There can't be another town in Scotland that says "by-election" quite like Hamilton, and there was certainly no disappointment tonight as the SNP surged into a comfortable first place in a ward that was narrowly won by Labour last time around. However, it's technically an SNP hold, as the vacancy was caused by the death of an SNP councillor.
Hamilton North & East by-election result :
SNP 42.9% (+2.5)
Labour 33.6% (-9.4)
Conservatives 18.5% (+8.4)
Greens 3.3% (+0.2)
Liberal Democrats 1.8% (n/a)
The swing from Labour to SNP was around 6%. Of course, the SNP always start from a relatively high base in local by-elections due to having won the nationwide popular vote in 2012, so perhaps a more meaningful way of looking at this result is that it's the rough equivalent of a 17% or 18% swing at last year's general election. That's handsome enough, although not as high as the SNP were actually managing in most traditional Labour areas in May.
The mystery here is the strength of the Tory vote, and I'm wondering if there are local or personal factors that might explain it. It's true that an increased Tory vote share is not unexpected in a low-turnout by-election, because Tory voters are more affluent and thus more likely to turn out. But that factor wouldn't in itself be enough to explain an 8.4% increase. Doubtless we'll hear from some quarters that this is hard evidence of the Tory progress hinted at in the most recent Ipsos-Mori and Survation polls, but it could just as easily be a completely freakish result.
Incidentally, just to amplify the point I made to Mike Small in the email exchange the other day, less than half of the Green vote transferred to the SNP after the Green candidate was eliminated on the second count. 19% went to Labour, 6% to the Tories, and 29% was non-transferable. Of the Green voters that did transfer, more than one-third went to unionist parties. Not much evidence there of the elusive "mass tactical vote for the SNP" that Mike seems to think should be treated as established fact.
UPDATE : Could I just point out to my ever-growing fan club on a certain Facebook group that their feelings about me seem to have led them to a serious failure of mental arithmetic. It is not true that three times as many Green voters in Hamilton transferred to the SNP as to other parties combined. Fewer than twice as many did. And nowhere in this post did I "have a go at the Greens" - I'm simply making a straightforward observation that a very substantial proportion of Green voters prefer unionist parties to the SNP, and that it's therefore implausible to claim that Green sympathisers will be contributing to a "mass tactical vote" for the SNP on the constituency ballot in May (the operative word being "mass").
If I've ever used the phrase "SNP 1 and 2" that several members of that group attribute to me, I'd be interested to know where I did it. Certainly I'd strongly advise people not to write '1' and '2' on their ballot papers, regardless of which party they're attempting to vote for, because the returning officer might interpret that as a spoilt ballot. The '2' would be particularly risky, because the list vote is a completely distinct ballot, not a second preference.