There are another two Green gains from the Conservatives to report, bringing the total to 14 seats captured over the past year.
The Conservative vote in Horsham, Denne, was similar to the previous result there; the Liberal Democrats held the seat despite losing vote share, while the Green vote rose by a modest six percentage points.
So, there were no clues that a major upset was in the offing two weeks later in Horsham’s Storrington and Washington ward, where the Greens’ Joan Grech triumphed – despite the need for a public apology because one of her campaigners was caught on camera removing leaflets posted on behalf of her Conservative opponent.
In the 2019 election, the Greens had not stood a candidate. Then, the three Conservatives faced single-candidate challengers from the Liberal Democrats and Labour.
Later in the year there was a by-election caused by the resignation of Conservative Paul Marshall who became leader of West Sussex County Council. The Conservatives easily won that contest.
For this by-election, however, Labour withdrew from the fray, despite a reasonable level of support in the ward. Grech then successfully squeezed the Liberal Democrat vote and appears to have persuaded some Conservatives to switch also.
From a standing start, she won a 48 per cent share of the vote and a winning margin of more than 200 votes.
A second gain, this in Dorset’s Lyme and Charmouth ward, saw Belinda Bawden win the seat for the Greens after switching her allegiance from Labour.
Under that banner, she had fought a previous vacancy in the ward. Although she increased Labour’s vote share, that by-election was won by Independent, Cheryl Reynolds, who unseated the Conservatives.
Reynolds then lost her seat in 2021 when the ward was reduced to one member in Dorset’s move to unitary status. The Bawden/Reynolds battle continued into this recent by-election but Bawden’s Green appeal was much stronger.
A third defeat for the Conservatives was delivered by East Riding’s Liberal Democrats, who filled the vacancy in South Hunsley ward. Established since 2003 on its current boundaries, the ward had always returned Conservative councillors.
“There were no clues an upset was in the offing”
Liberal Democrat local fortunes have been tied to their national party. Having finished in second place in both 2003 and 2007, the party slipped to third behind Labour in 2011 and 2015, as the backlash against its involvement in the national coalition government gathered pace.
The party’s two candidates were narrowly restored to runner-up status in 2019 but the Conservative majority was over 50 percentage points. So, what explains the 35 per cent swing that gave winning candidate Margaret Corless such a spectacular victory?
Local press reports cite the Conservative-controlled council’s recent planning permission awarded to Amazon’s application for a distribution centre in the local area.
Another possible explanation might be the Conservative party’s national decline in support. If so, how might we then explain the party’s gain of a Labour seat in High Peak’s Cote Heath ward on the same day it was losing seats to both the Greens and Liberal Democrats?
Some part of the explanation lies in Cote Heath’s deserved reputation as a super-marginal, siding with Labour at one electoral cycle and with the Conservatives at the next.
In 2019, Labour’s Keith Savage, whose death caused the vacancy, split the two Conservative candidates and finished in second place, only two votes behind the overall winner.
In effect, this was the tiniest majority to defend, but the Conservative winning majority reflects a relatively poor performance from Labour whose vote was also squeezed by the Greens.
Labour’s performance in by-elections generally sees the party failing to make real progress. Over the past year, it has made just seven gains from the Conservatives, but 36 seats have gone in the opposite direction.
The Liberal Democrats, with 19 gains from the Conservatives, together with the Greens, are providing the main competition.
|Doncaster, Wheatley Hills and Intake
22.7% over Con
|Dorset, Lyme and Charmouth
GREEN GAIN FROM CON
17.3% over Con
|East Riding of Yorkshire, South Hunsley
LIB DEM GAIN FROM CON
18% over Con
|High Peak, Cote Heath
CON GAIN FROM LAB
16.3% over Lab
LIB DEM HELD
11.3% over Con
|Horsham, Storrington and Washington
GREEN GAIN FROM CON
12.6% over Con
37.7% over Green
2% over Lib Dem
|Melton, Melton Sysonby
28.6% over Lib Dem
|Mid Devon, Cullompton South
LIB DEM GAIN FROM IND
5.9% over Con
|Northumberland, Seghill with Seaton Delaval
15.1% over Lab
21.5% over Lab
|Telford & Wrekin, Brookside
23.6% over Con
|Test Valley, North Baddesley
LIB DEM HELD
27.8% over Con
30.2% over Con
|Wolverhampton, East Park
31% over Con