The return of the casual vacancy

Council by-elections resumed for English authorities on 6 May, with more than 350 vacancies filled.

Some were combined with scheduled local elections, but in 262 wards, a separate by-election was held. 

Vacancies caused by the death of the sitting councillor accounted for 32 per cent of cases. Using council by-elections held during the 2017-19 parliament as a point of comparison, when 30 per cent of vacancies arose because of a death, there does not appear to be a significant increase.

The outcomes in the 6 May by-elections followed the pattern favouring the Conservatives established in the main elections. The party made a net gain of 61 seats to go alongside the 234 gains made in council areas holding elections.  

Labour lost 27 seats to the Conservatives and finished with a net loss of 24 seats. This made a final tally of 352 net losses for Labour.

Notwithstanding the Liberal Democrats’ spectacular victory in the recent Chesham and Amersham parliamentary by-election, the battle between them and the Greens is bringing some interesting developments.  

Both parties fielded a candidate in 121 by-elections, with the Green candidate winning more votes than the Liberal Democrat in 66 of these. The Liberal Democrats received an average of 409 votes in the seats they contested, compared with 349 votes for the Greens.  

The Liberal Democrats currently have more councillors than the Greens, but given talk about a so-called ‘progressive alliance’ it will be interesting to monitor the rivalry between these two parties in future by-elections.

Following the main May elections, there were some reports that, while the Conservative party had consolidated its grip – established in 2019 – across parts of the Midlands and the North, it was experiencing difficulties in southern England. There is very little evidence in these by-election results to support that thesis. 

Indeed, in the 138 contests held in Greater London, acknowledged as one of its weakest regions, the party’s vote rose by an average of four percentage points compared with the results in 2018, while Labour’s fell by seven points.  

Half of June’s by-elections arose because of a candidate’s death before the May election. The outcome in the two Labour seats for Sewell – one for Norwich, the other for Norfolk – is especially interesting.  

The party safely negotiated its defence of the county division, but lost the city ward – which has the same boundary – to the Greens. The same four parties contested both vacancies and it would appear that some Labour county voters used their second vote to favour the Greens.

In a postponed election for Tandridge District Council, Judy Moore unseated the Conservatives to take the Felbridge seat, boosting the Independent/Residents’ Association coalition there.

The Liberal Democrats probably held onto their Old Cleeve and District seat in Somerset West and Taunton because local Conservative voters were torn between a choice of two former councillors.  

Martin Dewdney and Richard Lillis were both elected as Conservatives for Old Cleeve before West Somerset merged with Taunton Deane, but Lillis contested the 2019 election as an Independent. This time he declined any description on the ballot paper, but still polled 120 votes, with Dewdney falling short by just six votes!

local by-elections
Kent, Elham Valley
13.1% over Green
Turnout 25.5%
Mid Devon, Upper Culm
1.8% over Lib Dem
Turnout 23.9%
Norfolk, Sewell
5.1% over Green
Turnout 32.6%
Norwich, Sewell
6.3% over Lab
Turnout 32.6%
Somerset West and Taunton,
Old!Cleeve and District
0.5% over Con
Turnout 28%
Tandridge, Felbridge
18.1% over Ind
Turnout 31.9%
Waltham Forest, Grove Green
34.1% over Lib Dem
Turnout 21%
Waltham Forest, Lea Bridge
31.3% over Ind
Turnout 21%

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