By-Election Result: Preston, Seton and Gosford


After nearly five long years, the end of the 2017 – 2022 local council term is in sight. Before the full elections in May we had just one final by-election to get through, in East Lothian’s Preston, Seton and Gosford ward. This was a tremendously sad note to end the term on, as it had come about from the death of very long serving Labour councillor, and council leader, Willie Innes.

East Lothian as a whole had been very good for Labour in 2017 and this ward was no exception. Re-calculating the result from the full election for a single seat had them very comfortably ahead of the SNP. However, 2017 had been a peak for Labour and a trough for the SNP, as evidenced by the SNP gaining the East Lothian Holyrood constituency for the first time last year.

I reckoned Labour were favourites, but couldn’t write off the prospect of an SNP upset. The preview even floated the possibility of a Conservative win, but for obvious reasons nobody would really have been thinking that by the time the election rolled around.

First Preferences

In the event, Labour did indeed emerge victorious, with a clear first preference lead, and with other parties arranged such that in my experience there would have been zero chance of transfers making a difference to outcome. That said, these figures might seem surprising in the current context. As I always do, I’d caution people against drawing too many conclusions from a single local by-election.

In short, the two leading parties fell back and everyone else was up. Labour’s decline was a reasonable chunk whilst the SNP’s was much smaller, and an even smaller gain again for the Conservatives narrowed the gap between second and third placed parties. 

The other three parties picked up barely more than 10% between them, though that was nonetheless a gain for the returning parties. For the Greens, not only did they have the largest positive swing, but they were also the only party to actually increase their actual number of votes compared to 2017, albeit by literally one vote. Lib Dem gains were more modest, whilst the local independent placed dead last.


As no candidate had an outright majority of the vote, transfer rounds were necessary. The quota to reach here was 2327 votes.

As I said above, there was never any prospect of transfers changing the situation here, and so Labour duly went on to win a nice, easy victory over the SNP. Both SNP and Conservative voters are far more likely to preference Labour than each other, so it basically didn’t matter which way round they placed. Compared to the 2017 re-calculation both finalists actually improved their share as fewer voters had exhausted their ballots. However, remember that exhaustion is more common when parties have multiple candidates as was the case at the full election, so this doesn’t mean that much.

Detailed Data

Machine counts mean some really juicy data, though it doesn’t look like the data for polling district level information is available. First we’ll start with the breakdown by polling district.

Comparing with 2017, every party ended up with their strongest results in the same places. For Labour that was western Prestonpans, the SNP and Greens Cockenzie and Port Seton, and finally Longniddry for the Conservatives and Lib Dems. The Independent’s in-person vote was sub-3% everywhere, so didn’t appear to have any particular basis of support.

There is however one notable change in the overall complexion here, which is that Cockenzie and Port Seton saw a big dip in the Labour vote and corresponding growth in the Conservative share. That means the ward split with two districts apiece led by each of those parties, rather than the three-one advantage Labour held at the full election.

Finally, we can turn to second preferences.

As is so often the case, absolutely nothing particularly surprising here. Oh look, there’s a strong, mutal preference flow between SNP and Greens. The Conservatives and Lib Dems favouring Labour, in a strong Labour ward? Groundbreaking. 

More notable might be that Labour’s non-transfers were still massive, which had this somehow come down to an SNP-Conservative match would have really helped boost the former’s chances. Of those who did mark a preference, the Conservatives were most popular, but barely more so than the SNP, who were also the most popular choice for the rather indecisive Independent bloc of voters.

And that’s it! We’re done! This era of Scottish local elections is officially closed, the new one to begin in May.

There will be one final look back over the sum and total of every by-election that happened in the past five years, but after that my entire focus in terms of local votes goes on the elections. The level and depth of coverage for these is going to beyond even what I did for Holyrood last year (because we get more data from the count), so if you can afford to do so, it’d be such a massive help to pop a few quid into my crowdfunder or general donations to support my work.

If you find this or other Ballot Box Scotland output useful and/or interesting, and you can afford to do so, please consider donating to support my work. I love doing this, but it’s a one-man project and takes a lot of time and effort. All donations, no matter how small, are greatly appreciated and extremely helpful.
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