What are council by-elections telling us?

TL;Dr: Recent council by-election results are telling us that the polls are pretty much spot on. By-election results to seats that were last up in 2014, 15 and 16 are now reflecting (catching up with) the changed state of public opinion in that there now exists a country where the two main parties for government are polling in the low-forties.

Over the course of the last few weeks and months we have had a boon of by-elections. Of the 79 council by-elections held since the general election, 30 have changed hands. Of that 30, thirteen have been gains made by Labour, six by the Tories, two by the Greens, three by the Liberal Democrats and the remaining six by independents and local parties.

The attention received regarding these by-elections has been unprecedented in recent months, and many a comment has been made about what these results mean for the state of what Britain thinks.

At present, the Labour and Tory gains we are seeing are simply a reflection of the general election result. Ward results, where the contests were last held in 2014, 15 and 16, are merely catching up with the changed state of Britain: a more two party country than what it once was in 2015 when Labour or the Tories were polling in the mid thirties. Now that they are both neck and neck in the forties, and with a general election result to set this shift in electoral stone rather than polling, so too should it be expected that council by-election results reflect that.

Though one ward is not entirely reflective of the entire constituency at large, and it should be said that local issues in local elections do have an impact, the recent by-election in a ward in the Weston Super Mare constituency saw Labour increase its share of the vote by 22pts on the 2015 local elections (with the absence of a popular independent candidate who took 23 per cent in 2015). This result is not too dissimilar to the general election result across the constituency, where Labour jumped 14pts.

Those attempting to make projections on local by-elections should anticipate much improved performances in the Labour vote on 2014, 15 and 16 when the party was polling in the low-to-mid-thirties.

Unless public opinion changes, we should expect further Labour gains – particularly in next year’s London local elections – but note that they are indicative of little else but the validation of the general election result and the current state of the parties nationally.

For those that don’t know, a council by-election is when a ward/division, featuring an electorate of on average a few thousand, has an unexpected contest caused either by the elected individual’s death, resignation, disqualification or imprisonment. Our American audience will know by-elections (be they parliamentary or local) as special elections. Council by-elections can sometimes be fought with local issues taking a greater precedent than would be the case in parliamentary elections.