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:
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:
- 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
- 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)
- the SNP (at least until the result of this by-election) form the ruling group on North Ayshire council
- Mr Sturgeon is a long-standing party activist and seems to be well-known in the area, and finally
- 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:
(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.