For once, maybe that reaction is justified. Just three seats changed hands – all involving losses or gains for Independent candidates – and in only one case was the outcome even remotely close, with the winner fewer than 10 percentage points ahead of the person in second place.
Yet some results do stand out. In the safe Labour ward of Belgrave, in Leicester, a high turnout of nearly 44 per cent (within the top dozen of all by-election turnouts since the 2017 General Election) saw the party’s Padmini Chamund poll 87 per cent of the vote to finish an extraordinary 5,000 votes ahead of her nearest rival.
It was, by some distance, the largest vote and percentage majority any party in England has achieved at a local by-election outside a coincident General Election for more than five years.
The Ashfield Independents also registered a run away victory in the Sutton Junction and Harlow Wood ward. The incumbent councillor, elected for Labour in 2015 but subsequently sitting as an Independent, resigned – and saw his successor triumph from a standing start.
The number of votes cast could not rival the Leicester example, but it is notable that neither Labour nor the Conservatives managed to reach three figures at the ballot box, with the Liberal Democrats polling a paltry five votes.
This was the Ashfield Independents’ second successive by-election victory and is a warning shot across Labour’s bows, in particular ahead of the May 2019 all-out contests If those two examples betoken nascent enthusiasm for – and commitment to – local electoral politics, the reverse seems to be the case in Middlesbrough. The turnout of 9.8 per cent in Brambles and Thorntree was the lowest we have recorded in any ward not dominated by a student electorate since this column began in February 2011.
In all, there were 220 by-elections in 2018. They attracted an average turnout of 27 per cent, with the Liberal Democrats coming out ahead with 17 net gains and an increase of eight percentage points in mean vote share.
The Conservatives were down 16 seats, but Labour’s gains and losses balanced out.
UKIP lost all seven seats it was defending and polled a mean six per cent in those 50-odd vacancies it did contest. Add to that the steady drip of defections among its current sitting councillors and the party looks set to be virtually wiped o the local government map this May.