Midlothian East By-Election, 25/03/2021

If you feel a bit stumped by any of the information here, or wonder how it’s possible to get this level of depth, you can check this little guide to how I preview By-Elections.

NOTE: This by-election may be re-scheduled at short notice due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Ward Profile

Our second by-election on the 25th of March, and the final preview of a whopping eleven in the month, is the East ward of Midlothian Council. This one has arisen due to the resignation of SNP councillor Kenneth Baird, who was a freshly elected councillor in 2017.

Midlothian East is one of 6 wards on Midlothian council, all of which elect 3 councillors at a full election. It covers the Eskbank suburb of Dalkeith as well as the neighbouring village of Newbattle, the joint settlements of Mayfield and Easthouses, and a string of rural villages most prominently including Pathhead, but also Cousland, Edgehead and Fala.

At Holyrood, the ward lies within the Midlothian North and Musselburgh constituency, which has been held by the SNP since creation in 2011. The previous Midlothian constituency had been Labour for the duration. For Westminster, it’s part of the Midlothian constituency which was likewise Labour until the 2015 SNP tidal wave. Labour regained the seat briefly at the snap election in 2017, before it once again went SNP in 2019.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

There was only a very, very minor boundary change here in 2017, removing a handful of houses near Newbattle, so we can safely compare all elections since 2007. At that first election the seats went one each to the SNP, Labour and Lib Dems, with the SNP in the first preference lead by a hair over Labour. The Lib Dem councillor then defected to Labour quite early in the term.

In 2012, the SNP extended their first preference lead, but only the original Labour councillor was elected for that party. The Lib Dems didn’t even stand a candidate that time around, and after transfers the Independent candidate Peter de Vink managed a narrow victory over the second SNP candidate.

The most recent election saw big changes, with the Conservatives becoming the leading party by trebling their vote share, taking the seat vacated by the retiring de Vink. They only placed narrowly ahead of the SNP, and Labour weren’t a million miles behind to take the third seat. Also not that far behind was a new independent candidate, Robert Hogg, who actually did far better in first preferences than de Vink had, but just couldn’t break through the near-quota results for the three big parties.

Detailed 2017 Data

I’m not 100% certain of my polling district breakdowns here, as there were some changes to the polling scheme between 2017 and me checking this, giving a different number of boxes. Unfortunately the Council didn’t respond to my request for information, so we’re making do with what I hope is correct!

The Conservatives had their strongest lead in the district covering Eskbank and Newbattle, whereas the SNP excelled in the south of Mayfield. Labour performed best amongst postal voters, their in-person vote being strongest in the district covering the hamlet of Whitehill and what seems to be the Kippielaw area of Dalkeith.

We can see how Hogg had such a strong result overall by the fact he had a clear lead in the districts covering Mayfield and Easthouses, whilst the Greens’ best result came from the rural districts covering Cousland, Pathhead and Fala.

Second preferences fell in what were pretty standard ways, with strong SNP-Green mutual preferencing as always. There was a weaker, but still strong, degree of return preferences between Hogg and Labour voters, and the Conservatives too were most favourable to the Independent option.

Candidates

It’s the usual Holyrood 5 for this one – no return for Robert Hogg – and all of these candidates are new for this electoral cycle in Midlothian. The full list of candidates is:

Margaret Louise Davis (Liberal Democrat)
Hazel Flanagan (Labour)
Joy Hannah Godfrey (Green)
Stuart McKenzie (SNP)
Alan Symon (Conservative)

2017 Re-Calculation and Prediction

As ever, to get the best comparison between the original vote and a single seat by-election, we need to dig a bit deeper and re-calculate a result for electing a single councillor. Remember that in a single seat election under STV, a candidate needs 50%+1 of the valid votes cast (a quota) to win. For this re-calculation, that was 2827 votes.

Stage 7 (final head-to-head stage); 

Labour - 2401 (42.5%)
Conservative - 1816 (32.1%)
Didn't Transfer - 1435 (25.4%)

Even by the standards of STV, this is a pretty incredible re-calculation. Over the course of it, Labour climb from third place to victory. The stage that seals the deal for them in stage 4, where they have 1749 (30.9%) votes, barely ahead of the Conservatives and SNP who both have 1740 (30.8%). That’s the first time I’ve seen a tie in an elimination stage, and in Scotland that is resolved by removing the candidate who had fewer votes at the previous stage, in this case the SNP. It’s rare for the SNP not to place in the top two, and it must be unique to do so despite seemingly tying for that place in vote terms!

Since that crucial stage was so wafer thin, this is really hard to predict. If it had eliminated the Conservatives instead, Labour win more handily at 44.9% vs 31.7% for the SNP. If Labour had been eliminated, the Conservatives would have much more narrowly triumphed over the SNP at 39.4% against 36.0%. That’s the kind of margin that is absolutely possible to imagine being overturned under current polling.

When it comes down to the three parties this time, if the Conservatives place third I’d expect their transfers to put Labour over the line. Ditto for the SNP. If instead Labour place third their transfers could clinch it for the Conservatives, especially given usual lower by-election turnout favouring them, or they could prove too little to close the gap if the SNP are still on the up.

Call: Labour-SNP-Conservative Tossup

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