'Here I am': Labour Councillor Returns in Local By-election
Updated: Mar 13
'Handsome Granda' Graeme Lawrence regains his former seat in the Dyce, Bucksburn and Danestone ward
By Fergus Doogan
Photo Credit: Aberdeen City Council
Former Labour councillor Graeme Lawrence was re-elected to Aberdeen City Council on Thursday, via a by-election held in the Dyce, Bucksburn and Danestone ward. The ward — which stretches from the River Don, just outside King’s College Campus, to the northwestern reaches of the city — lost one of its four councillors when Conservative Avril MacKenzie passed away in December. Ms MacKenzie, who was often seen walking her dog in the local area, was described by one local MSP as a Conservative ‘stalwart’, ‘who tirelessly worked for the residents’ of her ward.
Lawrence was previously elected to City Council in 2012 before losing his seat to the late Ms MacKenzie in 2017, in an election which saw his colleagues suspended from the Labour Party for forming a coalition with the Conservatives.
The campaign was far from smooth sailing for Lawrence, with his election email address — ‘email@example.com’ — mocked in the press, while his pledge to introduce £2 bus fares across Aberdeen, priced by Labour at £16 million, was estimated to cost nearly twice as much.
This race was expected to be tight and, at the Townhouse count the next day, it proved to be so. Just as Lawrence looked to regain his seat, the Conservatives’ Akila Kanthaswamy sought to retain it for her party. The SNP’s Tomasz Brzezinski also looked to have a fair chance of victory, with his party already holding two of the ward’s four seats.
Scottish local government elections are decided using the ‘single transferable vote’ system, whereby voters rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate collects enough ‘first preference votes’ to cross the threshold — in this case fifty percent — then that candidate is elected. Otherwise, candidates with too little support are eliminated and their votes are reallocated to each voters’ next preference. This process is repeated until a candidate collects sufficient support to cross the threshold. With that fifty percent threshold, a line no candidate was likely to pass on first preference votes alone. This was a contest which was always going to be decided in the transfers — the votes which move from eliminated candidates to the voters’ remaining preferences.
From the beginning of the counting of first preference votes, the SNP’s Brzezinski was in the lead. His lead was never a large one, however, with both the Conservatives’ Kanthaswamy and Labour’s Lawrence close behind. By the end of the first count, as expected, no candidate had been elected.
With the count coinciding with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Returning Officer, Fraser Bell, took to the stage at eleven o’clock to lead those assembled in the national moment of reflection. The busy Townhouse fell silent as the bells in the building's iconic clock tower sounded eleven o’clock. Thoughts of Russian atrocities in Ukraine contrasted starkly with the jovial, democratic atmosphere in the hall — something to be thankful for.
The count resumed, with the task of eliminating candidates, reallocating their votes and repeating underway. It took eight cycles of this process, with all but one other candidate eliminated, for Lawrence to cross the threshold and be elected.
For the Conservatives, it was a failure to benefit from transfers in the same way as Labour that spelled their defeat. While first preference Liberal Democrat voters were kinder to the Conservatives, once the SNP candidate was eliminated in the penultimate round, SNP transfers took Labour handily over the line.
When asked about the result, an unexpected outcome for the SNP, one activist ventured: ‘... there’s something deeply unmotivating [for voters] about the leader of the party you support stepping down.’ Indeed, it cannot have been easy for Brzezinski to campaign in the shadow of First Minister and SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation the week before; not least in the North East, an area of Scotland in which support for the SNP is famously fragile.
Lawrence made reference to these circumstances in his victory speech, citing what he believed was a national swing towards Labour. His speech was otherwise brief, quoting ‘Terminator’ — ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, I’ll be back, and here I am’ — and concluding that Labour ‘mean business, and we’re back to stay.’