Analysing local by-elections in March 2022

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

Polling station sign
Alan Borgars
3 and 10 March
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A table of results
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A table of results

Even though the Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed ‘partygate’ scandals off the news headlines, voters have not forgotten about them, especially in areas relatively close to Greater London. 

In the case of the Hitchin South by-election, one of the few by-elections where the Liberal Democrat vote exceeded 70 per cent, a notable personal vote was involved: Keith Hoskins, who held the seat, had been the town centre manager of Hitchin and had gained considerable respect as a result, which accounts for the 25.1 per cent swing in that by-election, compared to the 11.1 per cent swing in Hitchin Highbury, both of which had been held by Paul Clark, who passed away from COVID-19 last year. The Liberal Democrats did endure a swing of 15.4 per cent in the Hythe West & Langdon (the Hythe in Hampshire, not the Hythe in Kent), but May 2019 was the Conservatives' annus horribilis in the south in local election terms (in some cases more so than in 1995!) and unlike in the preceding 2019 election, Labour fielded a candidate that took some anti-Conservative votes. 

Two other by-elections are highlights of continuing inexorable political trends in Britain. The Green gain in Ryhall and Casterton, Rutland shows that the Green gains in rural and small-town England are set to continue in the coming years, although this year most rural/small town districts are not up for election (and many boroughs, unitary authorities and metropolitan boroughs are scrapping by thirds elections). Meanwhile, UKIP's spectacular loss in Redhill once again affirms UKIP no longer being relevant to British politics and that their demise as a political party is inevitable (especially with Reform UK having taken up much of their mantle after Brexit), and this was one of the few recent local by-elections where they even stood a candidate. The Liberal Democrats performed well in the latter by-election but it is unlikely they can regain their previous ‘default protest vote’ position in future.

24 March
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A table of results

The result in Seghill with Seaton Delaval – two former pit villages made famous by the folk song ‘Blackleg Miner’ – is a telling sign that despite Conservative woes, Labour is still somewhat struggling to regain ground in former strongholds, although many of these are affected by demographic change that will push them further towards the Conservatives anyway. In Seghill with Seaton Delaval's case, this is enhanced by residents wanting to move out of Newcastle-upon-Tyne but remain within commuting distance and plans for the restoration of the railway link within the Blyth Valley. Seaton Delaval will get its own station, although the line itself will not see passenger service (it is currently only used by freight trains) until December 2023 at the earliest.

The Liberal Democrats did not perform particularly well but held both seats that they were defending easily. Labour's strong performance in Nethercourt is not only explained by the fact there was no Green candidate standing in that ward but also due to Thanet experiencing demographic change as, like Southend, Londoners with a liberal and progressive outlook who cannot afford to live in traditional bohemian hotspots such as Shoreditch and Stoke Newington are moving in slowly but surely, although a large traditional Isle of Thanet element remains. This is a key reason why, despite having been a top UKIP target in 2015 (Nigel Farage himself was the UKIP candidate in South Thanet in 2015), and one of only 40 seats where UKIP saved their deposit in 2017, the swing from Labour to Conservative in South Thanet (which covers a majority of the Isle of Thanet's electors) in 2019 was only average (4.5 per cent); furthermore, the Green contingent on Isle of Thanet council will also likely grow significantly when Thanet holds its next full council election next year.

31 March
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A table of results

Given the Liberal Democrat performance in Melton Sysonby from a standing start, growing Green strength in rural/semi-rural councils, how relatively close the Greens came to winning the ward in 2019, it is likely that the Greens would have gained the seat had they fielded a candidate in that by-election. The other two by-elections show that the regionalist Yorkshire Party is continuing to fare much better in South Yorkshire than any other part of Yorkshire, although the Mayfield by-election had the additional complicating factors of a strong Independent candidate and the fact that Scarborough council will cease to exist next year, with North Yorkshire's shadow elections taking place this May, which also explains the low turnout in the Mayfield by-election.

Final thoughts

Our gain in Rutland is a good sign that the Greens will continue to make local breakthroughs in May, both in the countryside and the cities, but this month's by-election results also make it clear that as many Green candidates as possible need to stand to get our message across the country. The positive achievements of Green councillors across the country are becoming plainer for everyone to see as well.