Analysing local by-elections in October 2021

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

Greens make gains in local government election
Alan Borgars

Of these results, South Staffordshire's by-elections proved to be considerable disappointments for us; we fell to third place in Kinver despite the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate and missed out on winning Wombourne South East by just 47 votes. Localist independents are gaining ground in by-elections slowly but surely, Greens must be prepared for this.

7 October
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A table of results

Of these seven by-elections, only one changed hands. This was hardly surprising given that the three Independent candidates had a strong enough personal vote, which actually worked against all of them and allowed Labour to slip through the middle, in another exercise of why first past the post is bad for democracy. Tactical voting would not have helped here, either, as only one political party was standing in that by-election.

In Nottingham, ongoing troubles within Nottingham East CLP since the suspension of its former chair, Louise Regan, over her support for Jeremy Corbyn back in November 2020 caused significant leakage of Labour votes to the localist Nottingham Independent. UKIP's absence helped them as well, given that the Nottingham Independents' founding members were originally UKIP members. Thus, it is not surprising that they performed poorly in the St Ann's by-election, given St Ann's ethnic diversity. By the same measure, the hardline socialist TUSC should have performed better in radical and relatively poor St Ann's ward than in middle-class progressive Sherwood ward, but the opposite proved to be the case.

The disparities in Liberal Democrat performance in the Comeytrowe & Trull by-election (for Somerset County Council, soon to be abolished) and the Wilton & Sherford by-election (for Somerset West & Taunton District Council, also soon to be abolished) can be attributed to the division being seen as the marginal, with the ward partly within it being seen is safe. This also explains the strong Liberal Democrat upsurge in the Cranleigh East by-election, where Labour did not stand and where there was pressure to capture the (limited) Labour vote.

14 October
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Table of results

It was a strong week for the Conservatives, with UKIP's and Reform UK's absence from the Frimley Green proving decisive to that Conservative gain, even though the Pirate Party's absence was helpful to the Liberal Democrats simultaneously; in Falkirk however, it was the SNP who benefitted from transfers this time, despite Labour votes normally transferring away from the SNP in later stages. Localism has been growing strongly in the north and Midlands, but in Leigh, it has not taken root enough to win seats regularly just yet, despite localist politics traditionally being strong in Wigan by Greater Manchester standards. The Leigh West Independents fared no better than their predecessor local party, Leigh, Atherton and Tydesley Together, and Labour held the seat easily.

21 and 28 October
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Table of results
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Table of results

As has been discussed before, localist independents have been gaining ground north of the Wash, but mainly in ex-industrial once solidly Labour areas. By comparison, Bolton for Change made no significant impact in solidly Conservative, suburban Bromley Cross, which was not incorporated into Bolton until 1974 and still feels slightly detached from it.

The Green Party has been making considerable progress in normally solidly Conservative South Staffordshire district, which currently has three Green councillors, although they slipped back in the Kinver by-election despite the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate, which would normally have been a helpful factor to the Greens, and narrowly missed out on winning Wombourne South East despite a substantial squeeze on the Labour vote. 

The most interesting of the 11 by-elections above was that in Gresford, a suburb of Wrexham where the resigning Conservative councillor had a very strong personal vote indeed, such that in 2017 he gained the seat from third place and polled 73 per cent to boot. The loss of that personal vote, however, did not prevent the Conservatives from holding it comfortably against a divided opposition, including a strong Plaid Cymru performance in an area with a relatively low Welsh-speaking population and poor prospects for Plaid Cymru (although clearly better than Flintshire, to the north of Wrexham), although it does follow on from their surprise gains in Wrexham earlier this year. Labour's poor performance, meanwhile, does not bode well for them in terms of regaining Wrexham at the next general election, especially with upcoming boundary changes which will incorporate more de facto suburbs currently in the Clwyd South constituency