Council by election results are not always a guide to a party’s performance in a general election because local issues can determine how people vote. But they are a guide to how the most politically active think since the people who vote are likely to be those most interested their local community. They are also a guide to how each political party can get their vote out and are real results – not an opinion poll.
Whatever way you put it this summer- with a couple of exceptions- has been a disaster for Sir Keir’s Starmer’s new model Labour Party. As well as the high profile Parliamentary loss of Hartlepool to the Tories, only just holding on to Batley and Spen and the collapse of the Labour vote to the Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham it is the local council by-election results that have been particularly bad.
Since this is against the background of a pretty incompetent Tory government facing allegations of corruption and mucking up people’s summer holiday arrangements by constantly changing the rules and causing confusion about what, if any, rules to follow to keep safe from Covid 19, it is no mean achievement for Labour to lose more electoral support.
The by-election results also show that underneath the serenity of a successful and well organised NHS vaccination programme the political scene is pretty volatile. Council seats that should have naturally stayed under the same party’s control are falling to other parties with enormous changes in vote share. The trouble is that in England and Scotland Labour is not the beneficiary. The exception is Wales. In the one Welsh by-election in the Rhondda, Labour did do well with the Tory share falling significantly.
The pattern that is emerging for Labour- from both the Midlands and the North- is that the Tories are consolidating the gains they made in 2019 and wooing the working class vote in once safe Labour areas. If this continues Labour under Starmer might lose more Parliamentary seats in a snap election in 2023 than Corbyn lost in 2019 and the Conservative Home dream list of scores of fresh Tory gains in Yorkshire , the North East, and the East and West Midlands become reality. In Yorkshire alone this means 11 seats could go.
Tories consolidating 2019 election gains
Examples of consolidation include Tory by-election wins from Labour in Grimsby, Bassetlaw and Sandwell and North East Lincolnshire. In Sandwell the Tory share of the vote was up 20 pc, the Labour share down 13.7 per cent. In Bassetlaw, the East Retford South seat saw the Labour share down 47 per cent and the Tory share up 25 per cent with the intervention of an Independent.
Even more concerning for Labour should be by-election results in Leicester, Harlow and Basildon. In Leicester Tories gained their first seat on the council with an 18 per cent rise in vote share while Labour slumped nearly 16 per cent. With the full council up for election next year, the Tories are hoping for large scale gains and possibly one of the city’s Parliamentary seats soon.
In Harlow and Basildon Tories took council seats in Labour areas like Pitsea in Basildon and Mark Hall in Harlow. The Labour vote share was down 16 pc in Basildon and Tories up nearly 15pc. In Basildon the Tory share was up 24 per cent enough to take the seat from Labour who kept a 41 per cent vote share. These new towns used to have Labour councils and Labour MPs like Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. In Hemel there are now no Labour councillors.
Greens having remarkable results
The Tories are on the defensive in rural England and the South and West of England. But the main beneficiaries are the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The Greens had a remarkable result in Somerset going from nowhere to 64.9 per cent vote share when the Liberal Democrats did not contest the seat. They held on to a seat in Staines just outside London, and gained seats in Aldeburgh in Suffolk and Mid Sussex from the Tories. In Aldeburgh they just pipped the Tories with a 26 per cent rise in vote share and in Balcombe, Mid Sussex they won a little more convincingly with a 13 per cent rise.
Lib Dems winning “safe” Tory council seats
The Liberal Democrats also did well winning seats from the Tories in Knaresborough, King’s Lynn, all with big swings in their vote share ( 28pc in King’s Lynn and 20 per cent in Knaresborough). In some seats the Labour vote switched to the Lib Dems, in other cases it remained steady but the Lib Dems leapfrogged Labour. The Lib Dems also took a seat from the Tories in Cobham in Dominic Raab’s Esher constituency with a 18.4 per cent rise in vote share. Labour did benefit on East Devon council when the voters switched to Labour when the Lib Dems did not stand winning a seat at Honiton.
In Scotland Labour lost a council seat to the SNP on West Lothian council, Vote share was down by nine per cent.
What does this all mean? Difficult to gauge from a clutch of by-election results, but it does suggest the electorate is particularly volatile and not necessarily enamoured with the Tories in rural areas. But it shows Labour has a long way to go.
The worst scenario would be if the Labour Party continued to haemorrhage votes to the Tories in the provincial cities and to the Greens and Liberal Democrats elsewhere. In the end the internal disputes could lead to the Socialist members permanently switching to the Greens and the moderate members switching to the Liberal Democrats. It would mean the end of Labour as a mainstream party. It hasn’t come to that yet, but could be unless Labour comes forward with a much more aggressive and thought provoking agenda.