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.


A note on the Sunderland Sandhill council by-election


Many a comment has been made about Sunderland’s Sandhill council by-election result from last night, about what it may or may not mean and whether it is indicative of something or nothing.

An anonymous source told me on Tuesday that the Lib Dems had been working the ward for three months, an abnormal length of campaigning for council by-election campaigns.

Ciarán Morrissey, a Liberal Democrat campaigner from the region who played a part in the campaign, said to me that he is “sceptical of narratives that say this [the Lib Dem gain] was because of Regrexit and Jeremy Corbyn,” instead placing blame on the local council and pointing out their campaign focused on local issues rather than the national picture.

“It was just old-fashioned groundwork. Heavily targeted literature plans, lots of literature, and lots of canvassing. Our messages were clear and were being read and believed, and we put out an absolutely huge volume of Focus, blue letters, etc., including a letter from Steve’s [the candidate] nana, who lives in the ward. We canvassed every day and kept returning to doors where we’d been told where to go, and kept this intensity up until polling day, having been at it since late November.”

Is it the case that the Liberal Democrats may now regularly be outgunning their opponents in manpower and literature when it comes to council by-elections? Perhaps. It doesn’t require confidants and scientific analysis to tell you the Lib Dems regularly go over and above what other parties do in election campaigns they think they can win in.

Is it the case that the Liberal Democrats are (re)gaining support, and so, logically, gaining council seats? Yes. Our poll of polls does note an uptick in support for them, but that alone does not explain the win in Sandhills, a seat they weren’t in contention for even at their height of popularity back in the 2000s.

Does the Lib Dem win in (Leave voting) Sunderland suggest Regrexit is driving votes to a pro-EU party? Very unlikely. National polling currently does not give Regrexit much credence. The subsamples (usual caveats apply) in national polls do note, however, that the Lib Dems are taking one in five of those that voted Remain in last year’s referendum.

My impression is the Lib Dems are in the process of successfully shaking off the negative reputation attained from the coalition years. Their ability to focus on local issues in, shocker, local council by-elections and campaigning hard is paying them dividends. Nationally, they are up in the polls but not by much.

For a better, clearer picture of how national public opinion is shaping up, keep an eye on our polling averages and the coming English, Welsh and Scottish elections of May this year. More on what is up for election soon!


With thanks to those cited on the ground in the area for providing valuable information.


2016's Council By-Elections, a roundup

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.