I’ve cautioned before against making too much out of council by-elections so you must conclude what you will from these two results last Thursday from Aberdeenshire:
A different, although still partial, breakdown of the data is on the council’s website. I say partial because local government elections use the single transferable vote (STV) system and a full understanding of what happened can only be gleaned when the redistribution of votes after each round of counting can be examined. If that’s gobbledygook, check out my post on another recent by-election result – Sturgeon, Sturgeon and not-Sturgeon – a political family falters – where I explain STV.
Three cautionary notes. First, the turnouts were low, about 30% in each case. Second, Aberdeenshire is a large rural area scarcely typical of much of the country. Third, as in many smaller towns and country areas, local and personal factors can assume disproportionate influence.
In Inverurie, the Conservatives took the vacant seat from an Independent who resigned after ridicule directed at him for flying back early from a conference in Denmark allegedly because of dis-satisfaction with the accommodation provided. The Banff seat, again a Conservative win, was vacant because of the untimely death of the SNP incumbent. In both, the Tories and Lib Dems increased their share of the vote.
It’s difficult to know if wider issues played a part in the results. In Inverurie the only obvious factor might be the depressed state of the offshore oil industry, although here the statistics suggest that the Conservatives must have gained from the absence of independent candidates. In the Banff area, farming and fishing are both important. The SNP’S mess-up of the farm payments system and their pro-EU, therefore pro-common fisheries, policy could have antagonised the parts of those respective communities that turned out to vote.
A tempting hypothesis might be that peak-SNP has passed in this neck of the woods and much of the area is reverting to its once-upon-a-time status as natural Tory territory.
Perhaps that’s a guess too far at this stage but there is some evidence the SNP were getting edgy at the last moment that things were not going their way in Banff:
That deleted tweet was one of three retweets from MPs with precisely the same wording, a curious coincidence in itself (the others, also deleted, came as from MPs Eilidh Whiteford and a third whose name I missed). Mobilising three MPs for one wee council by-election? Not panicking, surely? In the event, the results mean that the SNP will now have to run a minority administration in Aberdeenshire, if they can.
The online separatist intelligentsia were certainly working through some of the possible consequences:
Remember much of Aberdeenshire is SNP ‘heartland’ territory that not only the party but Alex Salmond personally dominated for a long time. Consider the first minister’s father failed to get elected in North Ayrshire in August (see ‘Sturgeon …’ link above). Factor in higher council tax bills for many across Scotland in 2017/18, with the proceeds diverted to poorer areas and other parties keen to lay the blame, correctly, at the SNP’s feet. We may well find that peak-SNP at local level has passed come the May 2017 council elections.
Footnote 7 November 2016 – shortly after I posted this article I had an exchange on Twitter with a Conservative who canvassed in Inverurie. This is an edited version of what he said:
I was out on the doors quite a bit in Inverurie and the two main issues were council tax being sent outside Aberdeenshire and a general dissatisfaction with the SNP and their constant talk of a second referendum on independence.
[I didn’t canvass in Banff] but the people that did mentioned some real annoyance with the SNP’s stance on the EU.
I talked to two people while canvassing that voted Leave and were going to stop voting SNP due to their refusal to accept the result of the EU referendum.
It’s quite a change. Nowadays half the doors you knock on the person cannot stand the SNP.
In a small way, and notwithstanding any merits his own party might have, his comments are a neat demonstration of the maxim that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. I assume all the pro-British parties will be using this knowledge in the May 2017 council elections.