The Borders Party’s win was the Conservatives’ loss last Friday, as local vet Iain Gillespie became Leaderdale and Melrose’s new councillor.
Gasps of surprise, then cheers erupted in the council chamber as returning officer Tracey Logan read the by-election results, with Tory Rachael Hamilton polling most votes (956) and Mr Gillespie second (814), yet the Borders Party winning by the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system.
Liberal Democrat John Paton Day came third, the SNP’s Harry Cummings fourth, followed by Labour’s Robin Tatler and UKIP’s Sherry Fowler respectively.
The “very happy” newcomer said: “I didn’t expect to win. I was the only one without a manifesto, because I think you make your manifesto when you hear what there is to do. It was a vote for the Scottish Borders. I would like to try my very best to keep up the good work that Nicholas [Watson] started.”
Mr Watson, who vacated the seat to live in Cumbria, revealed it was “a crucial moment” for the party he founded. He said: “If Iain hadn’t got in, we would have to have been honest with ourselves and say, ‘to what extent do we carry on, or do we mothball the party until the next election?’”
But Friday’s endorsement, he added, “shows the Borders Party isn’t just about me and Sandy Aitchison, it’s a movement whose time has come. People are fed up with national politics and local government, and they want to put local things first.
“People who were wary of us at the start understand that we’re a straightforward, honest effort to bring common sense, independent thinking back into local government.”
Meanwhile disappointed Tories blamed STV for their defeat and called for a return to first past the post for council by-elections.
Ms Hamilton, who co-owns St Boswells’ Buccleuch Arms, said: “While I am obviously delighted to have come so close to getting elected, the system in this instance has worked against me. Despite being most people’s preferred candidate, transfers have meant that we have missed out.”
Under the STV proportional representation system, to win outright a candidate must reach a quota of votes: the total number cast, divided by two, plus one.
In Leaderdale and Melrose’s case, this target threshold was 1,734, calculated from the 3,487 residents who voted (a 42 per cent turnout). Ballot papers asked voters to list all six candidates in order of preference. While Ms Hamilton polled the most votes when first choices were counted, she failed to equal or exceed the quota.
The candidate with least votes is then excluded, and their votes transferred and counted beside second preferences. This process continues until one candidate attains the quota, or only one candidate is left. So while the Tories would have won under first past the post, where whoever polls the most votes wins, the Borders Party won under STV in round five, with Mr Gillespie reaching the quota, and beating his Conservative rival by 1,444 votes to 1,283.
Borders Tory MSP John Lamont said: “I don’t believe this is the best way to choose a councillor when a vacancy occurs mid-term. I am sure many other Borders residents would, like me, prefer to see a return to the first past the post system in these circumstances.”