I have received some unexpected but welcome news from John Thurso and Martin Hayman. Carolyn Caddick of the Scottish Liberal Democrats emerged victorious in a close-run contest with the SNP in Inverness South, a huge boost to the party in advance of the local elections next May.
The full result and breakdown can be found here, on Highland Council's website.
There are some interesting observations to make. Firstly and most obviously, that the Liberal Democrats are still very much alive in their traditional heartlands and that we can win by-elections. It also demonstrates the importance of campaigning for every vote and fighting local elections on local issues. But there are some other interesting observations to be made, especially if we compare the result with that of 2007.
The first preference votes cast in 2007 were as follows:
Crawford (Independent) 524
Haycock (Independent) 353
Holden (Labour) 671
MacDonald (Conservative) 413
Pedersen (SNP) 1058
Prag (Scottish Liberal Democrats) 902
What we have seen here is the almost complete disintegration of the independent vote. Independents traditionally do very well in the Highlands and form the largest group on the council. I am not in a position to determine why this particular candidate fared so poorly and can only speculate that this was either because of their stance on key local issues or, more likely, the product of a "squeeze" in a contest between the Lib Dems and SNP. But finishing behind the homophobic Scottish "Christian" Party is a failure in anyone's book and what seems fairly certain is that the collapse in the independent vote worked to our advantage rather than that of the Nationalists.
It is also startling to see how poorly Labour performed. Labour have yet to master the art of opposition, either at Westminster or in Holyrood and as a result have struggled to re-assert themselves - it is worth pointing out that this by-election was held as a result of the resignation of Labour councillor John Holden, who was recently convicted of fraud. While the STV system we have in place in Scotland means that this "Lib Dem gain from Labour" can not be interpreted as the dramatic fall from grace that such a result in England could be, it is certain that the party finishing only 230 votes behind us last time weren't even at the races. There was evidence of tactical voting against Labour, with many former Labour supporters choosing to vote either Lib Dem or SNP. And this in spite of concerns about the Lib Dems' role in the Westminster coalition and the very recent reverses suffered by Lib Dems in Highland seats at the Scottish Parliamentary elections earlier this year. A strong second place was the very least Labour should have expected given the Lib Dems' current perceived weaknesses. Serious questions must be asked of the local Labour campaign.
It may be, of course, that confidence in the local Labour Party has dipped following Holden's conviction, but evidence elsewhere (not least Barnsley and Oldham & Saddleworth) is that Labour voters are apparently forgiving of the indiscretions of former elected members. Or at least they don't hold such misdemeanours against new Labour candidates wishing to succeed them. Perhaps Highland electorates are made of different stuff.
Whether this is symptomatic of a wider shift in the Highlands away from Labour and towards the Lib Dems is uncertain. In these kinds of contests, there are usually very strong local factors in play which determine the final outcome. It would be very unwise to read too much into it, other than that the SNP will be hugely disappointed - on the basis of the 2007 result alone they could realistically have expected to have won this contest quite comfortably.
Scottish Liberal Democrats are justified in taking encouragement from this result. Of course, this one result does not in itself constitute a fightback or a turning point. But we should be uplifted by the outcome, while being realistic about the need to redefine our message and building strong local campaigns.