Thursday, 28 November 2013

By-Election Preview: 28 November 2013

One by-election in Scotland this week, with another five contests (plus one unopposed return) covered over on the English Elections blog.

Highland Council; caused by the resignation of SNP councillor Alex MacLeod after he was charged with exceeding his election expenses limit at the 2012 ordinary election.  When elected he was 19 years old and the youngest-ever Highland councillor.

Dunnet Head Sign
  © Copyright Terry Robinson and licensed for
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Welcome to the far north.  Caithness has a population of around 24,000 (for the purposes of comparison, roughly the same as Radcliffe) spread over 712 square miles.  Sixty per cent of that population is accounted for by the county town of Wick and the port of Thurso, so the rest of the county - which forms this ward - is essentially empty by English standards.  However, by Highland standards this rural area is relatively well-populated; the topography is generally flat and fertile, and many small farming and crofting hamlets have survived outside the main towns.  Not that the whole area is fertile; a large chunk of Caithness extending into Sutherland is covered by the Flow Country, Europe's largest expanse of blanket bog and a candidate for World Heritage Site status.

The main centres of population in the ward are Castletown on the north coast, the inland village of Halkirk, and the settlements of Lybster and Dunbeath on the south-east coast and the road to Inverness; the main reasons to visit are the tourist trap of John o' Groats, the most northerly point on the British mainland at Dunnet Head and, in between the two, the late Queen Mother's former holiday home at the Castle of Mey.  However, the main contributor to the ward's economy is the nuclear research establishment at Dounreay to the west of Thurso, whose decomissioning - ongoing since 1994 - still supports a large number of jobs.

This is not a very party political area.  At the last elections to Highland council under first-past-the-post in 2003 all four of the predecessor wards were uncontested, with two Liberal Democrats and two Independents being elected.  The introduction of PR in 2007 led to a shake-up; two new independent councillors were elected, the Lib Dems lost a seat to the SNP, and the one independent councillor who stood for re-election (as a Labour candidate) was defeated.  In 2012 the two independent councillors (Willie MacKay and Robert Coghill) were easily re-elected, the SNP passed their seat on to MacLeod, and the Lib Dem councillor retired; with no Lib Dem candidate to replace him, his seat was taken by a third Independent.  Independent councillor Robert Coghill resigned earlier this year on health grounds, and the ensuing by-election - held in May - was won by his wife Gillian in the first round.

This second by-election in the ward this year will be defended by the SNP's Ed Boyter, from Reay west of Thurso, who will need to attract a lot of transfers to win considering that the SNP have never polled above 21% in the ward.  There are three rival Independent candidates standing: in alphabetical order they are Tina Irving, a freelance writer from Thurso; Matthew Reiss, who has recently retired as chief of police in Thurso; and Winifred Sutherland, a businesswoman from Dunbeath.  Completing the ballot paper is the Conservative candidate, B&B owner Kerensa Carr from Dornoch on the east coast of Sutherland, which is an hour's drive from anywhere in Caithness.  Presumably she is only a paper candidate.

Parliamentary constituency: Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross
Holyrood constituency: Caithness, Sutherland and Ross (Highlands and Islands region)
ONS Travel to Work Areas: Wick (whole) and Thurso
Postcode districts: KW1, KW3, KW5, KW6, KW7, KW12, KW14

Ed Boyter (SNP)
Kerensa Carr (C)
Tina Irving (Ind)
Matthew Reiss (Ind)
Winifred Sutherland (Ind)

May 2013 by-election Ind 1317 SNP 525 Lab 417 C 203
May 2012 result Inds 2590 (3 seats) SNP 550 (1 seat) Lab 302 C 109

May 2007 result Inds 1543 (2 seats) LD 1154 (1 seat) SNP 871 (1 seat) Lab 532 C 531