Wednesday, 4 November 2015

By-election Preview: 5 November 2015

HUNTLY, STRATHBOGIE AND HOWE OF ALFORD
Aberdeenshire council
A double by-election caused by the death of SNP councillor Joanna Strathdee and the resignation of Liberal Democrat councillor Alastair Ross.  Strathdee, who has died of cancer at the age of 60, was first elected to Aberdeenshire council in 1999 and led the SNP group from 2007 to 2010; she also fought Gordon in the 2005 Westminster election and Aberdeen North in 2010.  Outside of politics, Strathdee was a former bus driver with a passion for motorcycling and Highland dancing - becoming a Highland dancing teacher while she was in her 20s.  Ross, whose resignation came for health reasons, had been an Aberdeenshire councillor since 2007.

We have here a large rural ward in the interior of Aberdeenshire.  The largest town is Huntly, on the main road and railway line from Aberdeen to Inverness; named after the Earls of Huntly, the chief of the Clan Gordon, the town is home to the ruined Huntly Castle, the Earls' ancestral home until the time of the Civil War.  In later times Huntly was the home of the former Gordon Highlanders regiment, while its main industries now are tourism and shortbread.

Huntly is the centre of the wider Strathbogie district, named after the River Bogie, while to the south lies the Howe of Alford, based on the small but surprisingly busy village of Alford (the L is silent).  Alford claims to be the home of the Aberdeen Angus breed of cattle, while the Grampian Transport Museum attracts tourists; the village is growing strongly as a commuter area for Aberdeen, thirty miles away, thanks to the strength of the oil industry.

The Tories had the most to lose here from the introduction of PR in 2007, as they had won two of the predecessor wards in 2003 (Huntly East and Strathbogie), while Huntly West was SNP (it was Joanna Strathdee's seat) and Alford voted Lib Dem.  However, the Lib Dems were the strongest party across the area in terms of votes and they were the only party to try for two seats in 2007: a decision which the SNP must have regretted after topping the poll but only having one candidate.  In the 2012 election the Lib Dems gave up one of their seats without a fight, while the SNP tried for two: on first preferences the SNP consolidated their lead on 35%, the Tories polling 26%, the Lib Dems 18% and independent candidate John Latham getting 14%, but it was Latham - thanks to strong transfers from the Greens and Tories - who picked up the second Lib Dem seat by finishing 77 votes ahead of the second SNP candidate.

This is Scotland's second double by-election under the Single Transferable Vote (the first one was in Edinburgh in September), and to win one of the two available seats candidates will need to get one-third of the vote, either on first preferences or by attracting transfers.  That shouldn't be a problem for the defending SNP candidate Gwyneth Petrie, office manager for the local MSP Dennis Robertson.  The defending Lib Dem candidate Daniel Millican, a solicitor from Alford, has a tougher task starting from third place in the first preference vote: in order to win he will need to overtake the Tory candidate Margo Stewart, a farmer's wife and retired teacher.  Also standing are Sarah Flavell for Labour and Derek Scott for the Libertarian Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Gordon (former Huntly East, Huntly West and Strathbogie wards), West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (former Alford ward)
Scottish Parliament constituency: Aberdeenshire West
ONS Travel to Work Area: Aberdeen

May 2012 result SNP 1430 C 1091 LD 752 Ind 593 Grn 256
May 2007 result SNP 1839 LD 1790 C 1635 Lab 375 Grn 251 Ind 91

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