Two seats that recently changed hands both feature UKIP as a back-story, as does another vacancy where UKIP’s absence left a closely contested two-party battle between Labour and the Conservatives.
There is evidence, too, that Labour’s internal party strife may be affecting their electoral prospects.
In Newcastle-under-Lyme’s newly established Holditch and Chesterton ward, the Independent candidate, Ken Owen, inflicted a surprising defeat on Labour, courtesy of a 19 per cent swing. In last May’s election, Owen had finished in a distant third place, trailing two Labour victors. He was contesting that election as an incumbent, having been elected for the predecessor Holditch ward in 2014. Like many of his ilk, Owen sported UKIP colours then, but subsequently left the party and sat as an Independent.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party was rolling back the former UKIP vote in Thurrock’s Aveley and Uplands ward. UKIP first won it in 2012, by just 27 votes, a year before the party’s national surge. In the following three elections, the party made the ward relatively safe.
UKIP also safely negotiated a by-election in December 2014. Elected then was Tim Aker MEP, who was part of Nigel Farage’s Strasbourg contingent. In January 2018, however, Aker and other UKIP councillors broke away from the party and formed the Thurrock Independents. Group members whose seats were scheduled for re-election contested the May elections, but it was only Aker’s seat that survived the voters’ test. He has now joined Farage’s new Brexit party.
Further signs of Brexit stresses on UKIP can be found in the party’s decision to withdraw from Basildon’s Vange ward. The party contested in 2015 and 2016, when it received 37 per cent of the vote and lost only narrowly. Its fortunes in Basildon have dipped since then, including losing a by-election seat last June.
UKIP’s removal from the fray left just two candidates contesting. Only 26 votes separated them, but a mere 14 per cent of electors turned out to vote. The winner, Aidan McGurran, Managing Editor of Mirror Group Newspapers, can now write first-hand of electoral apathy.
Labour, too, is facing its fair share of internal strife. In ordinary circumstances, when Lib Peck, a long-standing Lambeth councillor and leader resigned her safe seat after her appointment to City Hall, the vacancy would hardly have merited consideration. The party won all three seats by a distance in 2018, but a by-election was fought here as recently as February 2019.
Although Labour held on there was a collapse in vote share as the Liberal Democrats moved to within 300 votes of victory. Days later, the local MP, Chuka Umunna, became a key figure in a breakaway group of fellow parliamentarians that has since become the new Change UK party.
Such drama gave added spice to this latest election battle. It ended with Labour securing a victory margin of just 19 votes over the Liberal Democrats amid another collapse in vote share.