Tories lose majority control in Northumberland after Lib Dems win Hexham East by-election

Voters in Hexham “sent a message” to the Conservative Party nationally and in Northumberland with a resounding by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats.

By James Harrison
Saturday, 18th December 2021, 8:19 am
Suzanne Fairless-Aitken, Lib Dem member for Hexham East.
Suzanne Fairless-Aitken, Lib Dem member for Hexham East.

The contest for Northumberland County Council’s vacant Hexham East seat had been triggered by the resignation of incumbent Cath Homer, costing the Tories their majority control of the local authority.

But despite their efforts on the ground, events outside the county, such as claims of potentially lockdown-flouting Christmas parties in Downing Street, appeared to play a decisive role.

“I think this is reflective of national politics,” said winning candidate Suzanne Fairless-Aitken, “the voters have sent a message that they have had enough of being taken for granted and being taken for fools.

“Hexham had a great pick of candidates, but this has been about change and that starts at the grassroots on occasions like this.

“I was sensing a lot of apathy on the doors and a lot of disillusioned Tory voters, which has helped the campaign, but there were also more votes cast than last time.”

Fairless-Aitken entered the race with previous good form, having been beaten into the runner’s up spot in May’s round of local elections by 130 votes.

This time around, however, the margin was more than 200 ballots in her favour, partly driven by a fall in turnout, but translating into a swing of 12.8 per cent from the Conservatives to her own Liberal Democrats.

The result means the Tories remain the single largest political group on the county council, but no longer have an outright majority.

Privately, senior Northumberland Conservatives conceded defeat shortly before vote counting had even finished, blaming “the national situation”.

But Conservative candidate Stephen Ball insisted “local issues” had been the most important factor.

He also dismissed suggestions voters had been influenced by claims the former councillor for the seat, who quit citing a campaign of abuse against her, may have breached council rules with “inappropriate” behaviour and comments.

He said: “It’s an interesting one, I think the time of year helped [the Lib Dems] and people were busy doing other things.

“But I’m not looking for excuses, the Lib Dems won fair and square.

“I think it was a vote for the Lib Dem candidate, not necessarily a vote against me, it’s just what happens in a democracy.”

Labour saw its share of the vote almost half, compared with May’s poll, while independent candidate Lee Williscroft-Ferris, also a member of Hexham Town Council alongside his opponents Ball and Fairless-Aitken won 127 votes.

Final results:

Suzanne Fairless-Aitken (Liberal Democrat) – 584

Stephen Ball (Conservative) – 370

Jonathan Wheeler (Labour) – 154

Lee Williscroft-Ferris (independent) – 127