Analysing local by-elections in December 2021

​​Psephologist and Hertfordshire Green, Alan Borgars, reflects on the council by-elections that took place in England and Wales last month.

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Alan Borgars

In December, our continued run of by-election wins in Kent showed that we are fast becoming significant challengers to the Conservatives overall in rural/semi-urban Kent, both at a local and parliamentary level, since these are the types of areas significantly dissatisfied with Boris Johnson's tenure as PM. 

Elsewhere in traditional and wealthy Conservative heartlands in the South East we also made key strides last month, as evidenced by our gain in Hartfield, Wealden and good second place in Bransgore & Burley, New Forest. The good second place in Bare, meanwhile, is the first time within the district of Lancaster that we have been able to challenge in the Morecambe area as well as the city of Lancaster itself. 

With coastal and rural areas disproportionately affected by the effects of man-made climate change, green-minded action in these areas is critical to all our futures.

2 and 9 December
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A table of results
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A table of results

On the same day as their lacklustre performance in the Old Bexley & Sidcup by-election, the Conservatives managed to lose four of the six wards they were defending in local by-elections, and in all four cases, given recent local trends, this was expected. The most surprising result amongst these four losses came in Bare, just east of Morecambe, where it was the Liberal Democrats, not the Morecambe Bay Independents (who finished third) who gained the ward, and furthermore, the Greens came a good second in a Morecambe ward for the first time. Within Lancaster district, most of the Greens' support is in the city of Lancaster itself. The Conservatives' only gain that week, meanwhile, was in an area where the Liberal Democrats are psephologically winding down two years after the retirement of former North Norfolk Liberal Democrat MP Sir Norman Lamb in 2019.

The following week (i.e. yesterday), amidst revelations that a Christmas Party was held at Downing Street at the same time that London and the South East were under lockdown, with the rest of the country under severe COVID-19 related restrictions, the Conservatives lost five of the six wards they were defending in local by-elections, with tactical voting playing a part in all of them. 

The tactical squeeze was most prominent in both Rotherham by-elections, wherein Anston & Woodsett two former councillors standing as Independents performed poorly, and meanwhile, in Aughton & Swallownest the combined Labour and Conservative vote was 88.1%. The spectacular failure of the Rotherham Democratic Party, one of many ex-UKIP localist groups, in both elections is also notable.

Whichever party does best against the Conservatives in by-elections at present is dependent on which party is the clear challenger; in both by-elections where the Greens gained the ward from the Conservatives they were the clear challenger; elsewhere it was usually the Liberal Democrats, with Marine ward in Worthing, notable for the scandal that caused the by-election in the first place (the resigning Conservative councillor was found to have links with a far-right group and was subsequently suspended from the Conservative Party) being primarily a Labour-Conservative contest, and in May the seaside town was one of the few areas Labour gained significant ground. It is therefore surprising that the Conservatives managed to win their second by-election in Torridge in as many months, primarily due to the "No Description" candidate not being supported by the Independent group who dominate that ward (he finished last).

16 and 23 December
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A table of results
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A table of results

On the same day of the Liberal Democrats' spectacular gain of North Shropshire, they gained three council seats from the Conservatives, although in all three cases they were the only clear competitor. The Greens' gain of Highfield in Ashford is more notable due to also having to displace the localist Ashford Independents as well. Of the 13 by-elections listed here, only two saw a remotely respectable Conservative performance; in Lomond North, there was the usual anti-nationalist tactical voting and Telford & The Wrekin has been trending to the Conservatives noticeably in the last few years. Labour only made headway in Middlesbrough when a localist Independent spectacularly failed to retain a seat held by another Independent.

The most spectacular local by-election result of these two weeks occurred 23 December when an Independent, backed by the resigning Conservative councillor and also by Sir Desmond Swayne, Conservative MP for New Forest West since 1997, won convincingly. Even with the odds that far in the Independent candidate's favour, the Greens managed a good second in that by-election, a sign that support for the Green Party is growing everywhere in the UK.