A wake-up call to the SNP in Midlothian East

Monday December 22nd 2014

Colin Beattie MSP

So why did Labour win the Midlothian East by-election? More to the point, why did the SNP lose it?

Technically, this was a Labour hold, but Labour hold it wasn’t – it was a Labour gain, with significant implications.

The by-election was held under the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. The only problem that exists with STV is that it doesn’t retain proportionality in a by-election. So although the 2012 election resulted in 1 SNP, 1 Labour and 1 Independent, and that’s the way it is now, if we look at the underlying figures, this is a seat the SNP should have won, and won easily.

For simplicity, if we just look at total first preference votes, in 2012 the SNP received 1,777 votes compared to Labour’s 1,478. In rough percentage terms, the SNP were at 43% and Labour 36%. Given the anti-Labour sentiment nationally since 18th September, not to mention the SNP’s membership surge (and therefore potential activity level), the cards were stacked firmly in the SNP’s favour. So what went wrong for them?

Before answering this, let’s look first at the idiosyncrasies of this seat. In 2012 we had Independent candidate Peter de Vink, a pro-independence ex-Tory (though most voters didn’t know this at the time) who was elected on 461 (11.1)% of first preference votes, and in this by-election we have Robert Hogg (community activist, Labour leaning and well known in Mayfield/Easthouses), who received 780 (19.9%) first preferences. There were other candidates too. So I’d like first to examine their influence in reverse order of votes.

Euan Davidson was the Lib Dem candidate. I have known Euan for a good few years and have a lot of respect for him, particularly as his Green credentials far outweigh those of most non-Green candidates out there. Although Euan isn’t well known in the ward, in 2007 Midlothian East elected a Lib Dem councillor, so for them to get less than 2% of first preferences (68 votes) it must have been pretty devastating. We all know that the Lib Dems are toast nationally. Locally, this result has set off the smoke detector. Second preference transfers from Euan were very evenly spread across the remaining candidates.

Bill Kerr-Smith was a great candidate for the Greens. Yes, I know you’d expect me to say that, but he was. Born in Dalkeith, brought up in Mayfield, lives in Eskbank and active on the local community council he ticks all the boxes. We put out an excellent leaflet, concentrating on support for communities, anti-fracking and other things we’d been doing locally (downloadable here – http://midlothiangreens.org.uk/?page_id=57) and managed to do some canvassing. Bill got 197 (5%) of first preferences; respectable for a first attempt at contesting the ward but hardly ground-breaking. It still only matched the percentage we got in Penicuik and Midlothian West in 2012, where we fielded candidates with no leaflets or canvassing. Clearly we need to do a lot more if we are to have any chance of winning a seat here in 2017.

About half of Bill’s transferable lower preferences (87) went to SNP, with only 33 going to Labour. This could be an Indyref thing.

Andrew Hardie is a veteran of elections for the Tories, although he didn’t stand in the ward in the previous two. With Eskbank and the rural areas fertile ground for them, this is one of their better performing wards and in 2007 gave them their best result at 14.1%. In 2012 that declined to 9.1% and this time 8.4%. Given that Peter de Vink would have attracted a good few of their first preferences in 2012, their decline appears to be continuing at pace.

The remarkable thing about Andrew’s transfers was that nearly half (100) went to Labour, 83 to Robert Hogg and only 27 to the SNP. Naturally the SNP are linking this to Indyref and saying that as the extra 73 votes Labour received as a result of this is greater than the 69 votes by which Labour eventually won, the Blue Tories ensured the Red Tories won the seat. However, even in 2012, twice as many Tory transfers went to Labour than to SNP, so I suspect much of it reflects a long standing anti-Nationalist sentiment amongst the Tories.

Robert Hogg is chair of Mayfield and Easthouses Community Council, covering about half the ward’s voters. He has also been heavily involved in M & E Development Trust and chairs the Midlothian Federation of Community Councils. Robert’s near 20% of first preferences would, on these figures, suggest he will be elected in 2017 should he decide to stand again. His 468 transfers went more or less equally to Labour and SNP, suggesting his impact on the SNP/Labour first preference split was minimal.

In summary therefore, the overall impact of having different non-SNP/Labour candidates between 2012 and 2014 is not material. There must be something else happening.

I believe there were two factors at play. The most significant was that Labour ran a smart campaign. They brought people in, knocked on a lot of doors and in short, worked hard to win the seat. On polling day they had someone outside all the polling stations all day, unlike the SNP who seemed pretty lazy about even getting A-boards out. Labour wanted badly to win the seat, SNP were complacent.

Another factor may have been the SNP’s incumbent councillor in the ward, Lisa Beattie, who due to health problems has had a very low profile, certainly on the council and presumably in the ward over the last year.

And finally, where does this leave the council? Overall, we’re back where we started – 8 Labour, 8 SNP, Independent Peter de Vink (in coalition with SNP) and myself as Green councillor. However, unless Lisa Beattie returns to normal duties soon, this could present the SNP/Independent coalition with a few headaches and if the Labour group has any sense, it might want to start talking to me for a change.

Ian Baxter, Midlothian’s Green Party councillor
First published on Hearts and Mines

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