“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order”

Two by-elections this week. One in Sunderland, Tyne & Wear and the other in Three Rivers, Hertforshire


Sunderland city council, Tyne and Wear; caused by the disqualification of Labour councillor Jacqui Gallagher who failed to attend any meetings of the council in six months. She had served since 2015.

With a belated Happy New Year, it’s time to get the psephological year underway with the first two UK local by-elections of 2017. Appropriately, we start in Sunderland. It’s become a tradition of general elections that the first result comes from the very efficient counting team of Sunderland city council, who in 2015 managed to have a final declared result for the Houghton and Sunderland South constituency, which covers this ward, forty-eight minutes after the polls closed. In that contest, the count team’s performance in the EU referendum must have been disappointing; admittedly Gibraltar, the first area to declare, had an hour’s head-start due to the time difference and was one of the smallest counts in the referendum, but for Sunderland to be beaten into third place by their traditional rivals Newcastle must have stuck in the throat a little.

Sandhill ward lies on the western edge of Sunderland proper, between the A690 to Durham and the A183 to Penshaw. The area has recovered well from the terrorism of the Lambton Worm in days of olden time to develop into a post-war council estate ward, based on the Grindon and Thorney Close areas and centred on the Sandhill View Academy secondary school. Over 45% of households in the ward are socially rented and Sandhill has the usual demographic indicators for a working-class council estate ward, including a very low proportion of residents born outside the UK.

Sandhill votes like a council estate ward as well – it was created in 2004 from the merger of two former wards, Grindon and Thorney Close, and the last time Sandhill or its predecessors failed to return a full Labour slate was in 1982 when an Independent Labour slate (the Otterson family) won two out of three seats in Thorney Close. More recent years have demonstrated a radical right vote in Sandhill: the BNP beat the Lib Dems for third place in 2007, and UKIP finished second in the 2015 and 2016 elections, although they were still a long way behind Labour who won last year by a 55-26 margin.

Defending for Labour is Gary Waller, who is hoping to join his wife Debra as a councillor for the ward; he works for a crane manufacturing company and graduated in Business and Finance from Sunderland University as a mature student in 2015, at the same time as his wife and daughter. UKIP have reselected their 2016 candidate Bryan Foster, who fought Sunderland Central in the 2015 general election, and the ballot paper is completed by Gavin Wilson for the Conservatives, Stephen O’Brien for the Lib Dems and Helmut Izaks for the Green Party. As the count is in the hands of the Sunderland returning officer, a quick result can be expected.

Parliamentary constituency: Houghton and Sunderland South

May 2016 result Lab 1229 UKIP 579 C 277 LD 90 Grn 59
May 2015 result Lab 2121 UKIP 1003 C 607 LD 135
May 2014 result Lab 1478 C 546 LD 230
May 2012 double vacancy Lab 1830/1424 C 459 LD 335
May 2011 double vacancy Lab 1783/1637 C 456/440 LD 241
May 2010 result Lab 2197 C 842 LD 778
May 2008 result Lab 1196 C 662 BNP 358 LD 327
May 2007 result Lab 1420 C 674 BNP 408
May 2006 result Lab 1033 C 577 LD 439 BNP 373
June 2004 result Lab 1515/1411/1238 C 894 BNP 530


Three Rivers council, Hertfordshire; caused by the death of Conservative councillor Leslie Proctor at the age of 80. He had served since 2015.

This ward is based on the village of Hunton Bridge, a hamlet in the south-west corner of the large Abbots Langley parish just to the north of Watford. Hunton Bridge has a couple of historic old pubs – the Kings Lodge dates to the Civil War when it was a hunting lodge for Charles I – but its prosperity came from communications. As well as the River Gade, one of the eponymous Three Rivers, the ward is traversed by the A41, once a major road out of London; the Grand Junction Canal; the West Coast Main Line, whose Kings Langley station lies within the ward; and the M25 motorway, which crosses the valley, canal and railway on a large and rather impressive viaduct. Within earshot of the M25 is Langleybury, an eighteenth-century country house which is now primarily used for filming (most of the 1999 school drama Hope and Glory was made here), while just outside the ward boundary is Leavesden Film Studios, an old aerodrome which was converted for filming in the 1990s and is home to the Harry Potter studio tour.

Boundary changes in 2014 added the Primrose Hill area to what was formerly Langleybury ward; a curious choise as Primrose Hill is on the far side of the M25 and railway station and has a very narrow neck (under the viaduct) connecting it to Hunton Bridge. Overlooking Kings Langley, Primrose Hill is probably best known for the art deco former Ovaltine factory which can be seen from the railway line; inevitably, these days, a block of flats with only the façade remaining from the original building.

Although Sunderland, by tradition, comes first, Gade Valley is on paper a much more interesting and crucial by-election. Three Rivers district is a long-standing Liberal Democrat hotspot, the former Langleybury ward had voted for the Lib Dems or their predecessors at every election since 1991 (it was Labour during the 1970s, Conservative in 1982 and 1983, Alliance in 1986 and 1987 and Labour in 1990) and the 2014 election, the first to the new Gade Valley ward, didn’t give the Lib Dems much cause for concern. It was therefore a huge shock in 2015 when the General Election turnout led to the Lib Dems losing five seats and control of Three Rivers council – and one of the seats lost was Gade Valley ward, the first Tory win here for 32 years.

Looking at the last two results, the Tories will be hard-pressed to hold this seat. Shares of the vote in Gade Valley in 2015 were 42% for the Conservatives, 37% for the Liberal Democrats and 21% for Labour, but 2016’s election marked a return to the status quo ante with 62% for the Lib Dems and only 25% for the Tories. As if that wasn’t worrying enough for the local Conservatives, the stakes are high in this by-election: the Lib Dem minority administration on Three Rivers Council presently holds 19 of the 39 seats, and a gain here will give them an overall majority.

Looking up to higher levels of government doesn’t tell us an awful lot because the boundaries don’t match up: at parliamentary level Hunton Bridge is in the Watford seat and Primrose Hill in the St Albans seat, while in county council elections Primrose Hill forms part of the Abbots Langley division (safe Lib Dem) and Hunton Bridge is covered by the Chorleywood division (safe Tory).

The Conservatives have reselected Dee Ward, who fought this seat in 2016 but is now the defending candidate. The Lib Dem candidate is Alex Michaels, who represents Primrose Hill on Abbots Langley parish council. Also standing are regular Labour candidate Bruce Prochnik, David Bennett for UKIP and Roberta Curran for the Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Watford (part formerly in Langleybury ward); St Albans (part formerly in Bedmond and Primrose Hill ward)
Hertfordshire county council division: Chorleywood (part); Abbots Langley (part)

May 2016 result LD 971 C 399 Lab 204
May 2015 result C 1420 LD 1249 Lab 718
May 2014 result LD 779/773/688 C 425/386/354 Lab 322/298/292