Patterns of party competition

There are just four by-elections to report but three may offer clues about the May elections.

In Ynys Môn (Isle of Anglesey), Plaid Cymru headed the poll in the council’s Aethwy ward in 2013 but one of its three candidates trailed behind an Independent.  

Four years later, all three seats were won with an increased majority and in 2022 the party won more than half the votes cast – making it, by any standards, a safe seat. Sonia Williams, also a town councillor for Menai Bridge, safely defended the vacancy and increased Plaid’s majority.

North Northamptonshire provided a third by-election in a Conservative seat in just over a year.  

Following a resignation in Oundle ward, the Liberal Democrats in February 2022 overturned a 19 percentage point majority. This was followed by a Labour victory in Northall ward, although this had been a marginal seat.  

It proved third time lucky for the Conservatives when defending Rushden South. 

This was the safest of the three vacancies, a 27 per cent majority proving more than enough to thwart Labour ambitions. 

It provides a rare example where the Conservative vote share increased from the 2021 election. Labour’s vote also rose, with sharp reductions for both the Greens and Liberal Democrats.

Labour easily held Heath ward in Barking and Dagenham but here too the Conservative vote showed a six-point recovery from the 2022 election, with Labour’s share falling by twice that amount.  

While these two results offer some comfort to Conservatives about to defend their council seats, another by-election – this time for Gloucester’s Westgate ward – saw the party lose to the Liberal Democrats.  

Westgate saw a Conservative 13-point majority replaced with the same for the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative share fell by 10 percentage points, similar to that of the Greens who chose not to contest the vacancy.

The conclusion to be drawn from these examples is that the Conservatives remain under threat and the party looks set to lose both seats and council control in May. 

The pattern in by-elections over the past three years shows Conservatives struggling to defend majorities averaging 14 per cent; larger majorities can be defended.  

Much will depend on patterns of party competition in wards the Conservatives are defending and here there is a glimmer of hope. Examining more than 25,000 nominations in the 8,000 seats up for election shows the Conservatives are contesting 93 per cent of the available seats.

They face strong competition from Labour who are contesting 77 per cent of vacancies. The Liberal Democrats are present in 60 per cent, up from 53 per cent in 2019, and the Greens in 41 per cent, up on 31 per cent in 2019.

There is a rise too for Independents and smaller parties who performed so well in 2019.

local by-elections
Barking and Dagenham, Heath
29.5% over Con
Turnout 21.8%
Gloucester, Westgate
13.3% over Con
Turnout 23.5%
North Northamptonshire,
Rushden South
25.8% over Lab
Turnout 19.3%
Ynys Môn, Aethwy
35.1% over Lab
Turnout 29.9%

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