Analysing local by-elections in June 2022

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

Polling station in Skipton
Alan Borgars
9 and 16 June
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A table of results
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A table of results

Despite the vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson (which ultimately failed by a margin of 211 to 148) being a hot topic in the run-up to these by-elections, the Conservatives only lost one of the three seats they were defending and they even gained a seat from the declining Independent Community and Health Concern Party, the localist legacy of Wyre Forest's Independent MP Richard Taylor, who did not defend their seat following their announcement that they would be retiring from the political scene. 

Nevertheless, their close run in two rural wards, as well as losing a ward containing wealthy villages near Sevenoaks, Kent, shows they are still on the downturn. That last by-election was the Liberal Democrats' only highlight in the first half of this month in local by-election terms.

Labour also had a reasonably strong performance (and their lead over the Conservatives in voter intention polls is only modest at best), holding a key marginal ward in Crawley (which has been an important political bellwether in the past), rebuffing a Liberal Democrat challenge in Leamington (and in a ward north of the River Leam; the other two wards in Royal Leamington Spa north of the River Leam, Lillington and Milverton, are strongly Liberal Democrat), and have essentially re-established themselves as the key challengers to the Conservatives in Wyre Forest, with news of ICHC's impending political demise. 

The Greens struggled with by-elections in this half of the month, notably enduring a tactical squeeze by the Liberal Democrats in Leamington Clarendon (all to no avail for the latter) but finishing well ahead of the Liberal Democrats in Copt Hill, Sunderland.

23 and 30 June
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A table of results
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A table of results

These two weeks of local by-elections brought more woe for the Conservatives to follow with and from their crushing defeats in the Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton parliamentary by-elections, and more are likely to come later this year. 

Of the seven seats that they were defending this fortnight in local by-elections, the Conservatives held only two (and the Cleveleys Park result was relatively close); their slight swing against Labour in Croydon South (2.3 per cent) primarily came about because former Conservative MP and former Labour councillor Andrew Pelling made a bid for the seat; Mr Pelling failed badly, finishing third last, and such a poor performance (especially given his past successes) means he is unlikely to return to Croydon London Borough Council in the near future. 

Furthermore, the Conservatives performed just as badly in less affluent wards north of the Wash that voted strongly Brexit in the EU membership referendum in 2016 as they did in wealthy wards south of the Wash that voted strongly Remain. It is becoming abundantly clear that there are no benefits to Brexit except for speculators and unscrupulous financiers.

The Liberal Democrats and Labour both performed well, depending on what type of ward it was, the demographics of that ward, and the lingering effects of Brexit. The Greens managed a good second in New Malden Village – normally in Kingston-upon-Thames the Liberal Democrats squeeze the Green vote heavily – and came close to winning a second seat in Bernwood. In the latter by-election, the successful Liberal Democrat candidate was a retired headteacher who had taught at one of the primary schools in the ward, proof of the continuing importance of localism at election time.

Meanwhile, over in Eilean Siar ("Western Isles" in English, effectively the Outer Hebrides), the fact that by-elections had to be held simply due to undernomination (where fewer candidates are nominated than there are available seats for a ward or other type of electoral district) is indicative of a serious but poorly documented problem in the United Kingdom – the currently inexorable decline of rural areas, especially in Scotland and Wales (undernomination is an occasional problem in Welsh local elections as well, particularly in Gwynedd and Powys). 

Of the 28 council areas in England and Wales (2021 census data for Scottish council areas is not available yet) that showed either a population decline or no population growth between the 2011 census and the 2021 census, eight were in Wales and six were in rural English districts, and these are areas where uncontested elections are most frequent. The situation is even worse in some parts of Europe – “empty Spain" is a notorious phenomenon in rural Spain where villages have become completely depopulated. Revitalisation of rural areas is vital; our future cannot be entirely urban or metropolitan.