Analysing local by-elections in August 2021

Psephologist and Hertfordshire Green, Alan Borgars, reflects on the council by-elections that have taken place in England and Wales throughout August 2021.

Polling station in Skipton
Alan Borgars

Following the by-elections across England and Wales throughout August, Alan Borgars returns to provide analysis. Detailed voting data can be found below.

Most notable this month is our Green gain in the 19 August Ashford by-election, where tactical voting from the Liberal Democrats proved vital to Geoff Meaden's win, due to the Conservative vote being overall more stable in rural areas than in towns and cities. Many rural election contests are 'Conservative vs anyone but the Conservatives' in practice.

In terms of other parties, the Liberal Democrats have been doing remarkably well particularly where small tourist-attracting towns are involved, as shown in the case of the 12 August Grange (over Sands) by-election which also saw the Green and Labour vote squeezed. This shows the importance of the Greens "locking on" to a division or ward whenever possible upon achieving a particularly good result, so that they can present themselves as the clear challengers in the division or ward.

However, the Greens could not capitalise on this success in the 26 August Strood North by-election, also in Kent, partly due to Labour seeing their chances in a marginal seat where the Conservative vote was clearly going to be split by a localist Independent; in fact this was the first by-election gain for Labour since May.

5 and 12 August by-elections

This week showed clear examples of unionist tactical voting against the SNP; despite the SNP increasing their vote share in all three Scottish local by-elections they did not win any of them, and in fact lost the by-election in Dalry and West Kilbride when voters who would otherwise have voted for Independent candidates voted Conservative en masse to keep the SNP out, and spectacularly as well. Likewise, Independent transfers helped secure Liberal Democrat wins instead of SNP wins in the Highlands, one of the last redoubts of traditional liberal strength in Scotland. This did not feature in the East Livingstone and East Calder by-election, won easily by the SNP.

5 and 12 August local by-election results

Meanwhile, in England, the Liberal Democrats made considerable advances in both the by-elections that took place in small towns which not only have some amount of tourist attraction but which are within commuting distance of major towns/cities as well. Given the strong desire from commuters for peaceful yet accessible towns the swings to the Liberal Democrats are not surprising regarding either Orwell and Villages or Grange, although in the former's case the lack of a Green Party candidate undoubtedly proved helpful.

The biggest surprise of this week's by-elections was Aspire's (Aspire being one of the groups that arose after the collapse of Tower Hamlets First) gain of Weavers from Labour on a 26.1 per cent swing, although the winning Aspire candidate, Kabir Ahmed, had been a Labour councillor and later a THF councillor for the same ward from 2010 to 2018, so his personal recognition gave him a critical advantage even though in 2018 Aspire finished a distant second in that ward. The absence of the other post-THF party, People's Alliance for Tower Hamlets (PATH), also proved vital to Aspire's gain. The absence of pro-EU party Renew did not help the Liberal Democrats, who were lucky to finish ahead of TUSC, but instead it helped the Green Party weather the tactical squeeze.

19 August by-election

The first of these by-elections follows a trend where Independents who stood in the last Scottish local elections of 2017 are often standing aside in by-elections where both the Conservatives and the SNP are competitive, usually to the Conservatives' benefit as proved to be the case here, and indeed rural areas with a tradition of electing independents lean towards unionism and were considerably less pro-Remain than all the Scottish cities.

19 August local by-election results

In Ashford, the Greens being able to establish themselves as the most credible opposition to the Conservatives allowed them to tactically squeeze the Liberal Democrats to win the seat from the Conservatives, even with low turnouts at this time of year usually favouring the Conservatives. In many rural wards, especially south of the Wash, it is mainly a case of "Conservative vs. most credible non-Conservative candidate", which was also clear in the Sandwich and Oakham South by-elections (where the Liberal Democrats were the only opposition to the Conservatives in each case) although in this case the nonconformist tradition of some of the villages in this ward also helped the Green Party here. The reverse happened in East Wolds and Coastal in East Yorkshire, where the Yorkshire Party's entry caused considerable damage to the Green vote; the Yorkshire Party's following is growing substantially in rural Yorkshire.

In the Ribble Valley by-elections, both taking place in the district's largest town, Clitheroe, both the successful Liberal Democrats slipped back substantially, which is attributable not only to the low summer turnout factor but also a general decline in the Liberal Democrats' fortunes north of the Wash outside well-heeled, highly educated, and noticeably tourist-friendly towns such as Harrogate and Kendal. 

Lastly, the Wiltshire Police and Crime Commissioner by-election, technically a rerun after the initially elected Conservative candidate, Jonathan Seed, was found to be ineligible due to two prior motoring convictions, proved to be a closer run than most of the PCC contests that took place in May, due to ex-police officer Mike Rees gaining considerable traction as an Independent. In fact he only narrowly failed to gain the post from the Conservatives, primarily due to typical voter apathy in August. The fact that the Greens' May 2021 candidate, Brig Oubridge, did not stand in this PCC by-election did not help the Liberal Democrats' case as election results in the west of England would usually have you believe, and undoubtedly many voters who could not vote Green in this by-election either stayed at home, as in fact 5/6 of all Wiltshire voters did in this by-election, or supported Mr Rees believing he had a better chance of defeating the Conservatives.

26 August by-election

Meanwhile, the spectacular Liberal Democrat gain in Cumbria, where there is a precarious power balance on Cumbria County Council, is attributable to voters for a previous independent, who retired due to ill health and would likely have retired in May had Cumbria County Council's elections this year not been cancelled (Cumbria CC is set for abolition in 2023, along with all underlying districts) flocking to the Liberal Democrats, in addition to a backlash against plans to unitarise Cumbria. 

26 August local by-election results

The Greens' absence from the Graig by-election in Newport surprisingly did nothing to help Labour or the Liberal Democrats, with the swing against the Conservatives being just 1.8 per cent and the Liberal Democrats being tactically squeezed by Labour, although since this ward's creation in 2004 the Conservatives have maintained consistently high strength in this affluent suburban ward, which is popular for Cardiff commuters and those relying on the M4.

This week marks the first Labour gain from the Conservatives since the May 2021 Super Thursday elections, and even more remarkably it was in the Greens' best ward in Medway. The Greens' campaigning in Strood North certainly ensured the Liberal Democrats made no impact in this by-election, but despite their best efforts they still finished third. Also of note is the Medway Independents' Chris Spalding, whose 216 votes were noticeably higher than Labour's winning margin of 185 votes, although some of his would-be supporters voted Green as well. This result is particularly remarkable when the Conservatives managed an 11.2 per cent swing from Labour in nearby Princes Park; although Princes Park is a safely Conservative ward that result nevertheless shows that Labour is still failing to reconnect with aspirational working-class/lower middle-class voters.