Predictable election ends predictably

southend civic centre

On Thursday, the voters of a safe Conservative ward in Southend-on-Sea went to the polls in a by-election. When the ballots were counted, the Conservative candidate was returned as the new councillor representing the ward.

By the numbers, you might say.

Except, that bare bones overview doesn’t quite show the full picture of what happened in West Leigh ward this week.

Let’s start by looking at the breakdown of the results:

Name Party Votes Percentage
Phillips, Georgina CON 743 37.1%
Bailey, Christopher LD 688 34.3%
Callaghan, Tino UKIP 418 20.9%
Norman, Jane LAB 149 7.4%
Total Votes 2,004
Spoilt Ballots 6
Turnout 26.2%

A word to the wise: my results do differ to some of the others reported. My good friend and fellow amateur electoral statistician Julian Ware-Lane, for example, does not seem to have included the six spoilt ballots. It doesn’t make much difference (at most 0.1%) but as a matter of principle I always like to include the spoilt ballots. If someone took the time to spoil their paper, then I believe that means something.

The first thing that stands out is that Labour is in fourth place. Not something which fills me with glee, I have to say. It was always going to be a long shot (verging on impossibility) that we might win West Leigh, but it’s difficult not to feel each defeat.

The second point that leaps out at me is the turnout. Despite what some have said, 26.2% isn’t an unexpectedly awful turnout for a local by-election. It’s not terribly good though; 73.8% of West Leigh voters didn’t bother to vote.

But the Conservatives won. Congratulations to Cllr Phillips. And commiserations to Liberal Democrat Christopher Bailey, who came within 60 votes of victory — particularly impressive given that he was hospitalised for a heart attack. Which is astounding really, considering that the national Liberal Democrat party is languishing beneath 10% in the polls, and are facing losing all of their European Parliament seats in May.

There’s no escaping that this is in part due to UKIP. 20.9% is not going to win any seats, but it’s worrying. UKIP are hoping, apparently, to control the council after May in alliance with the Independent Party Group. It’s not going to happen, as I’ve already stated, but I won’t deny that at this election they received 418 more votes than such a dangerously right-wing party should.

I have not, however, changed my opinion on their chances come May — West Shoebury is going to be their only real shot, and even that will be a difficulty.

The Lib Dems might be tempted to also take heart from this. I’d be reluctant, though, if I were them. As local Lib Dem activist (though maybe not for much longer…) Neil Monnery said:

We had people working Virtual Phone Banks, people coming in from Thurrock, Braintree and Colchester, swelling the numbers of local activists attempting to get the vote out.

Nice. Well done to them. But taking heart from this is the same mistake that those Lib Dems make who think that the Eastleigh by-election means they’ll be fine come 2015. Pulling in activists from elsewhere is fine for a by-election. But come May, elections will be taking place across the country. Including eight councils controlled by the Lib Dems, and one in which they hold the elected mayorship. Thurrock and Colchester both have elections of their own. I think those activists may have better places to be than Southend.

In the end, the results of the West Leigh by-election are interesting, but don’t change much. I share Julian’s assessment that Southend’s political make-up is on the cusp of change.The Tories won out here. I don’t expect them to retain control of Southend after the May elections.


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