ANALYSIS  ⁄  DEMOCRACY & GOVERNANCE

Did Exeter's local elections results tell a Labour success story?

Exeter Labour lost just one seat in the city council elections and held all seven of its county hall seats, but on closer inspection its performance was more mixed than these headline results imply.

LOCAL ELECTIONS   EXETER CITY COUNCIL   DEVON COUNTY COUNCIL  

Last Thursday’s Exeter local elections produced little change in the city’s political make-up: the city continues to send seven Labour and two Conservative councillors to represent its interests at County Hall and the ruling city council Labour group lost just one seat, to the Green Party.

Set against national results in which the Conservatives gained 235 council seats and control of an additional thirteen councils, and Labour lost 326 council seats and control of eight councils, some commentators were quick to identify Exeter as a Labour success story, notwithstanding decisive victories for the party elsewhere, in particular in Liverpool and Manchester’s mayoral elections.

After losing in all three city centre wards at the 2019 city council elections, Exeter Labour appeared determined to head off a surge in Green Party support across the city by putting claims about its climate and environment credentials at the centre of its campaign.

The tactic appeared to work: while the Green Party’s Amy Sparling won in St. David’s, where Labour’s incumbent Robert Lamb was disqualified from the council a fortnight before election day after not attending any of the meetings at which he was expected for six months, Labour held on to all its other seats.

Green Party successes elsewhere, notably in Bristol where it won 24 seats to become joint largest party, were not replicated in Exeter, and Labour significantly increased its vote share in Duryard & St. James, where Martin Pearce confounded Liberal Democrat hopes of winning three times in a row, and in Pennsylvania, where high-profile pro-nuclear campaigner Zion Lights won a larger share of the vote than council leader Phil Bialyk in her first election.

The outcome is that Exeter City Council remains dominated by Labour, as it has been since 2012.

However, as always in electoral politics, what happened at the ballot box is a more nuanced story. Particularly as all bar one of the seats being fought over at these elections were last contested in 2016, when all of Exeter’s city councillors were exceptionally elected at the same time following boundary changes.

The city previously had two councillors in each of twenty wards from 1979, then a mixture of two or three councillors in each of eighteen wards (also a total of 40) from 1999. The 2016 election was the first under the current arrangement, where three councillors represent each of thirteen wards.

Normally one councillor is elected in each ward in each year, with county council elections held in the fourth year. However the 2016 changes meant that all 39 seats had to be elected at the same time, using the multiple non-transferable vote system. The candidate who received the most votes in each ward was elected for a four year term, the runner-up a three year term and the third place candidate a two year term.

As a result, the thirteen seats occupied by the most successful 2016 election candidates were contested this year. They would have been contested last year, but the pandemic delayed the ballot, so each of these councillors has ended up serving a five year term. Each new councillor has therefore been elected for a shortened three year term to allow a subsequent return to the usual electoral cycle.

This meant that several high-profile councillors were defending their seats. Both Labour and Conservative city council party leaders, Phil Bialyk and Andrew Leadbetter, Labour’s Devon County Council group leader Rob Hannaford and two prominent Labour Executive members, Emma Morse and David Harvey, all stood and were all re-elected.

All received a lower share of the vote than they did in 2016, with the exception of David Harvey, who successfully saw off a strong challenge from Conservative John Harvey in Pinhoe, where there has been a close two-way race between the parties for over a decade.

This relationship between politician and seat, established at the 2016 election, also made some seats vulnerable when their incumbents stood down. Anne Jobson stepped into David Henson’s shoes to defend St. Loye’s for the Conservatives and won, but Olwen Foggin achieved Labour’s biggest vote share there since the boundary changes.

In Heavitree, which Olwen Foggin had vacated to fight St. Loye’s, Catherine Rees fell just short of a win for the Green Party after increasing its share of the vote by nearly 26%. Barbara Denning won the seat for Labour by sixteen votes with the highest turnout in the city at 46.7%.

And in Newtown & St. Leonard’s support for Richard Branston fell by more than 12% as Dan Grey increased the Green Party’s vote share by more than 30% from 2018, having stood aside for independent community campaigner Jemima Moore in 2019.

The Conservatives also improved their vote share in Alphington, Exwick and Mincinglake & Whipton, although nowhere by a large enough margin to prevent Labour holding the seats, and the Liberal Democrats increased their share in Pennsylvania by nearly 14% but otherwise only polled well in Duryard and St. James.

Claims that the ward’s 32.45% turnout, the city’s lowest, reflected the absence of many of its large student population and so made it harder for the Liberal Democrats to win, cannot be verified from the available polling data.

Exeter Labour’s performance in the city council elections was much more mixed than its loss of a single seat implies. And in the county council elections it lost vote share in seven of nine divisions.

The exceptions were in Duryard & Pennsylvania, where Labour increased its vote share by just under 1%, and in Pinhoe & Mincinglake, where the party increased its share by a little over 2%.

Exeter Green Party, in contrast, gained the largest increase in vote share in every division in Exeter except Wonford & St. Loye’s, apparently demonstrating that Labour’s campaign strategy was more effective at holding increased support for the Green Party at bay in the city council elections than it was in the county council elections.

Johanna Korndorfer increased the party’s vote share by more than 12% in St. Sidwell’s & St. James, Lizzie Woodman by nearly 16% in Heavitree & Whipton Barton, and in St. David’s & Haven Banks Andrew Bell won more than twice as many votes as the Conservative candidate, dramatically closing the gap on Labour’s Carol Whitton with a vote share increase of more than 19%.

Labour also lost enough ground in Wonford & St. Loye’s to allow Conservative city councillor Peter Holland to come within twenty votes of taking the seat from Marina Asvachin.

At the same time Conservatives Percy Prowse and Andrew Leadbetter held Duryard & Pennsylvania and Wearside & Topsham comfortably despite losing support in both divisions, again primarily to the Green Party.

The Liberal Democrats’ best result was third place in Duryard & Pennsylvania. In every other division they polled fewer votes than the Green Party, coming fifth in Exwick & St. Thomas, where they were beaten by For Britain candidate Frankie Rufolo, and in Pinhoe & Mincinglake, where independent community campaigner Kate Jago polled nearly 7% of the vote, only just behind the Green Party, in her first election.

Turnout ranged even more widely in the county than city council elections, from 32.0% in St. Sidwell’s & St. James to 46.7% in Wearside & Topsham. Average turnout in recent English local elections is around 35%, except when there is a general election on the same day, when it typically increases to 64%.

UK voter turnout peaked at the 1950 general election, when it was 84%, but the highest turnout of any UK election since the 1918 introduction of universal suffrage was the 84.6% who took part in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

Many factors contribute to low participation in elections, including mistrust of politicians and the political system, the timing of polls and the “First Past the Post” electoral system, which has numerous disadvantages and is the object of active electoral reform campaigns.

15.73% of Exeter’s electorate voted for Labour at last week’s Exeter City Council elections, while 21.48% voted for other parties. Labour nevertheless won eleven seats and the other parties three between them.

The 2021 turnout was slightly higher than in 2018 and 2019, but none of the elections held in Exeter using its current ward boundaries have involved more than 45% of the city’s voters.

Assessing the representative effectiveness of First Past the Post elections by ignoring non-voting electors reveals similarly skewed seat distributions. At the past four elections Exeter Labour has secured between 36.5% and 47.5% of the ballots cast but has, in every year except 2019, won at least 76.9% of the seats.

A fundamental requirement of a democratic electoral system is to accurately represent the views of voters, but First Past the Post often fails to produce this outcome. It doesn’t even guarantee that the party which wins the most votes will win the most seats: in the 1951 UK general election the Labour Party polled nearly a quarter of a million more votes than the Conservatives but won 26 fewer seats, with the Conservatives subsequently forming the government.

It also means some seats change hands so rarely that they become “safe” for particular parties, rendering voting preferences in such seats all but irrelevant. Around 60% of Parliament’s 650 seats are in this position, although recent national political realignments have begun to reduce this proportion.

It favours large, well-financed, incumbent political parties which are capable of consistently high campaign spending across all electoral areas and are incentivised to resist changes to an electoral system which helps them win power with minority support and helps fund them when in opposition.

The supplementary voting system that was chosen for London’s mayoralty then extended to the election of combined authority mayors elsewhere, as well as regional police and crime commissioners, has provided increased plurality and voter choice in local government since it was introduced.

However Home Secretary Priti Patel announced in March that the government plans to replace it with First Past the Post in these contests in future. Conservative Devon & Cornwall Police & Crime Commissioner Alison Hernandez, who was re-elected last week with an increased majority, would nevertheless have won under either system.


Methodological note: As the 2016 city council elections were held using the multiple non-transferable vote system each voter was allowed to cast up to three votes, which were not ranked in any order of preference. Because not all voters cast all three of their votes a precise vote share for individual candidates cannot be derived from the recorded results.

This also applies to two individual ward elections held since then, in Priory in 2019 and Mincinglake & Whipton this year, when voters were invited to cast up to two votes to elect two councillors at the same time following the death of Judy Pattison. Naima Allcock received the second largest share of votes cast and was elected for the remaining year of Councillor Pattison’s term.

Calculating comparative party vote shares in Exeter City Council elections over time is further complicated because the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats stood aside for independent candidate Jemima Moore in Newtown & St. Leonard’s in 2019, and then formed a cross-party alliance which led to them standing aside for each other in a total of six wards across the city this year.

Consequently, a proportional share of the ballots cast for the leading candidate in each party in each ward in which the party stood has been used to compare party support in the principal city council elections that have taken place since 2016. This is the best available method to enable statistically meaningful comparisons between the major parties in the city. Mid-year by-elections have been excluded.

Candidates from other parties, as well as independent candidates, have also stood in each of these elections. UKIP contested most, but not all, of the city’s wards in 2016 and again in 2019, but not in 2018. Bea Gare has represented the Women’s Equality Party at city council elections in Duryard & St. James since 2018. These smaller parties and independent candidates have been grouped together to simplify comparison. Where more than one non-major party stood in a multiple non-transferable vote election the best performing candidate was included in the analysis.

Devon County Council election vote share comparisons are straightforward as neither the 2017 nor 2021 elections involved more than one candidate from each party standing in each division.


 is editor of Exeter Observer and a director of its publisher Exeter Observer Limited.

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