Haddington and Lammermuir (East Lothian) By-Election, 09/05/19

May’s second council by-election remains on the east coast, but this time down in East Lothian. The Conservative councillor for the Haddington and Lammermuir ward, Brian Small, resigned stating dissatisfaction with the way his group was operating. Small had been freshly elected to replace the previous Conservative councillor for the ward in 2017, and served a brief spell as the Conservative group leader on the council.

Haddington and Lammermuir is one of six wards in East Lothian, and elects four councillors at a normal election. The ward looks pretty huge due to covering a big chunk of the Lammermuir Hills, but most of that area is sparsely populated. Half of the ward’s population lives in Haddington itself, with another quarter in Ormiston, Pencaitland and Gifford. More scattered villages like Athelstaneford, Garvald, Humbie, alongside East and West Saltoun will make up most of the remainder.

The whole ward is included in the UK and Scottish Parliament versions of the East Lothian constituency, both of which are held by Labour. At Holyrood the constituency has always been Labour, though the 151 votes (and ensuing recount) between then-leader of Scottish Labour Iain Grey and an SNP challenger in 2011 made for one of the most exciting aspects of that election. Apart from 2003 the SNP have always placed second there. At Westminster the SNP typically placed fourth behind the Conservatives and Lib Dems for most of the past 20 years, before winning the constituency in their almost clean-sweep in 2015. In 2017 Labour re-took the seat, with their 5.5% majority being their second highest at that election.

East Lothian dropped an entire ward in 2017, meaning substantial boundary changes across the council. Haddington and Lammermuir expanded to take in Pencaitland and Ormiston from the previous Fa’side ward. A shift in the area’s flavour was prompted by the Lib Dem collapse post-2010. The older version of this ward elected three councillors and in 2007 those were one each from the Conservatives, SNP and Lib Dems. In Fa’side it was two Labour, one SNP and one Lib Dem. Both Lib Dems were replaced by Labour councillors in 2012, with the party doubling its vote and going from fifth to first in Haddington and Lammermuir. For the expanded ward in 2017, the seats fell two to Labour and one apiece to the Conservatives and SNP.

Rarely for a by-election there’s a completely clean slate of candidates for this by-election. None of them stood in any of East Lothian’s wards in 2017. It’s also the shortest ballot for the by-elections called so far this year, with the Greens missing from the Holyrood 5 and only UKIP standing outside of them. The full list of candidates is;

  • Neal Black (Labour)
  • Stuart Crawford (Liberal Democrats)
  • Lorraine Glass (SNP)
  • Craig Hoy (Conservative)
  • David Sisson (UKIP)

As ever, to get the best comparison between the original vote and the by-election, we need to go beyond the surface and re-calculate a result for electing a single councillor. The top half of the chart shows the first preferences in 2017, as well as the party of the successfully elected councillors. Transfer flows are on the bottom half. Remember that in a single seat election under STV, a candidate needs 50%+1 of the valid votes cast (a quota) to win.

Round 7 (final head-to-head stage);

  • Labour – 3478 (44.6%)
  • Conservative – 2626 (33.7%)
  • Didn’t Transfer – 1686 (21.6%)

The Lab-Con-SNP 1st-2nd-3rd pattern holds through the entire count here, showing Labour would have won a single councillor election by quite a comfortable margin. Notably, the SNP’s 3rd place here makes this the first by-election since Ballot Box Scotland launched where they aren’t in the top two for the final head-to-head. Taking that alongside the recent electoral history of the ward and East Lothian as a whole, I’d be inclined to say that Labour will emerge victorious from the by-election.

However, the 7.1% between Labour and the SNP in round 5 isn’t huge. A swing of a few percent from Labour to the SNP could result in a Conservative-SNP contest instead. Bear in mind that the Conservatives have generally increased their vote share in recent council by-elections so they are unlikely to slip into third. Additionally, direct Lab-Con transfers were about 20% higher than Lab-SNP transfers in the ward in 2017. This means that whilst the Conservatives would almost undoubtedly again lose a head-to-head with Labour, who would benefit from a whopping 9 times as many transfers from the SNP, they are likely to come out on top against the SNP.

Call: Lab-Con contest, leans Labour.