Looking ahead to May

It would be wise not to read too much into the results of the small number of contests held during the Christmas holiday period.  

Most voters will have had their minds elsewhere, and campaigning is likely to have been patchy too. 

Similarly, the summary statistics for all local by-elections since polling resumed in May 2021 (March in Wales) may give a misleading impression of the current narrative in British politics.Across the more than 400 elections, the Conservatives made a net gain of 50 seats, whereas Labour fell back by 26. The gains and losses for the Liberal Democrats effectively balanced each other out. 

However, with ‘partygate’ now seriously eating into support for the Prime Minister personally and the Conservatives in general, this year’s annual local elections have taken on a significance unimaginable a few weeks ago. On 5 May, more than 5,500 seats will be contested in 168 councils in England and Wales. Labour will be defending about half of these vacancies, nearly twice as many as the Conservatives and five times the number for the Liberal Democrats. 

Most contests in England reprise elections last held in 2018. That year resulted in Labour’s strongest local election performance, and the biggest combined Labour and Conservative share of the total vote since 2012. 

In the London boroughs, Labour really rewrote the history books with the party’s best local-level showing in the capital for almost 50 years.  

The Conservatives, by contrast, posted their lowest ever vote share, but did win a marginally greater share of seats than at a previous debacle in 1994.

That context is crucial this year. While the consensus is that London is now a Labour city, the successes of last time must be priced into expectations of further advance in boroughs such as Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster. On the other hand, the crisis-hit Labour-run council in Croydon could experience a voter backlash. 

In the metropolitan boroughs and other parts of urban England, 2018 was the year before Labour’s ‘red wall’ problems really became evident. The party must at least replicate its results then to show that it has bounced back from the dismal outcomes of 2019 and 2021.

In Barnsley, for example, a 58 per cent share of the vote in 2018 slumped to 37 per cent in 2019 and 41 per cent last year. In Sunderland, 47 per cent became 33 per cent and 39 per cent respectively. 

In Wales, by contrast, it is the Conservatives who defend something of a high-water mark. The benchmark here is 2017, when Theresa May seemed to be carrying all before her, only to stumble at the General Election just five weeks later.  

The party made 80 gains, taking control of Monmouthshire and becoming the largest group on Denbighshire County Council and Vale of Glamorgan Council.  With new boundaries and every seat at stake, that position could now be under threat.

Correction

In last month’s elections feature (first 667), we incorrectly recorded a Liberal Democrat gain over Conservative in a Horsham by-election as in Roffey North. This result was in fact in Roffey South. Our apologies for the error and for any confusion caused.

local by-elections
Charnwood, Loughborough Shelthorpe
TWO LAB HELD
28% over Con
Turnout 18.7%
East Lindsey, Chapel St Leonards
CON HELD
24% over Ind
Turnout 17.9%
Gedling, Cavendish
LIB DEM GAIN FROM LAB
4.2% over Lab
Turnout 23.3%
New Forest, Bransgore and Burley
IND GAIN FROM CON
11.3% over Green
Turnout 31.1%
Selby, Byram and Brotherton
CON GAIN FROM YORKSHIRE PARTY
1.8% over Lab
Turnout 19.4%
Wychavon, The Littletons
GREEN GAIN FROM CON
2.3% over Con
Turnout 23.4%

Author

See our excel spreadsheet for more details of the results listed here and for other recent by-election results.

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