Analysing local by-elections in November 2021

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

Polling station sign
Polling station sign
Alan Borgars

Our historic gain in Canterbury, where we have been active at the local and parliamentary level since 1983, was indirectly aided by the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate, although it is clear that many voters are dissatisfied with Sir Keir Starmer like they are with Boris Johnson. It nevertheless marks a key breakthrough for the Green Party, like that in East Hampshire last month. 

Whilst we narrowly failed to win the University & Scotforth Rural by-election, it is clear that the Green-led administration in Lancaster has earned us considerable local respect. The Green/Plaid local pact in Cardiff did not prove to be a success in the Heath by-election at first glance, but Heath is in fact a key Labour/Conservative marginal in Cardiff so a tactical squeeze was inevitable, especially with a localist independent group not defending the vacant seat.

4 November
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Election analysis

In the four by-elections in which they stood this week, the Liberal Democrats had strong performances all around, gaining two seats, holding one with an increased majority, and nearly overtaking the Greens in the Greens' best ward in Salford. In the midst of the parliamentary sleaze scandal surrounding Owen Paterson in particular (Mr Paterson has since resigned as MP for North Shropshire), the Liberal Democrats did particularly well against the Conservatives, who predictably did badly all around except in the North Meols by-election. Their most surprising result was their gain of Bourne, comprising the rural hinterland just west of the city of Chichester. 

Aside from their gain in Oakham North West aside, which happened primarily due to them being the only opposition to the Conservatives in that by-election, Labour had a poor week by-elections-wise, particularly in North Meols where their four-time parliamentary candidate for Southport, Liz Savage, was the candidate. The ward could be incorporated into Southport in the next round of boundary changes (the Boundary Commission of England recommended it in their initial proposals). 

Meanwhile, the Greens retained their runner-up position in the Blackfriars & Trinity by-election but failed to come close to winning it from Labour despite experiencing a swing in their favour, albeit only just under 3 per cent.

11 November
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Election analysis

Even with sleaze still in the news, particularly relating to the consultancy work of Sir Geoffrey Cox (Conservative MP for Torridge & West Devon since 2005) in the British Virgin Islands amidst a debate about whether ‘second jobs’ for MPs should be banned, the Conservatives increased their vote share in every by-election except that of University & Scotforth Rural in Lancaster. Although, in the case of the two North Kesteven by-elections, this was due to a decline in Lincolnshire Independents activity, to the point that they did not defend their seat in Sleaford. However, it did contribute to the fact the Greens held Thanet Villages easily and with nearly twice the Conservatives' vote, despite the circumstances of that by-election (Trevor Roper intended to buy a house in France, but upon doing so could not return to the UK because by that point coronavirus restrictions kicked in, meaning he eventually had to resign from Thanet District Council), and the fact that in 2019, he was the only Green candidate for that ward. Had there been a Green candidate in Melton Dorian, it is likely the Greens would have gained that ward as well, with them having won one of the seats in Melton Dorian in 2019.

Also notable is the near-miss for the Greens in University & Scotforth Rural, a ward comprised almost entirely of student electors being based around the main campus of Lancaster University; three days prior it became the 92nd university in the UK to divest from fossil fuels. Even though Labour is not doing particularly well amongst student voters, it is clear that low turnout levels amongst student voters in general, combined with the fact they generally only stay for one election cycle, means that campaigns in wards with a particularly high student population are less likely to be effective. Meanwhile, in Heath ward, Cardiff, a local election pact between the Green Party and Plaid Cymru, not unlike that of the early 1990s, failed to make a significant impact, although the fact that Heath ward is a classic Conservative-Labour marginal meant the Plaid Cymru vote, which in Cardiff is only strong in the west of the city, was squeezed despite the pact.

18 November
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Election analysis

The Green Party first stood in local and parliamentary elections in Canterbury in 1983, back when they were called the Ecology Party. After 38 years, the Green Party finally won a seat on Canterbury District Council, having come close to winning a seat in Gorrell ward in 2019. The absence of a Liberal Democrat indirectly proved helpful to the Greens as well. They could not emulate that success in Chorlton, Manchester, however, despite having achieved a good second place in that ward in May.

The continuity Liberal Party, originally composed of members of the old Liberal Party who opposed the merger of that party with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988, had some surprisingly strong performances in the three by-elections in which they stood. In the two Liverpudlian by-elections in which they stood (Anfield and Clubmoor, they did not stand in Kirkdale), they achieved second place in solidly Labour wards, although this was also attributable to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer recently writing an opinion piece for The Sun, this tabloid newspaper having been taboo in Liverpool and the rest of Merseyside ever since it smeared Liverpool FC supporters who were victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. 

What was also notable about all three Liverpudlian by-elections was the appalling turnout, even by the standards of local by-elections in safe Labour wards: 11.6 per cent on average. The third by-election, Cropton in Ryedale, was held by a long-standing Liberal councillor, John Clark, until he died earlier this year; his son Alasdair held the seat even though a good Green performance indirectly cut the Liberal majority over the Conservative. This will also be the last by-election in Ryedale, which like all districts in North Yorkshire is set to be abolished due to shadow elections for the new North Yorkshire unitary authority occurring in May 2022, and the ‘six-month rule’ (if a council seat becomes vacant less than six months before it is next up for election, no by-election is held in the intervening period) for council seats up for election in May 2022 is now in effect. 

Finally, the Bere Ferrers by-election in West Devon, located in the constituency of Torridge & West Devon whose Conservative MP, Geoffrey Cox, has been much in the news over his consultancy work (amidst a debate about whether second jobs should be banned for MPs) in the British Virgin Islands, resulted in a surprise Conservative gain, in yet another clear exercise about how first past the post is bad for democracy. Labour missed out on winning by only a single vote, and this Conservative gain gave the Conservatives overall control of West Devon District Council, and both the top two candidates polled less than a third of the votes cast apiece. Incidentally, Bere Ferrers is the only ward in West Devon to have ever elected a Labour councillor since West Devon's inaugural election of 1973, partly due to its closeness to Plymouth. That by-election proved to be a rare four-way contest, with the Greens polling nearly half the Conservative vote despite finishing fourth.

25 November
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Election analysis

Even though the Conservatives have been trailing slightly behind Labour in recent opinion polls following the recent sleaze scandal, not to mention reports of backbench Conservative MPs filing votes of no confidence in Boris Johnson, their performance was surprisingly strong, gaining the safe Labour ward of Knutton (and there are not many safe Labour wards in Newcastle-under-Lyme anymore) on a 25.8 per cent swing and only narrowly failing to win Bedford ward in Wandsworth, territory particularly unfavourable to the Conservatives at present. They lost only the Speldhurst & Bidborough by-election (to the localist Tunbridge Wells Alliance) of the seats they were defending; residents' associations are continuing to gain traction in the southeast.

Apart from their crushing loss of Bar Pool in Nuneaton & Bedworth (a foregone conclusion given how much Nuneaton & Bedworth has shifted to the Conservatives) and eight-vote loss of Knutton, Labour polled strongly this week, increasing their vote share in the majority of this week's by-elections and gaining two seats previously held by independents. 

Both Allerdale and Wigan have been trending away from Labour at both local and parliamentary levels. In the latter case, a split of the anti-Labour vote between the two Independent candidates (one endorsed by the Independent councillor who had stood down, the other endorsed by another independent group) aided a Labour gain.

Both the Greens and Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, were left disappointed. Having come a close second in Raskelf & White Horse in 2019, the Greens finished third behind the Liberal Democrats even though the latter had not contested the ward in 2019; that said, the Greens finished second in the Halton Castle by-election and nearly pushed Labour into third place in the Bar Pool by-election. A substantial increase in their majority in the Oxton by-election, which they were defending, marked the Liberal Democrats' only high point of this week.