Wednesday, 6 March 2013

By-Election Preview: 7 March 2013

A bit of calm this week, with just one local by-election arranged for Thursday 7th March.

HELDON AND LAICH

Moray Council; caused by the resignation of Carolle Ralph, an SNP councillor, who had been the victim of an online hate-mail campaign.

Lossiemouth Aerial Shot
  © Copyright Craig Williams and licensed for
reuse under this 
Creative Commons Licence.
This is a rather misleadingly named ward covering the countryside to the west of the tiny city of Elgin, named after two geographic features: Heldon Hill can be found at the southern end of the ward, south-west of Elgin, while the Laich o' Moray is the coastal plain between the rivers Spey and Findhorn on which Elgin is built, a rich agricultural area (certainly when compared with the rest of Morayshire).  At the north-west corner of the ward is the tiny burgh of Burghead, a small port on a peninsula in the Moray Firth, while the feature of the Laich which is probably best known to the outside world is the Gordonstoun public school, where three generations of the Royal Family have been educated. 

But the reason I describe the ward as misleadingly named is that about half its electorate lives in the town of Lossiemouth, and the ward's economy is almost completely dependent on the RAF Lossiemouth airfield.  A major base for fast jets, including as current home of the 617 'Dambusters' squadron, RAF Lossiemouth has come well out of the recent strategic defence review and by the middle of the decade will become Scotland's only operational RAF base, the Eurofighter Typhoons currently stationed at Leuchars in Fife being transferred here later this year.

Before the introduction of PR for Scottish local elections in 2007 there were four single-member wards covering the area, three of which returned Independent councillors in 2003 with Lossiemouth West returning an SNP member.  In the rural areas, the Independent councillors for the old Burghsea, and Heldon and Laich wards (John Hogg and Eric McGillivray respectively) were re-elected in 2007, with the Tories' Allan Wright holding off independent candidate Chris Tuke to win the final seat.  Top of the poll that year by a large margin was the single SNP candidate David Stewart who polled 31% of the first preferences votes, 1.55 times the quota required for election.  Despite his party's pro-independence stace, Stewart spent most of the next five years campaigning to save RAF Lossiemouth from defence cuts.

Fast forward to the 2012 election, at which Hogg retired and the other three councillors stood for re-election.  This time the SNP stood two Lossiemouth-based candidates, Stewart being joined by Carolle Ralph.  Surprisingly Ralph was top of the poll on the first preferences, but was just one vote short of the quota for election, meaning Stewart, who started fourth in the count, could not rely on her surplus transfers; and so it came to pass that during the count he was overtaken by independent candidate Chris Tuke, from Burghead, who got significant transfers from an eliminated independent candidate who also lived in Burghead and from the Scottish Green candidate.  The partisan balance after the election remained 2 Independent, 1 SNP and 1 Conservative, but Stewart had effectively lost the SNP seat to his running-mate Ralph.

It was after that that the hate-mail campaign began against Ralph, who decided in December that enough was enough and resigned from the council.

Analysis of the ballot boxes in the ward shows that the SNP polled more than half of the vote in Lossiemouth, and also carried the postal votes, but struggle in the rural areas.  The strongest independent area was the coastal village of Hopeman, which is Eric McGillivray's home village (he got 64% there), and the indies also did very well in Burghead (Tuke polling 49% there; almost half of his votes were from this box).  The Conservatives led across the three rural polling districts on the plain but on a quite low share of the vote; the Greens may have carried the Alves polling district where their candidate was from, but the number of votes in that box was too low to publish and had to be aggregated with the Miltonduff polling district.  Running the votes from 2012 through an AV count gives quite a close result, with 1659 voters preferring McGillivray (Ind) to Ralph (SNP) and 1539 preferring Ralph to McGillivray.  Transfers could be crucial.

Control of the council is on something of a knife-edge.  The administration is formed of an Independent and Conservative coalition which before Ralph's resignation only held 13 of the council's 26 seats.  This by-election presents an opportunity for the ruling coalition to win back the overall majority it lost last year.

To hold their seat the SNP have selected Stuart Crowther, a journalist from Lossiemouth with the Scottish ITV franchise STV.  There are three competing independent candidates: in alphabetical order, John Cowe is a fish merchant from Lossiemouth who founded Lossie Seafoods; Jeff Hamilton, from Kinloss, who works at the RAF bases and lost his seat in the neighbouring Forres ward last year (he formerly represented a small part of this area as councillor for the old single-member Findhorn ward, being unopposed in the 2003 election); and Nick Traynor, a former police sergeant from Lossiemouth.  Pete Bloomfield, a retired RAF air traffic controller from Lossiemouth, is the Conservative candidate, and the Scottish Green Party's James MacKessack-Leitch, from Alves, who works for the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership, is the only candidate from the 2012 election here to try again.

Don't wait up on Thursday night for the result; the count will take place on Friday morning at Lossiemouth Town Hall.

Parliamentary constituency: Moray
Holyrood constituency: Moray (Highlands and Islands region)
ONS Travel to Work Area: Moray

Pete Bloomfield (C)
John Cowe (Ind)
Stuart Crowther (SNP)
Jeff Hamilton (Ind)
James MacKessack-Leitch (Scot Grn)
Nick Traynor (Ind)

May 2012 first preferences Ind 1560 SNP 1475 C 688 Grn 262 (quotas: Ind 1.95 SNP 1.84 C 0.86 Grn 0.33 seats: 2Ind/SNP/C)
May 2007 first preferences Ind 3057 SNP 1646 C 606 (quotas: Ind 2.87 SNP 1.55 C 0.57 seats: 2Ind/SNP/C)


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