Analysing local by-elections in July 2021

Psephologist and Hertfordshire Green, Alan Borgars, reflects on the results of council by-elections that took place in England and Wales throughout July.

Polling station sign
Polling station sign
Alan Borgars

1 and 8 July by-elections

Contrary to their narrow "breathe a sigh of relief" hold of the Batley and Spen by-election the same day, Labour's local election night on 1 July was universally poor, although in three of the by-elections of 1 July they were not competitive anyway. The other four by-elections of that day show they are struggling in all types of area, but especially post-industrial areas and new towns where demographics are increasingly unfavourable to them. Thus, their loss of another seat in North East Lincolnshire was not surprising – although the Liberal Democrat surge was – and even though the Conservatives, who are firmly in charge in Stoke-on-Trent Labour, are still not trusted by electors there. The reality is that it is not doing any better under a Conservative administration notwithstanding.

1 July Election by-election results

As for Bush Hill Park, troubles within the ruling Labour group on Enfield Council are primarily responsible for their knockback in an area of suburban London that is becoming, in the long-term, competitive for Labour otherwise. 

Meanwhile, the vulnerability of the Conservatives in the London commuter belt, once forming a reliable stronghold, is still evident from the Liberal Democrat gain in Cobham and Downside on a 24.5 per cent swing. 

July 8 election results

You may be wondering why Labour did so well in both by-elections in East Devon on 8 July, to the point where in the Honiton St Michael's by-election they won spectacularly, giving them their first seat on East Devon District Council for 26 years. This is because middle-class public sector workers (in education and healthcare primarily) who work in Exeter are increasingly being priced out of Exeter in the way that similar workers have been priced out of Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, and Bristol, and thus are moving out to towns like Honiton, formerly regarded as sleepy retirement territory – even if not to the same extent as nearby Exmouth. These voters, even if they hold relatively high ranks in those sectors, are generally a reliable Labour-voting bloc and the decline of the East Devon Independent Alliance will be helpful to Labour in East Devon in future. The fact that in the aforementioned Honiton St Michael's by-election the Labour candidate was an 18-year-old A-level student made no difference. It also means that the Liberal Democrats are becoming less competitive in south Devon, which was once good territory for them; in fact, had the Greens stood in both of those by-elections, they would likely have finished ahead of the Liberal Democrats at least.

Environmental issues at local level first and foremost proved to be key to the two Green gains that happened in July: Aldeburgh and Leiston contains the Sizewell nuclear power station in addition to a beautiful and cultured seaside resort – which is also noted for its contribution to progressive history (the first woman mayor of England, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was also one of the first women to become a doctor in England, was born and raised in Aldeburgh), and the issue of coastal erosion on the Suffolk coast is becoming a more serious problem as time goes by. That said, the Greens were unlucky to gain only one of the two seats, missing on the second by just two votes. 

Ardingly and Balcombe, meanwhile, in addition to being the home of the prestigious private school Ardingly College is also home to what was a key fracking site. Memories of the fracking threat are still fresh in the minds of residents there, and planning reforms undoubtedly proved vital to adding the extra ingredient necessary for a Green gain of that ward.

The importance of personal votes in St Neots, which has one the strongest Independent groups for a town within reasonable commuting distance of Greater London, proved vital in a by-election in St Neots East where the seat was vacated by Dr Nik Johnson, now Metro Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Not only did independent candidate and St Neots town councillor Ben Pitt win, but the Labour candidate selected to stand in Dr Johnson's place finished stone-dead last. The excellent Green result can be attributed in part to opposition to overdevelopment of the ward; in fact planned developments on Love's Farm, which will be carried out soon, are the reason there is a St Neot's East ward at all; before the review of local wards in Huntingdonshire for the 2018 elections in Huntingdonshire the area was part of Gransden and The Offords.

15 and 22 July by-elections

15 July by-election results
22 July by-election results

Labour's announcement that it would proscribe four hard-left factions did not endear it at all in by-elections on 22 July, particularly in Humberstone and Hamilton, where they lost a safe seat to the Conservatives on a 17.8 per cent swing. This happened primarily due to discontent amongst Hindu voters in the ward with Labour since Claudia Webbe became MP for Leicester East in December 2019 (in that election, Conservative candidate Bhupendra Dave secured a 15.3 per cent swing in his favour) and the deceased councillor resigned in protest against her selection over local candidates. Ms Webbe is also due to stand trial for harassment charges later this year. 

As for Labour loss of Tividale, also to the Conservatives, this is due to general dissatisfaction with Sandwell Council, still dominated by Labour and recently almost a one-party state. 

Another surprise was Labour's failure to win the Fortune Green by-election, caused by the resignation of long-serving Liberal Democrat councillor Flick Rea who had been in post for 35 years, and furthermore the Liberal Democrats' winning margin was greater than the votes polled by the Green Party in the same ward in 2018. The high level of competition in that ward, where over 60 per cent of the population have a degree, was not enough to draw voters to the polls in such hot weather, with turnout only reaching 29.8 per cent. The by-election in Tyn-y-Nant (Tynant as it is known in English) was the only piece of good news for Labour on 22 July in local by-election terms, although it was already such a safe Labour ward.

The resignation of both Green Party co-leaders in just nine days, and a year before the next Green Party leadership election would normally have taken place, did not prevent the Greens easily recapturing Congresbury and Paxton, which they had only lost in 2019 due to the Greens being unable to find a candidate to replace retiring councillor Tom Leimdorfer. Courteously the Liberal Democrats chose not to defend this seat and instead allow the Greens to regain it, which they did spectacularly with Labour's vote collapsing. 

Similarly, in an unusual move given Labour's antipathy towards "progressive alliances", Labour stood aside to help the Greens keep the marginal Staines ward, which two Green councillors and one Labour councillor had gained from the Conservatives in the Conservatives' worst local election year since 1995. The Greens did keep the ward relatively easily, although the Conservatives still managed a small 0.8 per cent swing in their favour despite an ex-UKIP candidate standing as independent and polling 100 votes more than the Greens' winning margin over the Conservatives in that by-election, although arguably Paul West only carried over his own vote as a UKIP candidate from 2019.

29 July by-election

29 July by-election results

For the first time in years with a week involving multiple local by-elections, every single local by-election saw the seat changing hands from one party to another (or in South Tyneside's case, from an independent candidate to Labour). 

The first two by-elections, those in the small towns of Pitsea and East Retford respectively, are demonstrable examples of how low turnout benefits the Conservatives, especially with remaining lockdown restrictions having been lifted at the beginning of the previous week, since older voters are more likely to vote whatever the weather and are much more likely to vote Conservative. Both elections had turnouts below 20 per cent, and Pitsea North West's was a miserable 14.9 per cent, although its turnout was already considerably below average in May (25.4 per cent).

Both the East Retford South by-election and the Felgate and Hedworth by-elections also demonstrate that "resigning to restand" (which, even if for principled reasons, wastes time and public money) usually does not end well in by-elections; both the councillors who resigned to restand lost, although in Helen Richards' case only by five votes. This was, however, in an ostensibly safe Labour ward, and demonstrates how "negative personal votes" can drag candidates down even in safe wards, which councillors (and MPs) who "resign to restand" almost always incur.

Lastly, one and a half years on from Britain leaving the EU, the political effects of Brexit are still strongly apparent, as the Liberal Democrats' decisive gain of Knaresborough Scriven Park demonstrated, and this by-election was also a good chance to protest the abolition of Harrogate District Council itself, as it is set to be merged into a North Yorkshire unitary council from 2023 onwards, with shadow elections due to be held next year if Parliament approves the plans.

You can read more of Alan Borgars' coverage of elections home and abroad on his blog