Sturgeon, Sturgeon and not-Sturgeon – a political family falters

I wouldn’t normally bother to undertake a detailed analysis of a by-election result for a single seat in a council ward. They occur all the time across the UK, general conclusions can rarely be drawn from one result, and if you’re obsessed by the minutiae of local council elections you can always follow something like @britainelects on Twitter.

Just occasionally, however, a result comes along that is of more than passing interest. There was one such yesterday in the Irvine West ward of North Ayrshire council.

A vacancy for one seat attracted six candidates, and the result was as follows:

irvine west byelection result

Source: North Ayrshire council

You’ll notice a number of things about this result.

First, if you weren’t aware, the election had six rounds because, unlike the traditional first-past-the-post system, council elections in Scotland work on the single transferable vote system. Briefly, this means that electors rank their preferred candidates from 1 to x, where x is all the candidates they would be willing to see elected. At each round the candidate with the least number of votes is knocked out and the votes for them distributed to remaining candidates according to the voters’ preferences, until one candidate has a majority of all votes cast.

In this particular election, you’ll see that the SNP candidate received the most first preference votes (1,164 or 37% of the 3,105 valid votes cast) but that after six rounds of redistribution of preferences, the Labour candidate, with an initial 1,029 first preference votes (33% of the total) was declared the winner. The overall turnout of the electorate was just under 21%.

All this, you might think, is so much electoral geekery, and so it might have been if you didn’t notice the surname of the SNP candidate – Sturgeon. Robin Sturgeon had a number of things going for him in this election that should have given him a fair wind. You’ll know at least one, but here goes:

  1. daughter Nicola is of course the first minister of Scotland and is highly thought of by nationalists, most recently being dubbed affectionately ‘oor Nicola’ in rather too couthy a fashion for my taste. You’ll not be surprised that I don’t rate her highly, but I have to acknowledge many do
  2. Mrs S, Nicola’s mum, has been a North Ayshire councillor for a number of years and is currently the council’s provost (civic head)
  3. the SNP (at least until the result of this by-election) form the ruling group on North Ayshire council
  4. Mr Sturgeon is a long-standing party activist and seems to be well-known in the area, and finally
  5. as other parties will testify, the SNP run a formidable party machine both locally and nationally. On this occasion, as you can see on his Facebook election page, they drafted in volunteers from a wide area to canvass on his behalf. I’ll bet none of the other candidates had that level of support.

Despite all this, he lost the by-election to the Labour candidate on the sixth round when the preferences of all other candidates had been re-distributed. So what was going on?

The reaction online of many nationalists is (a) the system’s unfair (though not of course when the SNP wins) and/or (b) it’s all the fault of a Tory/Labour alliance.

That second claim is palpable nonsense. After Robin Sturgeon, the Labour and Conservative candidates received the most first preference votes. And if it was a unionist carve-up, why on earth would both parties put up candidates?

The truth is more complex and subtle and can only be seen if you look in detail at the distribution of preferences in each round of voting:

irvine west byelection preferences

 (Click on the table to enlarge. If that doesn’t work you can find it on the council web site)

The first and obvious conclusion is that this was only ever likely to be a race between three parties – SNP, Labour and (surprisingly to me here, but I don’t know the area well) Conservative. The same, give or take the Liberal Democrats in some areas, is likely to be true in the Scottish-wide council elections (yes, more elections) next May.

But you can also see how willing electors were to consider a 2nd (3rd etc) preference vote for other parties. Contrary to the ‘Tory/Labour alliance’ theory it is notable at round 5 how few first-preference Conservatives were willing to transfer their vote to Labour (183 out of 639); 424 said they did not want their vote transferred to either Labour or SNP. Similarly in the next, 6th, round, only a minority of SNP voters (386 out of 1164) were willing to transfer their vote to Labour, but 881 were not so willing. The willingness of Labour voters to transfer their vote is unknown because it didn’t have to be tested.

The net effect is that enough voters were willing to express preferences to allow a relatively narrow eventual victory for Labour. Albeit with fewer candidates in many wards, the same sort of pattern is likely to play out nationally next May.

A final point is that although council by-elections attract notoriously low turnouts, the ‘Sturgeon’ factor as set out above should surely have allowed the SNP to get more of their support out. In saying that I should note, before nationalists point it out, that the SNP did take a seat from Labour on the same day in a Renfrewshire council by-election. I said it was complex.

Even so, the Irvine West result in my view gives the SNP little succour for next May. I set out above the five almost unique factors that together should have given them a clear, maybe overwhelming, advantage in this single by-election, and they still couldn’t muster enough support to come through at the final hurdle. If we have seen peak-SNP nationally (UK and Scotland) we may well have seen peak-SNP across Scotland’s 32 councils.

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6 Responses to Sturgeon, Sturgeon and not-Sturgeon – a political family falters

  1. The most interesting fact for me is that 39 of the 100 who voted for the pro independence Scottish Greens transferred to the SNP. There must be many people who support the Greens on environmental grounds but who oppose independence. SNP + Green MSPs represents the support for independence at Holyrood but SNP + Green voters is not the electoral support for independence.

    The most puzzling fact is the 3 voters who transferred from the Socialist Labour Party to the Scottish Conservative and Unionists!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Roger White says:

      Both good points. I’ve wondered myself why the Greens nail their flag so firmly to the mast of separation. It doesn’t seem to me a core requirement for being environmental or sustainable. After all there’s a Green party down South too. Perhaps a Green will come on here and explain why we’re both wrong!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Sam Duncan says:

    Fascinating. But I could almost have predicted the results before you posted them. The SNP is hardly anyone’s second choice. Sturgeon picked up just over 100 non-first-choice votes; McPhater, almost 700. In the past, under the STV system, both Labour and Tory voters might have picked the Nationalists as an acceptable alternative to their preferred party, ahead of their traditional rivals. But they know better than that now. “Acceptable” is precisely what they aren’t.

    PJ O’Rourke, in a backhanded endorsment of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, said recently that she’s “wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters”; the implication being that, for him, Trump is utterly beyond the pale. I think we’re seeing a similar calculation going on in the heads of unionist Scottish voters right now. The Tories/Labour – delete as applicable – may be bad, but they’re bad within normal parameters. At least you know where you are with them.

    The SNP have clearly become the first choice of the largest minority (I like the American usage of “plurality” for this; so much more concise), so they win FTTP contests easily, but whenever they need to build a majority coalition – in the referendum, in the Holyrood lists, or in an STV contest – they’re in trouble.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. An English aunt and uncle of mine are members of the Liberal Democrats but voted Green during the Con/Lib Westminster coalition. They were surprised when I told them that the Scottish Greens support independence.

    In the last Holyrood election the Green + ,SNP list vote was significantly higher than the Green + SNP constituency vote. The Liberal Democrats obtained significantly more constituency than list votes. They will have benefitted from tactical voting by Labour & Conservative voters in the constituency vote, but I suspect that a large number of No voting environmentalists in constituencies without a Green candidate voted Liberal.

    Some SNP supporters blamed the Greens for Ruth Davison’s victory in Edinburgh Central, as her majority was less than the Green vote in one of the few constituencies in which they put up a candidate. I suspect, however, that those who voted Green in that constituency would have voted Liberal had there been no Green candidate.

    Mind you, I live in Edinburgh Central & voted Labour in the constituency & Conservative on the list, which shows the perils of tactical voting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating Roger, and great comments. All I’ll add is that the utterly graceless response of Mr Sturgeon to his defeat was in turn given a devastating response by a chap called Alec Macpherson – in its own eyes, the SNP is never defeated, only cheated.

    Liked by 2 people

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