Weathering the storm

By-election defeats for the Conservatives may be reaching a critical point.

The yardstick is the early 1990s. Then, the party deposed its leader, Margaret Thatcher, and watched a surprise General Election victory from the replacement, John Major.

Within months, however, the Conservatives faced economic challenges whose electoral impact became clear with mounting losses in both local and parliamentary by-elections.

In 1992, the Conservatives were losing one in four council by-elections. A year later it was losing half its seats, and by 1994 losses were running at two in every three. 

After successive disastrous May results, the party’s overall share of council seats dipped to 19 per cent, which remains its lowest share, and in 1997 the party experienced one of its worst ever General Election defeats.

Do recent Conservative losses suggest a repeat of these events? The party is currently losing almost half the seats it is defending, double the rate for 2021. The decline between 2021-2022 is identical to that for 1992-1993.

But there may be a crucial difference between the past and present.

Blair’s Labour Party was a much more formidable local government opponent than the party is currently. The Conservatives are losing seats at an alarming rate but defeat is dealt by multiple foes. 

Labour easily gained the Conservative seat in West Auckland, Durham, which was split in the 2021 election. 

Its other two gains resulted from the resignation of Joe Miller, a Conservative on Brighton & Hove and Lewes Councils. Miller was re-elected in 2019 for the Rottingdean ward of the former and in the same year finished top of the poll in Lewes’ new Peacehaven West ward.  In December, Miller unsuccessfully campaigned for the Brighton Kemptown constituency, which includes both wards. 

Liberal Democrat success came in Surrey Heath’s Bisley & West End ward prior to the 5 May local elections. With no UKIP, Labour or Independent candidates contesting the vacancy, electors were left with a straight choice with votes splitting two to one in Liberal Democrat favour.

There was something similar in Carlisle’s Longtown & the Border ward with the vacancy not contested by Green, Labour and UKIP, all challengers at the previous election. 

The Liberal Democrats, without a candidate in 2019, provided the opposition this time and enjoyed a comfortable win.

The hat-trick was completed with a win in Vale of White Horse’s Steventon & the Hanneys ward.

For good measure, the Liberal Democrats added a fourth victory, gaining the previously unopposed Conservative seat in Sevenoaks’ Penshurst, Fordcombe & Chiddingstone ward.

The Greens also continue to un-seat Conservatives.

In 2019, Labour finished as runner-up in Lancaster City Council’s Ellel ward with the Greens a distant third. Labour again finished second this time round, but leapfrogged by the Greens’ Sally Maddocks as the Conservatives slumped. 

The Conservatives’ internal struggle in Spelthorne is likely affecting its electoral support there. This combined with another raft of withdrawals, which saw neither Liberal Democrats nor Labour contesting the seat, provided the opportunity for another Green gain.

North Kesteven’s Sleaford Quarrington & Mareham ward voted for two Conservatives and an Independent in 2019. The Independent interest in this by-election was provided by the Lincolnshire Independents, who unseated the Conservatives by the slender margin of just six votes.

As first was going to press, it was looking highly likely that the Conservatives will shortly lose two parliamentary by-elections – one to Labour, another to the Liberal Democrats. 

Whether the party can weather the current storm may well be determined by its local rivals deciding which among them has the best prospect of inflicting defeat. If that happens then the coming months will see the decline accelerate.

local by-elections
Allerdale, St Michael's
LAB HELD
19.3% over Ind
Turnout 21.6%
Breckland, Mattishall
CON HELD
4.1% over Ind
Turnout 28.4%
Brighton & Hove, Rottingdean Coastal
LAB GAIN FROM CON
2.0% over Ind
Turnout 43.9%
Carlisle, Longtown & the Border
LIB DEM GAIN FROM CON
13.6% over Con
Turnout 37.9%
Chelmsford, Little Baddow, Danbury and Sandon
CON HELD
47.0% over Lib Dem
Turnout 32.7%
Crawley, Southgate
LAB HELD
7.9% over Con
Turnout 30.0%
Derbyshire Dales, Carsington Water
CON HELD
8.8% over Lib Dem
Turnout 50.4%
Durham, West Auckland
LAB GAIN FROM CON
23.7% over Con
Turnout 25.8%
Epping Forest, Waltham Abbey North East
CON HELD
28.6% over Lib Dem
Turnout 25.2%
Gedling, Gedling
LAB HELD
8.5% over Con
Turnout 36.0%
Harrogate, Wathvale
CON HELD
28.0% over Lib Dem
Turnout 40.2%
Lancaster, Ellel
GREEN GAIN FROM CON
9.4% over Lab
Turnout 37.8%
Lewes, Peacehaven West
LAB GAIN FROM CON
15.0% over Con
Turnout 28.1%
Maldon, Heybridge West
LIB DEM GAIN FROM IND
27.5% over Con
Turnout 19.1%
North Kesteven, Sleaford Quarrington & Mareham
LINCS IND GAIN FROM CON
0.4% over Con
Turnout 22.8%
Rutland, Uppingham
LIB DEM GAIN FROM GREEN
28.0% over Ind
Turnout 39.5%
Sevenoaks, Fawkham & West Kingsdown
CON HELD
54.8% over Lab
Turnout 25.9%
Sevenoaks, Penshurst, Fordcombe & Chiddingstone
LIB DEM GAIN FROM CON
8.7% over Con
Turnout 32.8%
South Norfolk, Mulbarton and Stoke Holy Cross
LIB DEM HELD
8.1% over Con
Turnout 39.2%
South Ribble, Earnshaw Bridge
LAB HELD
14.2% over Con
Turnout 42.5%
Spelthorne, Laleham and Shepperton Green
GREEN GAIN FROM CON
7.3% over Con
Turnout 29.1%
Staffordshire Moorlands, Cheadle South East
CON GAIN FROM IND
2.8% over Lab
Turnout 27.9%
Surrey Heath, Bisley & West End
LIB DEM GAIN FROM CON
32.0% over Con
Turnout 30.5%
Tewkesbury, Brockworth East
IND HELD
54.2% over Lib Dem
Turnout 17.6%
Vale Of White Horse, Steventon & the Hanneys
LIB DEM GAIN FROM CON
22.6% over Con
Turnout 49.5%
Waverley, Frensham Dockenfield and Tilford
IND GAIN FROM CON
11.8% over Green
Turnout 35.4%
West Lancashire, Wrightington
CON HELD
6.7% over Lab
Turnout 39.3%

CORRECTIONS

In a table in ‘Going to the polls’ in first 671 (May 2022), we incorrectly stated that the Green Party controlled one council and had 208 councillors in Wales before 5 May. These figures were in fact for Plaid Cymru. We apologise for this mistake and the upset caused.

In a table in ‘Local elections dilemma’ in first 672 (June 2022), we incorrectly stated that the number of seats held by Plaid Cymru following the 5 May elections had gone up by nine, when in fact it had gone down by six. The number of seats for ‘Other’ went up by nine. We apologise for this mistake and the upset caused.

Author

Only by-elections in which a ward changed hands are shown here. Check all recent by-election results and more information here.

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