Analysing local by-elections in September 2021

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

Polling station sign
Alan Borgars

This month, the Greens’ most critical successes were our historic gains in Broadland. For the first time, we have gained seats on Broadland District Council, and our gain in East Hampshire has seen Blossom Gottlieb become the area’s first Green Party councillor elected at the principal authority level. The continuing woes of Labour and the Conservatives continue to be the Green Party's gain at a local level, in particular, cementing our record high average poll ratings.

2 and 9 September by-elections
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Table of results
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Table of results

Of these nine by-elections, the most surprising result was a near-miss by the Green Party in Cleadon and East Boldon ward, the only ward in South Tyneside that has elected Conservative councillors recently; in the North East the Green Party has generally fared better in traditionally Labour-held seats (all the recent Green gains in South Tyneside have been from Labour, for example), and the area is normally a tight Conservative-Labour marginal.

Meanwhile, in Killamarsh East, Labour gained the seat partly because the Liberal Democrats accidentally split the Labour vote; in ex-mining areas such as Killamarsh the Liberal Democrat vote (and the Green vote) is naturally weak and generally hits the Conservative vote much more than the Labour vote, although in most cases this makes little difference. The recent National Insurance rise, which all but five Conservative MPs (Sir Christopher Chope, Phillip Davies, Neil Hudson, Esther McVey and Sir John Redwood) voted for, was also a significant factor in the Conservatives' loss of that by-election, as well as their loss of the Seales by-election in South Derbyshire (which also had a sitting Conservative councillor re-running as an Independent) and their near loss of Cleadon & East Boldon. It has also led to the Conservatives polling below Labour for the first time in seven years; this is not surprising given that it will be low-income workers and self-employed small businesspeople (who formed a large proportion of Labour-Conservative switchers and Brexit Party voters in 2019) who will be hit hardest by National Insurance rises, at a time where the UK is still struggling to recover economically and socially from COVID despite restrictions having been lifted nearly two months ago.

16 September by-election
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Table of results

The Independent win in Tenbury was not surprising, given how complacent councillors and council groups get when they are elected unopposed in an election, as the Conservatives were in Tenbury ward in 2019 (Conservatives being elected unopposed in at least one ward are par for the course in local elections in Malvern Hills, mainly in the northern villages and small towns near Leominster, Herefordshire).

An independent gain in Ladgate's by-election was assured, although surprisingly it was not the independent supported by the Middlesbrough Independent Group, namely Sharon Platt, who finished a poor fourth instead. Tony Grainge was the victorious independent candidate here, primarily winning votes from lapsed Labour supporters who are just as unimpressed with Sir Keir Starmer as they are with Jeremy Corbyn, even after the National Insurance hike of last week, the various defections from Middlesbrough's Labour group since May 2019 only adding salt to the wound psephologically. 

Even though Labour no longer have overall control of Sheffield council, they are still the administration and thus still unpopular locally, as a near-miss by the Liberal Democrats in normally safe Firth Park ward proved this week, with a 25.3 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats to boot.

23 September by-election
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Despite the recent energy crisis and driver crisis being attributable to Brexit, this did not prevent the Conservatives from putting in strong performances in the majority of these by-elections, even gaining Soham North from the Liberal Democrats, and arguably they only polled badly in Kendal North due to tactical voting. Said recent energy crisis did boost the Green vote, but not enough for any Green gains, although they came close in Kendal North. This was an unusual situation given that Liberal Democrats and Greens are rarely competitive in the same wards nowadays, as shown by the tactical squeeze on the Green Party in Soham North's by-election. Only in the Exe Valley by-election did Labour put in a good performance, although being next to Exeter, it is increasingly being populated by public sector workers and academic workers priced out of Exeter city itself.

28 and 30 September by-elections
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Table of results
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Table of results

This week saw some historic breakthroughs for the Green Party, just before the result of their 2021 leadership election was announced. It saw the first Green Party councillors elected to Broadland District Council in Norfolk and also the first-ever Green Party councillor elected at principal authority level anywhere in Hampshire. They also did well in the Priory by-election in Swale (covering the northern quarter of the town of Faversham), which also shows the Liberal Democrats' high reliance on incumbency votes at a local and national level outside middle-class, highly educated towns and suburbs (and even in them sometimes, as Faversham like so many towns close to London is heading in that direction).

Labour did poorly all round in this week's set of by-elections, and the recent conference has not helped them. They were lucky to avoid losing the Hetton by-election to the Liberal Democrats especially with Sunderland Council's continuing problems with corruption and nepotism in its Labour group, and they were also hit hard in the Tutbury & Outwoods by-election by one of their former candidates standing as an independent (and that by-election was their only realistic chance of a gain this week). The Conservatives overall fared worse, though, because they were defending more favourable territory and their gain in West Suffolk was a foregone conclusion in a small East Anglian town with no independent candidates standing to replace the former independent. It was not a good week for independent candidates, either, as two who had stood in a previous election in that ward found themselves caught in a tactical squeeze.