In Eden District Council’s Penrith South ward, a vacancy was caused by the death of Independent Paul Connor, first elected only months before. Conservative Helen Fearon, a well-known local figure, who has represented Penrith West on Cumbria County Council since 2009, won with almost half the votes cast.
By contrast, Labour’s vote fell in every case and it lost Bury’s Radcliffe West to complete a disappointing picture.
Last May, the Radcliffe First group was within 80 votes of snatching a spectacular victory in a ward held by Labour at every election since its creation in 2004. The group won in the neighbouring East ward earlier this year, and now Mike Smith represents Radcliffe West rather than Labour’s Jamie Walker.
Just 32 votes spared Labour’s blushes in the battle with the Liberal Democrats for St Andrew’s & Dockland ward in Hull. In 2018, Labour easily won all three seats in the newly created ward, with Nadine Fudge heading her party’s slate. Her recent death caused this by-election.
In the absence of Green and For Britain candidates this time round, voters were forced to make another choice, and some appear to have swung behind the Liberal Democrats. Their vote share rose by more than 30 percentage points but Labour’s narrow win means Nadine’s daughter, Leanne, now represents the ward.
Traditionally, voter turnout falls in by-elections held during the school holidays, as in the above examples. But there is a general trend towards lower turnout that should be addressed.
Our analysis of more than 10,000 council by-elections held over four decades demonstrates average turnout is declining. Excluding by-elections taking place on the same day as the main May local elections and/or parliamentary elections, average turnout has declined from 35 per cent during the 1980s to just 28 per cent in this decade. Even in the most fiercely contested elections where a seat changed hands, turnout now struggles to an average of 30 per cent, an eight-point drop compared with 30 years ago.
Many factors are known to affect voter turnout, party competition being one of them – with turnout rising as more parties campaign for votes. But despite today’s voters having more choice, with an average of four or five candidates on the ballot compared with three in the 1980s and 1990s, fewer electors are engaging with these contests.
Instead, the decline in turnout follows from fewer people now regarding voting as part of their ‘civic duty’. As older voters, born during the 1940s and 1950s and with a stronger sense of local identity, are replaced by electors for whom such feelings are less apparent, turnout is certain to fall.
How that problem can be resolved is a conversation that is best led by local elected members who do have a sense of civic pride and do care for their local communities.
A crucial step in that conversation is that all councillors look at their own election results published on the council website. Our evidence suggests that around four in 10 councils are still not publishing figures for electorate and turnout, despite the fact that those data are held by electoral services. If not, why not?