LD 157 UKIP 77
May 2012 first preferences SNP 1520 C 1112 Ind 444 Lab 369 LD 244
May 2007 first preferences C 2255 SNP 1790 LD 849

Llanrug

Gwynedd council, North Wales; caused by the death of Plaid Cymru councillor Charles Wyn Jones.

Croeso and welcome to the Welsh-speaking capital of the world. We’re in Llanrug, a village on the northern slopes of the Snowdon massif about four miles east of Caernarfon, which was listed by the 2011 census as having 87.8% of its population able to speak Welsh – the highest proportion of any electoral division in the principality. Figures from the 2021 census, taken last weekend, will take a couple of years to come through so Llanrug’s title is safe for a little while yet.

With a population of just under 2,000, Llanrug is the largest population centre in the Arfon constituency outside Bangor and Caernarfon, and it’s big enough to support a secondary school – Ysgol Brynrefail – with over 700 pupils on the roll. Notable people who studied at Ysgol Brynrefail include the rugby player Rhun Williams, who was the star player in the Wales Under-20 grand slam-winning team in 2016 and subsequently made 28 appearances for Cardiff Blues, but was forced to retire from rugby last year aged 22 due to a nerve injury. As we saw at the weekend, rugby can be a cruel game sometimes. Two knights of the realm, the Chief Bard Sir T H Parry-Williams and the cycling coach Sir David Brailsford, also went to school in Llanrug, as did the former Welsh MEP Eurig Wyn.

Wyn served in the European Parliament from 1999 to 2004 as a member of Plaid Cymru, who are the dominant political force in this corner of North Wales. Charles Wyn Jones, who had represented Llanrug since the establishment of the modern Gwynedd council in 1995 and also sat on Arfon council before that, was also a Plaid Cymru member. He had served as chairman of Gwynedd council in 2004-05. Away from local government, Jones had a 30-year career with British Telecom, co-founded the Gwynedd branch of the Alzheimer’s Society, and was secretary of the Llanrug Silver Band.

The present Llanrug division was created in 2004 as the northern half of the previous two-seat Llanrug division (the rest becoming Cwm-y-Glo division). On its current boundaries, Charles Wyn Jones only once had to fight a contested election: that was in 2008, when he polled 79% of the vote in a straight fight with independent candidate Dafydd Ifan.

In the 2017 Gwynedd elections Jones was counted among the 41 Plaid Cymru councillors returned, against 26 independents, 6 councillors for the localist group Llais Gwynedd, and one each for Labour and the Lib Dems. The ruling Plaid group is now down to 38 councillors plus this vacancy – if the Llanrug by-election is lost, that will be a majority of one.

This by-election sees a record choice for the local electors with four candidates standing. Defending for Plaid Cymru is Beca Brown, a Llanrug community councillor currently working for the online language teachers SaySomethinginWelsh. To take the other candidates in alphabetical order, independent (as the ballot paper says, “Independent”) candidate Martin Bristow gives an address in Y Felinheli on the Menai coast; the Lib Dems’ Calum Davies is a local resident and was their parliamentary candidate for Clwyd South in 2019; and independent (as the ballot paper says, “Annibynnol“) candidate and Ysgol Brynrefail school governor Richie Green has recently retired as a police superintendent. The Local Democracy Reporting Service have interviewed all the candidates, and you can find out more here (link).

Parliamentary and Assembly constituency: Arfon
ONS Travel to Work Area: Bangor and Holyhead
Postcode district: LL55

Martin Bristow (Ind)
Beca Brown (PC)
Calum Davies (LD)
Richie Green (Ind)

May 2017 result PC unopposed
May 2012 result PC unopposed
May 2008 result PC 477 Ind 128
June 2004 result PC unopposed

Andrew Teale