Sir David Butler, the great political scientist and psephologist, has died aged 98. He analysed every General Election in the UK from 1945 onwards and taught us the importance of 'percentages' and 'swings' in understanding election results.
I am writing this in the wake of Labour's victory in the Linn by-election last Thursday, which Sir David would have been able to explain much better than me. I shared his love of all elections and what they tell us, and it annoys me when the media report superficially on results, often missing their real significance. Scottish Council by-elections are the perfect example.
If covered at all, a newspaper will tell you that 'the SNP have held the seat' or 'Tories have made a gain from Independent'. Thanks to the vagaries of STV (the Single Transferable Vote) and the resultant multi-member wards, reducing a result to a gain or loss in this way would have made Sir David squirm. If the incumbent councillor before the by-election was the one councillor from that party out of four representing the ward, then it's hardly surprising that ends up being a loss at the by-election.
All credit to at least a couple of online commentators who take the time to research the background and report accurately on the trends: Andrew Teale, the psephologist who writes analyses for Britain Elects
and Allan Faulds, the 'political nerd' behind Ballot Box Scotland
. Sir David would be proud of both of them.
'Labour hold' doesn't begin to tell the story of what happened in the Linn by-election. For the second election in a row, Glasgow has had a by-election following the death of a Labour councillor. Malcolm Cunning was one of Glasgow Labour's most prominent figures, having led the group into May's election.
Linn is one of 23 wards in Glasgow and elects four councillors at a full election. It hasn't had any boundary changes since it was created and includes the Cathcart, Castlemilk and Croftfoot areas of Glasgow, as well as the village of Carmunnock. For elections to the Scottish Parliament, the ward is entirely within the Glasgow Cathcart constituency held by the SNP. At the first STV election, Labour easily won two seats in the ward with the Lib Dems and SNP getting one each. This changed in 2017 when Labour dropped to one, the SNP got two and the Conservatives one. This year it was the Conservatives' turn for a dramatic reversal in Glasgow, allowing Labour and the SNP to end up with two apiece.
If we look at vote shares, we can see that in 2017 Labour appear to have lost a large chunk of their vote to both the SNP and Conservatives, before recovering much of the latter earlier this year to put them within touching distance of the SNP. In May, the SNP had just over 33% of the first preference votes and Labour 32%. Labour's optimism as they entered the by-election campaign was based on their ability to pick up more transfers than the SNP as candidates drop out and the indications that they were winning back votes that had transferred to the Tories when they were seen as a bulwark against the nationalists.
When the votes were counted and the transfers made, this was exactly what had happened. Labour ended up with 43.4% of first preferences (up 11.4%) and the SNP 33.2%, slightly down. The Tory share fell from 11.5% to 6.4%. After transfers, Labour ended with 52.1% and the SNP 39.9%.
This shift in the Scottish political scene has been discernible since the elections last May. In the run up to that poll, I wrote that: 'the next few months will see our political parties pretending they never had anything in common with any other political party or grouping and offering us the red meat of party manifestos. We can expect to see our parties campaigning as if they are going to sweep all before them while in reality preparing to make all sorts of political arrangements and accommodations to form administrations in government'.
I added: 'Scottish Labour may talk big but they too know their best chance is to become the largest party in some council areas (although they could still get overall control in one or two)'.
In terms of political and strategic direction, the STV electoral voting system has made it virtually impossible for any one party to have a working majority to implement its manifesto. At the council elections in 2017, all mainland councils ended up with no single party in overall control. This diminution of a political mandate has gone hand in hand with the reduction in council powers and budgets.
In May 2022, the SNP won 37% of the seats with 34% of the first preference votes. Labour increased to 23% of seats with 22% of first preference votes. The Conservatives dropped 63 seats and ended up down to 20% of first preference votes. The SNP gained overall control of Dundee City Council and Labour of West Dunbartonshire Council. Independent councillors retained overall control of three councils: Shetland, Orkney and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles). The SNP emerged as the largest party in 22 councils, up by five from 2017; the Conservatives the largest party in four councils, down two; Labour the largest party in three councils (as in 2017). All the heady talk of no coalitions and no agreements rapidly gave way to the 'real politic' of forming working administrations.
When the dust settled, it became clear that the political map was changing here in Scotland. The SNP now lead 14 councils, the Tories 4 and Labour 10. The SNP's grip is slipping, the Conservative bubble has burst and Labour is climbing back up. The Linn result exemplified that shift.
And that is the context for understanding the result of the Linn by-election. But that won't stop some media outlet reducing it to 'Glasgow by-election- Labour hold'.