Previewing the East Livingston by-election of 05 August 2021

One by-election on 5th August 2021:

East Livingston and East Calder

West Lothian council; caused by the death of Labour councillor Dave King.

July’s local by-elections were an exciting set: nineteen of the twenty-eight council seats up for election were gained from the incumbent party, confirming the sense that our politics is very much in flux at the moment. August is traditionally a slow month for by-elections before we hit the peak period of the autumn, but there are still eighteen polls for this column to bring to you over the next month. Just one of those takes place on 5th August, in the county of West Lothian.

West Lothian, East Livingston and East Calder

The main population centre in West Lothian is the New Town of Livingston, which forms two-and-a-half of the nine electoral wards of the county. This is the half, covering the eastern end of the town around the Pumpherston area. Pumpherston was a pre-New Town mining and industrial village which sprang up at the end of the nineteenth century: the ground underneath what is now Livingston contained large reserves of shale oil, and Pumpherston became the location of a major refinery for Scottish Oils Ltd, a subsidiary of what is now BP. The Pumpherston retort, a vessel which refined the shale rock into oil and gas, is named after the village.

Much of Pumpherston is still given over to industry today, particularly the northern end of the ward approaching Uphall railway station (on the Bathgate line). To the south of Pumpherston lies Craigshill, one of the first parts of Livingston New Town to be developed. These areas lie to the east of the A899 road which forms the western boundary of the ward; on that boundary can be found the Cousland Interchange, one of the UK’s two remaining cloverleaf road junctions and the only surviving cloverleaf in Scotland.

On the southern side of the River Almond can be found the villages of Midcalder and East Calder and the ward’s other railhead: the station at Kirknewton on the Shotts line. To the south-west of these is a large rural area running into the Pentland Hills as far as Cobbinshaw, a small hamlet at the summit of the Edinburgh-Carstairs railway line; the railway passes Cobbinshaw Reservoir, built in the 1810s to supply the Union Canal with water.

Since 1992 East Calder had been the electoral base of West Lothian councillor Dave King, who died in May at the age of 79 after 29 years’ service on the council. King had been the Depute Provost of West Lothian since 2012, and served on the council’s executive with the culture and leisure portfolio. Following his death, West Lothian council unanimously voted to rename the East Calder Partnership centre in King’s honour.

From 2007 onwards King was one of four councillors for the East Livingston and East Calder ward. This ward returned two Labour and two SNP councillors in both 2007 and 2012, with the local pressure group “Action to Save St John’s Hospital” finishing as runner-up on both occasions and coming close to winning a seat in 2007. In 2017 the Labour vote fell and they lost their second seat: the SNP polled 41% and won 2 seats, with the other two seats split between Labour (31%) and the Conservatives (22%).

This by-election is for one seat, and with the Alternative Vote in use Labour may need to rely on Unionist transfers from the Conservatives to hold it. Quite how many transfers they can expect is a matter of some debate. The indefatigable Allan Faulds of Ballot Box Scotland, who really should be on your reading list if you are not following his work already, has crunched the numbers (link) and found that had the 2017 election in East Livingston and East Calder been for a single seat then King would have beaten the lead SNP candidate, Frank Anderson, by 3,255 votes to 2,928 (52.6% to 47.4%). That SNP score is actually lower than the 3,008 first preferences the three SNP candidates scored, reflecting the fact that some votes failed to transfer or leaked out of the SNP ticket when their other two candidates were eliminated. As Faulds points out in his article on this by-election:

The SNP have a clear first preference lead, but oddly the rate of exhaustion is such that they end up with fewer votes at the finish line here. Even if they held onto all of their votes, Conservative preferences would have still pushed Labour out in front for a single seat election anyway.

Faulds’ analysis is normally excellent and, as I say, comes strongly recommended; but this appears to be a rare error in his arithmetic. By this column’s reckoning, if we take the votes cast in 2017 and redistribute the votes for the Conservatives and other parties, then in fact the three SNP candidates end up with 3,291 votes between them while the two Labour candidates have 3,219 between them (50.6% to 49.4%).

Mind, for all this talk of transfers Labour are not going to hold this by-election unless they can retain their vote share from May 2017. In this connection we should note that there was a by-election in March in the neighbouring ward of Livingston South, which saw the SNP hold a seat they were defending with a 7% swing in their favour.

W Lothian, 2017

That by-election hold meant that the SNP retained their position as the largest party on West Lothian council, with 13 out of 33 seats. However, the council has a Unionist majority and a minority Labour administration is in place: Labour have 11 seats plus this vacancy, with 7 Conservatives and an independent holding the balance of power.

Defending this by-election for Labour is Danny Logue, a former West Lothian councillor for Livingston South ward who lost his seat there in 2017. The SNP have selected Tom Ullathorne, an autism service manager and founder member of West Lothian Shinty. The Conservative candidate is David Philip, a former chair of the East Calder community council and founder of a mental health charity. Also standing are Neal Drummond for the Scottish Green Party who returns from the 2017 election, Hans Edgington for the Lib Dems and John Hannah for the Independence for Scotland Party.

Westminster constituency: Livingston
Holyrood constituency: Almond Valley
ONS Travel to Work Area: Livingston
Postcode districts: EH27, EH52, EH53, EH54, EH55

Neal Drummond (Grn)
Hans Edgington (LD)
John Hannah (Independence for Scotland)
Danny Logue (Lab)
David Philip (C)
Tom Ullathorne (SNP)

May 2017 first preferences SNP 3006 Lab 2274 C 1620 Grn 265 LD 198
May 2012 first preferences SNP 2607 Lab 2596 Action to Save St John’s Hospital 380 C 372
May 2007 first preferences Lab 3302 SNP 2713 Action to Save St John’s Hospital 625 C 591 LD 421 SSP 133

If you enjoyed this preview, there are many more like it – going back to 2016 – in the Andrew’s Previews books, which are available to buy now (link). You can also support future previews by donating to the Local Elections Archive Project (link).

Andrew Teale