Analysing local by-elections in April and May 2022

​​Psephologist and Hertfordshire Green Alan Borgars reflects on the council by-elections that took place in England and Wales across the past two months.

Polling station
Polling station
Alan Borgars
7 April
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A table of results

The local elections in England, Scotland, and Wales, alongside the Northern Irish Assembly election, were in full swing here, so to speak. The Greens got off to an excellent start with two surprise gains as well as achieving a 22.5 per cent swing in the Everton by-election, although this year Liverpool's elections have been cancelled and instead Liverpool will hold a full council election next year, and hold full council elections every four years henceforth. 

The Liberal Democrats also managed a strong start with two by-election wins in rural Conservative heartlands, in addition to a near-miss in otherwise solidly Labour Warbreck ward, Liverpool. The cost-of-living crisis is already biting hard and even more affluent voters are being affected, and Rishi Sunak's Spring statement is already being condemned as out of touch and elitist. Furthermore, National Insurance hikes and tax rises have been announced at a time when families can least afford them.

By contrast, Labour polled poorly in every by-election this week except that of Brookside in Telford and Wrekin, despite still leading voter intention polls consistently. Critically, their loss of the Cote Heath by-election cost them control of High Peak council although it is likely that the Liberal Democrats will support them instead of the Conservatives. It must also be said that Sir Keir Starmer does not have good public approval ratings, but they are clearly better than those of Boris Johnson or the aforementioned Rishi Sunak at present. The large swings against them in two very safe Labour wards in Liverpool are also signs that they are going to receive a rude awakening next year.

14 April
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A table of results

Just before these by-elections occurred, polls by Electoral Calculus and Find It Now were released stating that the Conservatives stand to lose at least 800 council seats this May, with Labour gaining 800. Although this was clearly going to be an overestimate, the results of these by-elections indicated that actual Conservative council seat losses would approach the high hundreds, with 500 being a more realistic maximum in terms of losses.

Labour's convincing gain of West Auckland here is a clear sign that the Conservative hold of ‘Red Wall’ seats, for the most part, will not last long, and polls on the upcoming parliamentary by-election in Wakefield (date TBC by moving of writ for this by-election) showed a potential repeat of this result.

Given that Maldon, being classically staunch Conservative territory, is not generally inclined towards the Liberal Democrats at either local or parliamentary level, the Liberal Democrats' gain in Heybridge West looks like a fluke by-election result that gets easily reversed at the next election. 

However, like many small towns within the London commuter belt, it is experiencing demographic change that is more favourable towards the Liberal Democrats in the long term, also helped by the ‘work from home’ exodus which is continuing albeit at a slower pace than last year. These factors also account for a spectacular Liberal Democrat gain in Bisley, near the heathlands that give Surrey Heath District Council its name. As for Brockworth in Tewkesbury, its strong tradition of electing localist independents saw off partisan challenges once again.

12 - 26 May
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A table of results
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A table of results
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A table of results
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A table of results

These seven by-elections continued the trends seen in the local elections on 5 May. 

The Conservatives lost all five of the seats they were defending in by-elections in the three weeks since then, notably including two to the Green Party. Partygate was still haunting the Conservatives here, with the recent publication of the Sue Gray report only increasing pressure on Boris Johnson and his Cabinet. 

In Lancaster, the Greens' primary support base is in the city of Lancaster itself, the breakthrough into the rural Ellel ward is a crucial breakthrough since, with new ward boundaries for Lancaster set to come into force next year (when Lancaster next has council elections), there will be a hard contest to see who controls the next administration in Lancaster; the Greens currently lead the administration there. Meanwhile, in Spelthorne, the lack of either Labour or Liberal Democrat candidates clearly aided a Green gain there, with the Greens being the only real challengers to the Conservatives in that by-election. 

Labour's gain of Peacehaven West is a clear sign that the demographic change that helped Labour gain control of Worthing is spreading east of Brighton as well; like Worthing and Shoreham, Peacehaven was once a typical retirement resort town, but like Worthing and Shoreham middle-class professional commuters to Brighton (and London for that matter) are increasingly flocking to it, and Newhaven and Seaford in the south of the Lewes district. Therefore, the Labour gain in Peacehaven cannot be regarded as a fluke by-election result.

The most seemingly surprising result is the 8.3 per cent swing to the Conservatives in Gedling ward, which Labour held with a much-reduced majority, but it is a clear sign that de facto suburbs (Gedling being one of the city of Nottingham next door) will still act as political bellwethers for the foreseeable future and cannot be taken for granted just because of national polling leads.