The big news last night was Labour's sensational defeat in the Tower Hamlets Mayoral election. Up until then Labour had been enjoying some good results in local council by-elections, although rumours were abound that they'd lost the contest early in the night. They did manage to gain seats from the Conservatives in Medway and from the Liberal Democrats in Oxford, as well as managing 75% of the vote in defence of a ward in Sheffield. The Tories themselves scored an impressive gain from the Liberal Democrats in Swansea, whose vote dropped by large amounts in wards they were previously strong. However, the Lib Dems performed a lot better in the rural, English by-elections as they gain a seat from the Conservatives in Mole Valley (Surrey), and ran them close in Mendip (Somerset) and Chiltern (Buckinghamshire).
We'll start with the top story (where else!). It wasn't just that Labour lost the Mayoral election in Tower Hamlets that was surprising, but the sheer scale. The ex-Tower Hamlets Council Leader, and original official Labour Party candidate for this election, Lutfur Rahman secured twice as many votes as his successor, in both roles, Helal Uddin Abbas. Rahman's victory was so great there was no need for second preferences (the Supplementary Vote system was used) to be counted as the Independent received almost 52% of the vote. I highly doubt this will be the end of a sorry chapter for Labour, summarised here, as Rahman's victory was almost certainly aided by the appearance of Ken Livingstone on the campaign trail with him. Many within the Labour Party are upset at Ken's intervention, including NEC member Luke Akehurst and my namesake; The Rt. Hon. Member of Parliament for Glasgow South. Tom Harris has received a bit of heat for suggesting Labour members shouldn't campaign for second preferences, but in many ways this completely misses the point. There was less than no chance that Rahman and Abbas wouldn't finish in the top two on first preferences, and so the second preferences of their supporters were irrelevant. In my mind it's pretty clear what Ken was up to, and so it will be interesting to see what, if any, action is taken.
Returning to the nitty gritty business of local council by-elections, and these went much better for Labour. The by-election for River, Medway was the second since the General Election after the winner of the last one resigned less than a fortnight after his victory. The gain was an significant one for the Conservatives as it was their first from Labour since the General Election, but their new Councillor was told he was unable to remain as a Special Constable if he served as a Councillor. There were suggestions that the Tories should have sorted this out before the election, and this may have filtered into their loss. In their defence they managed 14 more votes than in August, but it wasn't enough to prevent John Jones, who was the defeated candidate in the previous by-election, taking the seat back for Labour.
Labour also easily held the two seats they were defending last night. In Sheffield they were defending the Manor Castle ward following the death of Cllr. Jan Wilson. They held the seat with an impressive 75% of the vote, which represented a 17.5% swing to Labour from the Liberal Democrats. This doesn't bode well for the minority Liberal Democrat administration as they look set to lose control of the Sheffield next May, if not sooner. In Bassetlaw, Labour managed an even greater victory as they received 82% of the vote in the Harwoth ward.
In Oxford the Liberal Democrats were again on the receiving end of a strong Labour performance as they lost a seat in the Barton & Sandhills ward for the second time this year. The Lib Dems held both seats in this multi-member ward earlier this year but having lost one in May the other slipped from their control last night. To rub salt in the wounds Labour enjoyed an unnecessary 10% swing towards them from their May victory, as the Lib Dem vote share dropped to just 23%.
Things didn't get any better for the yellows in Newton, Swansea. The vacancy arose following the resignation of Liberal Democrat Cllr. Susan Waller-Thomas, who won her seat in 2008 with a 200 vote majority from the Conservatives. However, in 2008 Plaid Cymru and Labour did not stand, and their inclusion on the ballot this time seems to have harmed the Lib Dems. Labour polled 16% from nowhere last night, although it would be a harsh to take too much away from the Tories, who increased their vote by over 9%. This all contributed to a very poor result for the Lib Dems as the Tory candidate Mike Thomas gained the seat on a 18.8% swing.
In the final top-tier battle the Liberal Democrats made the Conservatives work hard for their victory in Andover South, Hampshire CC. The by-election was held following the death of Tory Cllr. David Kirk, and this is another ward which appeared a fairly safe for the defending party. However, the Lib Dems managed a 12% swing towards them to fall just short of a surprise gain. David Drew narrowly held for the Tories by 72 votes which, due to a relatively high turnout, represented a winning margin of just 2.6%.
In addition to their performance in Hampshire the Liberal Democrats did well in a few of the District Council vacancies the Conservatives were defending. In Mole Valley (Surrey) they gained the Capel, Leigh & Newdigate ward on a 5.4% swing, which may have been aided by the circumstances surrounding the vacancy. The Tory incumbent had resigned just four months after his election claiming being a Councillor "requires enormous commitment and frankly having got into it, I can't do it." So it was hardly surprising the voters turned to the Liberal Democrat who held the ward between 2006 and 2010. I expect he knows what he's getting into!
The Liberal Democrats produced a couple more surprise performances against the Conservatives, running them close in Ashwick, Chilcompton & Stratton, Mendip DC (Somerset) and Great Missenden, Chiltern DC (Buckinghamshire). The Tories survived swings of 13.1% and 19.6% respectively to secure victories a lot tighter than they'd envisaged. The Ashley Green, Latimer & Chenies ward was also up for grabs in Chiltern and the Conservatives comfortably held it. They also enjoyed an easy hold in Abbey, East Staffordshire DC – securing a whopping 88% of the vote.
Finally, the Tories were involved in a couple of battles with Independents on the Elmbridge Borough Council (Surrey) in which they would have liked to have done better. The St. Georges Hill Independents are pretty strong in the St. Georges Hill ward and they managed to easily fend of the Conservative challenge. The Tories gained a seat of the local Independents in May but normal service was resumed last night. The other vacancy in Elmbridge was for the Hersham North ward and the Tories held this seemingly safe ward by just 10 votes from an Independent. It's quite intriguing to see Independents more than hold their own in recent weeks, despite the resources (activists) the main parties can commit to these by-elections.
Tower Hamlets Mayor
Lutfur Rahman (E)
Helal Uddin Abbas
Sheffield City Council
John Jones (E)
Terry Fox (E)
City & County of Swansea
Hampshire County Council
Miles Thomas (E)
David Drew (E)