By-Election Preview: Preston, Seton and Gosford (East Lothian) 20th of January 2022

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Ward Profile

After some false starts, I can absolutely promise you we’re onto the very last by-election of the 2017-2022 Council Term – indeed, this vote itself will come in 2022. However, I’m very sorry indeed to say this trip to East Lothian has followed the death of Willie Innes, Labour Councillor for Preston, Seton and Gosford. Innes had been an extremely long-serving councillor, first elected back in 1988, and had been the Council Leader since 2012.

Preston, Seton and Gosford is one of 6 wards making up the East Lothian council area, and elects 4 councillors at a full election. The ward traces a relatively narrow stretch of the coast, from Prestonpans in the west, through the dual town of Cockenzie and Port Seton, out to Longniddry in the east. 

For elections to both parliaments, the ward is part of an East Lothian constituency. The slightly smaller Scottish Parliament seat proved one of the most resilient Labour constituencies in the country, as the party held it against strong SNP results in 2011 and 2016 before finally losing it in 2021.

The UK Parliament equivalent went SNP in their 2015 landslide, reverted to Labour in 2017, and then swung back the SNP in 2019. The constituency is rather notable for the fact that MP, and former Scottish Government Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill became one of the two SNP MPs that defected to the newly formed Alba Party ahead of this year’s Holyrood election.

Boundaries and Recent Election History

This ward emerged unchanged from 2017’s boundary review, so it’s easy to compare previous results. At the first STV election in 2007, Labour were the clear winners in this ward, and elected two councillors. The SNP and Lib Dems split the remaining seats between them, although the Conservatives had won more votes than the latter. Partway through the term, Lib Dem councillor Stuart Currie defected to the SNP – the party he continues to represent to this day as the local group leader.

In 2012, Labour had an extremely strong result in this ward. Innes alone managed a weighty 38.8% of the vote, which added to his ward colleague’s share gave their party 54.3% of the vote. That’s a level where it’d be conceivable to win three councillors – had they stood the candidates. They didn’t, so the other two seats went to the SNP, though Currie had shifted to another ward for this vote.

At the last election, Labour obviously hoped to repeat their 2012 success and did stand three candidates. Although retaining a clear vote lead, they weren’t anywhere near what they’d have needed to elect them all, and instead remained on two councillors. Instead, the change came from the SNP losing one of their seats to the Conservatives, who almost trebled their share versus 2012.

Detailed 2017 Data

Breaking 2017 down into individual polling districts, it’s unsurprising that Labour were ahead in most of them, with their best results coming from Prestonpans. Though they placed third overall, the Conservatives were the only other party to lead in a district, doing so very comfortably around Longniddry.

The SNP meanwhile were roughly as strong in both eastern Prestonpans and the Cockenzie and Port Seton district. Although the two smaller parties had very modest shares, the Greens had their best performance in the Cockenzie and Port Seton district too, whilst the Lib Dems were strongest in Longniddry.

Looking at 2017’s second preferences, and the immediate standout is that almost two-thirds of Labour voters didn’t have a preference outside of the party. I believe I’ve remarked before that when a party stands three candidates, it’s unsurprising relatively few of their voters use any further preferences given how rapidly preference use drops off.

For the few that did mark a later preference, the most popular target were the Conservatives, who similarly were most likely to prefer Labour. Lib Dems also proved pretty favourable to Labour, and there was the usual strong mutual preferencing between the SNP and Greens.


Appropriately for the final vote of the term, we’ve got a complete set from the Holyrood 5 contesting this one, and they are joined by an Independent. Apart from the SNP’s Janis Wilson, who was their unsuccessful second candidate in the ward in 2017, these are all entirely fresh faces in this electoral cycle as far as I can determine.

Calum Miller (Independent)
Ben Morse (Liberal Democrat)
Andy Ovens (Conservative)
Tim Porteus (Green)
Janis Wilson (SNP)
Colin Yorkston (Labour)

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 3699 votes.

Given their first preference lead and how second preferences looked, you could probably have guessed Labour were going to easily come out on top here. Having placed just over 20% ahead of the SNP after transfers, this is the kind of past performance that’d typically have me thinking things clearly favoured the re-calculation winner. However, Labour have had a very tough time of it since 2017, which was very much their high point in the post-IndyRef era.

As noted earlier, they finally lost the East Lothian constituency at Holyrood after holding it in the two preceding really difficult elections. On that basis, I think they might be facing a stiffer challenge here. That could come from either the SNP or Conservatives, given the former claimed the constituency and the latter have done reasonably well in East Lothian and often benefit from the effects of low by-election turnout. I still think Labour have the edge, but I’m opting for “lean” rather than “likely”.

Call: Lean Labour.

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