The Conservative leader of Dacorum Borough Council admitted supporters stayed at home and “voted with their feet” in the wake of partygate, as Liberal Democrats extended their majority in two battleground wards.
On Thursday, February 3, the Lib Dems extended their lead in the wards of Berkhamsted West and Boxmoor but put their success down to a strong local campaign, with the controversy around Boris Johnson only providing a nudge on polling day.
The two wards have often been safely Conservative since boundaries were redrawn in 2007, and are represented by two Tory MPs, but Liberal Democrats completed a sweep of all five district councillors in 2019.
One councillor said the result cemented Berkhamsted as a “Liberal Democrat town”, while council leader Councillor Andrew Williams (Conservative, Adeyfield East) claimed voters were “disillusioned” with national politics, rather than the local council.
The two by-elections were called after Nicky Woolner (Berkhamsted West) and Liz Uttley (Boxmoor) both left their roles at the start of November.
Following their success, Liberal Democrats said issues with the Local Plan, concerns over local rivers and parking were common themes amongst residents, although admitted national issues helped their cause.
In Boxmoor, the Liberal Democrat candidate Simy Dhyani increased the party’s vote share by 18 per cent, winning votes off all three opposing parties.
In Berkhamsted West, Anne Foster was elected with a 14 per cent increase in vote share, which led her fellow councillors to declare Berkhamsted a Lib Dem town.
Anne Foster said it was “mostly” local issues that came up on the doorstep, and said in Berkhamsted the priorities were in regards to traffic congestion, lack of infrastructure and concerns about the River Bulbourne.
Cllr Lara Pringle (Northchurch, Liberal Democrat), who led Ms Foster’s campaign, said: “It’s quite interesting because there’s a mix of issues. I think having such a fantastic local candidate was really key to our campaign.
“Anne’s really well-known around the town for doing work all around the town and has been for many years so she got a tremendous amount of vote on that.
“But there were also a lot of people who were incredibly disillusioned with what was going on on a national level and they certainly made their voices heard on the doorstep.
Cllr Pringle added: “I was talking about Anne and local issues, people were often responding on integrity in politics – so having a good local candidate who you can trust because you know [was an advantage].”
All Dacorum councillors will be up for election in May 2023, and Cllr Pringle said after the party are confident of maintaining the success.
She added: “I think it is encouraging for next year, I think we’re sending a consistent message from Berkhamsted and Tring because this has been Liberal Democrat right since 2018.
“The Conservatives did try to try fight back this time, and we noticed they brought the Home Secretary [Priti Patel] to Berkhamsted Leisure Centre, and I actually think the people of Berkhamsted sent a message that they will continue to vote Liberal Democrat. Berkhamsted now sees itself as a Liberal Democrat town.”
However, Cllr Williams said nothing can be drawn from the results and the Conservatives have a positive message ahead of next year’s vote.
He said: “It’s disappointing, we put on a good campaign with local issues but I think we were affected by the national mood.
“In the circumstances, people are disillusioned. If people are disillusioned it’s very hard to get the local issues over. We’ve got a well performing-council, but local issues weren’t coming up on the doorstep.
“People are disappointed, undoubtedly the low turnout reflects some of our supporters staying at home as a protest. With the exception of the Lib Dems in Boxmoor, every other party has gone down, Greens and Labour have suffered as well so I think it’s a protest vote. It’s probably because people are a bit disillusioned and voted with their feet not to come out.
“It’s a mid-term by-election, and it’s hard to take anything from that – I think we’ve still got a positive message for Dacorum in 2023.”
Following her victory, Ms Dhyani said she was surprised by the size of her win, “but there was huge support on the doorstep.”
She said she believed the increase in vote was a result of local policies, rather than the national picture and said she wanted to restore a buzz to the village.
Ms Dhyani, who manages a steakhouse in Boxmoor added: “There’s two existing Lib Dem councillors in the ward, I really want to join the hard work they’re doing.
"There have been local issues such as parking and street lights, but I really want to work on some other areas such as getting some buzz on Boxmoor High Street. At the moment there isn’t a lot going on and I really want to get some proposals together.”
Anne Foster was also elected as a new Town Councillor for Berkhamsted Town Council, in a by-election held at the same time as the district council vote.
Berkhamsted West – District council:
> Anne Foster, Liberal Democrats – 924
> Gary Jon Moore, Conservative Party – 318
> Kevin Fielding, Green Party – 130
> Peter Scott, Labour – 69
Berkhamsted West – Town council:
> Anne Foster, Liberal Democrats – 905
> Gary Jon Moore, Conservative Party – 305
> Kevin Fielding, Green Party – 139
> Peter Scott, Labour – 72
> Max Khazaneh, Independent – 21
Boxmoor – District council
> Simy Dhyani, Liberal Democrat – 1,319
> Brandon Geary, Conservative – 599
> Cameron Brady-Turner, Labour – 171
> Sherief Hassan, Green Party – 92.