When it comes to council by-elections, 2016 has been unquestionably a good year for the Liberal Democrats.

There have been 317 principal authority by-elections and deferred council contests held over the course of this year. Cornwall stands out as the authority with the most number of by-elections held, at seven.

Council by-elections happen for a number of reasons. From the passing away or resignation of the incumbent to disqualification and arrest, some come with more interesting stories to tell than others.

The Lib Dems made a net gain of 29 seats for 2016, taking home 52. The Conservatives won 106, down 33. Labour, too, suffered a net loss, winning 100 but being down seven. UKIP have a net loss of three, Plaid Cymru a net gain of three and the Scottish Nationalists break even, losing four and gaining four. A smattering of independents, minor parties and local groupings net ten.

Chart: Total council by-election wins by party in 2016

The Lib Dem success came mainly at the expense of the Conservatives. Of the 32 gains made, 22 came from the Tories, five from Labour. When charting the gains by date, 24 of the 32 were made following the referendum on EU membership.

PartySeats to defendSeats heldSeats lostSeats gainedNET
Conservative139895017-33
Labour107852215-7
Liberal Democrat2320332+29
UKIP13496-3
Green1-12+1
SNP7344-
Plaid Cymru33-3+3

Council by-election results in their bulk should not be taken with a pinch of salt or as an overruling reflection of national public opinion. It is safe to say however that a trend has developed with regards to a ‘Lib Dem fightback’ but we should be cautious about jumping to conclusions. Whether the Liberal Democrat success is down to a shift in public opinion or because the party is commendable at focusing resources on by-election campaigns is yet to be seen. Our polling model does show a slight uptick in national support for the party and of the last 10 polls, two have them in double figures.

There will be a better opportunity at drawing conclusions come May of next year where there will be council elections in England (much of the shire authorities), Scotland (all ups) and Wales (all ups).

You can find every headline result of council by-elections held during 2016 in our summary sheet here. Please direct any spotted errors or omissions to our contact page.


Edited 28/12: Article edited to account for numerical error. Conservative council by-election holds originally listed to be 87 when in fact 89.