Labour support collapsed in yesterday’s Devon County Council by-election in Heavitree and Whipton Barton, a former party stronghold, as voters went to the polls to elect a replacement for Emma Brennan, who resigned in September. A standards investigation concluded earlier this year that she had brought the council into disrepute with her conduct and she was ordered to undertake anger management training.
Labour secured a comfortable victory in the previous county council election in 2017, with a majority of 834 after winning more than 51% of the vote. However in yesterday’s poll its support fell to just under 32% of votes cast as candidate Greg Sheldon won 1119 votes fewer than his predecessor, reducing the Labour majority to just 40 votes. The turnout was 30.6%, down 10% from 2017.
The Conservative Party came a close second, with a vote share down only slightly at 30.7% compared with 31.4% in 2017. Conservative candidate John Harvey said: “We fought an incredibly hard campaign and I’m proud to have turned a safe Labour seat into a tight marginal. The lesson from this by-election is that if Labour continue to take the voters of Exeter for granted, they’ll be punished for it.”
Echoing these sentiments, Liberal Democrat candidate Rowena Squires said: “I think this was a really positive result for the Liberal Democrats. Amid the air of uncertainty in politics, voters are disillusioned and starting to re-identify how they vote. Although Labour held the seat, voters are looking for change. This is a combination of the national picture and local issues. Labour’s uncertainty over Brexit was on people’s minds as well as Labour’s local complacency.”
“Heavitree and Whipton Barton has been a safe Labour seat for a long time. As a result Labour haven’t had to do as much work and voters felt their concerns weren’t heard. Ultimately, both the Lib Dems and the Greens ran strong campaigns. People enjoyed having their concerns heard.”
Labour’s losses were divided equally between the Liberal Democrats and Exeter Green Party, each increasing their vote share by more than 11%. Rowena Squires received 576 votes, just 13 more than Green Party candidate Lizzie Woodman.
Lizzie Woodman said: “This was a terrible night for Labour but a fantastic result for Greens. Labour lost almost 20% on their 2017 County Council election result, only narrowly beating the Conservatives.”
“But the Conservative vote didn’t move, while Greens powered on almost tripling the percentage of the vote we received in 2017. This shows support for Labour in Exeter is crumbling while Greens are on the ascendancy.”
“We also know from observing the counting of votes that in the Heavitree ward part of the division Greens topped the poll. I thank all those who voted Green at this election, those who want new voices and fresh thinking on our councils. I know we can win a future council election here.”
The by-election result echoed Labour’s losses in the city council elections held in May this year, when the party’s vote share dropped by 22.5% compared with 2018.
Rowena Squires said: “Voters responded to the positive campaign the Lib Dems ran in Heavitree. I think people found it refreshing when compared with national politics.”
“Going forward I think Exeter will see a lot of tight election races: there are no safe Labour seats anymore. It’s clear that both the Lib Dems and the Greens are on the rise.”
Lizzie Woodman added: “With much talk of a general election and the national picture still so dominated by Brexit, this result could be seen as a barometer for what might happen nationally. And both the major parties should feel distinctly uncomfortable about this result.”
“It suggests a massive decline in Labour support in traditionally strong Labour areas, while the Tories fail to make headway. Meanwhile, the combined vote of the two staunch remain parties, the Greens and Lib Dems, outperform both Labour and the Tories.”
Winning candidate Greg Sheldon will join six Labour colleagues at County Hall, where 42 of 60 seats are held by the controlling Conservative Party.
Greg Sheldon did not respond to a request for comment.