Wards Worth Watching takes a look at what could be some of the most interesting contests across Scotland this May, based on past election results. No claim is made that these are the only possible changes that will occur, nor that other wards aren’t interesting. Some possible outcomes will be impacted by party decisions as to number of candidates and whether incumbent councillors choose to re-stand or not.
East Lothian is something of a mixed area. On the one hand, it is home to some of the mining and industrial towns and villages that you’ll find across the rest of the Lothians. On the other, it has a much more substantial rural component and a lengthy coastline, also giving agriculture and fisheries a lot of local importance. The modern area varies compared to the historic county of the same name largely by the inclusion of Musselburgh, which had previously been in Midlothian.
Politically, East Lothian became pretty solidly Labour through the last century, bar a brief Conservative stint in the first of the 1974 elections. Swept up in the SNP’s 2015 landslide, East Lothian was one of Labour’s briefly reclaimed seats in 2017, before the SNP again retook it in 2019. They might currently somewhat wish they hadn’t, as the MP they elected then was one of the two to join Alba in early 2021. The Holyrood seat (which lacks Musselburgh) proved resilient through the SNP’s earlier victories, though the then-leader of Scottish Labour, Iain Grey, was to be seen looking very nervous on count night in 2011. Labour’s luck finally ran out in 2021, when the SNP nabbed the seat.
Labour were similarly comfortable in local elections, winning a clear majority throughout ever election in the district era and in the FPTP years of the current unitary. In that time their main opposition was always the Conservatives, perhaps reflecting that mixed nature I mentioned earlier. It wasn’t until 2003 that they ever faced more than one non-Conservative opposition councillor at a time.
Previous STV Elections
Labour’s dominance couldn’t survive the introduction of STV, and at the first election they found themselves tied with the SNP on 7 seats apiece, albeit with a sizeable lead in votes. Despite placing third in terms of votes the Conservatives won just two councillors, compared to a healthy half-dozen for the fourth placed Lib Dems. This led to another one of those SNP-Lib Dem administrations that were quite common at these elections, and vanishingly rare since. A solitary Independent councillor was also elected.
As part of their ongoing collapse, the Lib Dems were ejected in their entirety from the council, allowing the other three major parties to gain. Labour had a very large lead of almost 13% of the vote over the SNP, but that only gave them 10 seats to the SNP’s 9 – they simply hadn’t anticipated how well they’d do, and could have won a further two seats had they stood the candidates. The Conservative group marginally inflated to 3 councillors, whilst the lone Independent was successfully returned.
Though Labour finally began to lose serious ground in some of their strongholds at this election, East Lothian returned one of their best results in the country. They retained a clear lead in the council, with only a slight drop down to 9 seats. The Conservatives ended up second with 7, although their vote share had very narrowly placed them behind the SNP, who won the remaining 6 seats. Nobody else made it onto the council, as the Independent failed to be re-elected.
Wards Worth Watching
Labour could have been facing an extremely tough challenge to hold onto a lead here – and losing that would be a major blow, given it was their only vote lead in 2017. Both the SNP, who now control all of the area’s constituency seats for the first time ever, and the Conservatives have made notable advances in East Lothian. Given difficulties down south the Conservative side of that pincer movement may have let off some of the pressure, but the SNP certainly haven’t.
On small party watch, East Lothian is a rarity in having moderately good results for both the Lib Dems and the Greens. Emphasis on “moderately good” – it’s still single digit, but it’s the kind of vote share that in my favoured form of PR would give both parties a seat. For the Greens in particular, this was by far their strongest constituency in the South region last year, so they could be on track for a decent share again in May. My gut feeling is that councillors may yet elude them this term, but to watch out for next.
Update following close of nominations: All five of the major Holyrood parties are contesting the 6 wards in East Lothian. Alba are contesting 4. More details here.
Tranent, Wallyford and Macmerry (4)
2017 Councillors: Labour x2, SNP, Conservative.
This isn’t merely a strong Labour ward, by my quick scan of 2017 data, it’s their third strongest anywhere in the country. It’s so strong that I reckon they should be able to hold onto both councillors, and if they were to poach enough votes from the Conservatives, they could even pick up a third seat. Another possibility however is that if the SNP have recovered from their 2017 slump, they’ll be the ones to relieve the Conservatives of their seat.
Update following close of nominations: Labour are only standing two candidates here, so that avenue is closed off.
North Berwick Coastal (3)
2017 Councillors: Conservative x2, Labour.
It’s a real rarity to have a ward on the mainland that lacks at least one SNP councillor, but this is one of them. There’s a reasonable chance they’ll fix that this time around. Although Labour were narrowly sub-quota, my expectation is any shift in votes at the moment is going to be away from the Conservatives, and thus that should shore up Labour’s position. It’s therefore the second Conservative that needs to watch out for the SNP.
Haddington and Lammermuir (4)
2017 Councillors: Labour x2, Conservative, SNP.
I might not have had this one on the wards worth watching list were it not for a 2019 by-election, which looked like this:
By-Election Winner: Conservative.
Labour had a miserable time of it that day, slipping into a very weak third place. That was down to gains for both the Conservatives, who ended up winning the seat, and the Lib Dems. At a full election, you could imagine either a Conservative double, or a Lib Dem success from transfers. I think the Lib Dems were in a particular moment in May 2019, however, which has definitely passed.
I’d therefore be saying it’s only the Conservatives putting Labour’s second councillor at risk here. It’s hard to gauge exactly what things may look like given the dynamics of continued Labour decline versus sudden, sharp Conservative deflation, and to what extent either or both of those will have reversed by May. I’d be very surprised if the Conservatives weren’t working this one very hard however.
Updated following close of nominations: Turns out I needn’t have bothered – just one Conservative standing this time. That said, if the votes fall just right, perhaps the Lib Dems could pick up a seat here? They are usually highly preferred by Conservative voters for transfers, so if there’s a big surplus, you never know.
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.