Electoral volatility

The party conference season provides an opportunity for all the political parties to assess their current standing among the electorate.


Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher are Associate Members of Nuffield College, Oxford

The party conference season provides an opportunity for all the political parties to assess their current standing among the electorate.

The opinion polls continue to suggest there is little to choose between Labour and the Conservatives as has broadly been the case ever since last year’s General Election.  Everybody else is far behind, though the Liberal Democrats do occasionally manage to nudge into double figures.

A closer reading of the polls, though, would seem to indicate that support for one and all is fragile. And that picture is amply confirmed in the pattern of local by-elections.        

It is not that there has been an unusual number of gains and losses (21 seats have changed hands in the 71 contests since May 2018). Rather there have been some tidal shifts in the votes attracted by each party.

In the last few weeks alone, the Liberal Democrat share was down by 30 percentage points in Newquay, Cornwall, but the party gained the Watton-at-Stone ward in East Hertfordshire polling fully two-thirds of the vote from a standing start. 

And in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire it polled 400 more votes than in 2017 on a much lower turnout to easily depose the Conservatives. 

Labour, too, has had its ups and downs. In Neath Port Talbot’s Gwynfi ward, it suffered a calamity – slumping from 56 per cent of the vote to just 13 per cent to be swept aside by an Independent candidate. The Conservatives attracted just four votes in the same ward! 

On the other hand, Labour nearly doubled its vote share and ran the Conservatives close in the Newton Regis and Warton ward of North Warwickshire in a constituency where the Conservatives posted one of their best results in the country at last year’s General Election. 

As the governing party, the Conservatives themselves would expect reverses. They have lost a net five seats since May, but still often manage to sweep up the last vestiges of UKIP support in wards previously contested in 2015. Their victory in Thanet in July, for example, saw their vote share more than double. 

With both major parties riven by internal disputes, and with the UK due to leave the EU on whatever terms scarcely a month before next May’s local elections, it is likely that electoral volatility will continue to be commonplace, and that unforeseen issues or events have the potential to impact rapidly on voters’ opinions and behaviour. It is no time to try to be a soothsayer.

Local by-elections

For more statistics on all recent local by-elections, please view our latest excel spreadsheet of results.

Bury, East
LAB HELD
37.8% over Con
Turnout 26%

Carlisle, Denton Holme
LAB HELD
37.9% over Con
Turnout 22.1%

Cornwall, Bude
LIB DEM HELD
28.2% over Ind
Turnout 29.9%

Cumbria, Denton Holme
LAB HELD
31.5% over Con
Turnout 22.1%

East Hertfordshire, Watton-at-Stone
LIB DEM GAIN FROM CON
37% over Con
Turnout 39.3%

Knowsley, Halewood South
LAB HELD
11.9% over Ind
Turnout 24.2%

Neath & Port Talbot, Gwynfi
IND GAIN FROM LAB
42% over Plaid Cymru
Turnout 51%

North Warwickshire, Newton Regis & Warton
CON HELD
4.4% over Lab
Turnout 32%

North Yorkshire, Knaresborough
LIB DEM GAIN FROM CON
19.8% over Con
Turnout 30.3%

Rushcliffe, Gotham
CON HELD
9.1% over Lab
Turnout 44.3%

Sevenoaks, Farningham Horton Kirby & South
CON HELD
29% over Lib Dem
Turnout 25.6%

Tameside, Ashton Waterloo
LAB HELD
26% over Green
Turnout 19.5%

Wirral, Bromborough
LAB HELD
18.9% over Con
Turnout 23%