An awkward pivot: the Lib Dem local election performance (LDN #95)

Liberal Democrat Newswire #95 came out at the weekend, taking a look at how the Liberal Democrats performed in last week’s local elections.

You can now read it in full below, but if you’d like the convenience of getting it direct by email in future just sign up for it here.


A warm welcome to all 9,571 of you to Liberal Democrat Newswire #95, a post-mortem on the Liberal Democrat local election performance. Last time I wrote about “the hoped for gains”. Those hopes weren’t realised. Why and what does that mean for the party’s election prospects? Read on to find out including some fascinating data from John Curtice on how the Lib Dem performance varied compared with the Referendum results…

Best wishes,


P.S. Looking for something to listen to when out delivering, stuffing envelopes or sticking double-sided sticky tape on posters (yes, democracy is glamorous)? Then I’d heartily recommend Master of the Senate.

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Liberal Democrat success in Eastbourne

Lib Dems see off Theresa May, but not other Conservatives

There’s plenty of fun and positive individual stories for the Liberal Democrats from the local elections, including the two Conservative council leaders who lost their seats to a Lib Dem, not to mention the party holding on with an increased majority to the ward in Eastbourne which Theresa May herself visited on the afternoon of polling day. (Note also that it was a Conservative-held seat in an area which voted Leave that she choose to visit – a sign of how the Conservatives take the threat from the Lib Dems in some seats, even in Leave areas, very seriously.)

But as the headline seat change figures show, those are the exceptions to the overall picture. What happened? Let’s start with the vote share.

Lib Dem vote share in local elections


At 18% the Liberal Democrat vote share was up 3 points on last year and up 4 points on four years ago when most (although not all) of the seats were previously up for election. It was also the party’s best vote share for seven years. The party’s progress over the last two years has been to close half the gap between where it slumped to and the vote share it used to win in the party’s local election happy years (with an average vote share of 25% between 1982, when this particular run of data started, and 2010).

On vote share alone, that, therefore, looks like a pretty positive picture. Much more to do, but quite a lot achieved this time round. The strong vote share increase also explains why the feedback many Lib Dem campaigners were picking up was positive – more people were indeed supporting the party.

But seat numbers are not down to just one party, they are down to how the other parties do too. Here the picture was very simple and very different.

There was a Lib Dem to Conservative swing of 3 points since last year and of 5 points since 2013, with the Conservatives taking the lion’s share of benefit from the collapse of Ukip. The swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats of 4 points (since last year) / 3 points (four years ago) couldn’t offer up nearly enough for the Lib Dems to avoid losing seats overall.

The result? The number of Lib Dem seat losses this year almost equalled the gains made last year. The predictions, based on Lib Dem council by-election success and made by a range of independent and non-Lib Dem experts, of Lib Dem seat gains this year were undone by the big movement to the Conservatives in the polls in the last couple of weeks. Polls carried out in the week before polling day put the Conservatives seven points higher on average than in that previous year of repeated Lib Dem council by-election success since the 2016 local elections.

The one forecast that got the Lib Dem result just about right (kudos, Stephen Fisher) took into account that late polling shift, although even his own write-up doubted whether his predictions would be more accurate. It was.

Note: all these vote share figures are the equivalent national vote shares calculated for the BBC. These adjust each year’s raw voting totals to account for which seats are up for election and thereby make year by year comparisons meaningful even though different seats may be up for election. There is a second run of equivalent calculations done by Thrasher and Rallings, which is often slightly different in detail but identical in terms of overall picture and trends. These use a very different methodology to do the adjustments, and the fact that two different ways of making the adjustments come out with similar answers is a good reason to have confidence in them.

Tim Farron campaigning in Oxford

What does this mean for the general election?

This is the point at which an eager Liberal Democrat press officer usually breaks out, “but we did much better in the seats which matter” and my email inbox has had a similar outbreak this time round. As one party press release, using data such as that from Cambridge, pointed out:

Seats as diverse as Bath, Cambridge, Cardiff Central, Cheltenham, Eastleigh, Eastbourne, Edinburgh West, St Albans and Watford would fall to the Liberal Democrats on the basis of the results so far. This would more than double the size of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party.

The Liberal Democrats topped the polls in Eastbourne despite Theresa May’s visit, and early signs are they are surging ahead in Scottish seats such as East Dunbartonshire and North East Fife.

The final results would even justify a more upbeat editing of this, as the Scottish data points to more seats, such as Edinburgh West, being serious runners for the party at the general election if those local elections are a good guide. There’s also more positive colour to throw in alongside that mentioned up top from Eastbourne, such as former MP seeking to regain his seat Mike Thornton, who took a council seat off Ukip in Eastleigh as the party made a clean sweep of the constituency’s wards.

If, that is, the local elections are a useful guide. Pre-2010 strong Lib Dem performances in specific constituencies often did tee up subsequent general election victories. The story of 2010-15, however, is that the similar bright spots which I and others repeatedly highlighted ended not in victory but in near-wipeout.

So which is the better guide: the more recent experience or the more extended experience prior to that? Anyone who thinks they know for sure is a fool. So treat with sensible caveats the three reasons for Lib Dem optimism which follow.

First. in 2015 the Lib Dems under-rated the clue in where David Cameron went visiting on the campaign trail. His visits to Lib Dem held seats showed what his party’s extensive private polling and data operation was showing and what the election results demonstrated: the Conservatives were in with a chance of winning many Lib Dem seats. Now look at where Theresa May – in full on ‘I want a massive majority’ mode – is going. She’s on a defensive tour regarding the Lib Dems, visiting Conservative-held seats, even where the Lib Dems are many thousands of voters behind and which voted Leave.

Second, the Lib Dems do best when a general election is not perceived by the public as being close. Hence highs such as 1997 and lows such as 1992 and 2015. That’s because the closer the contest for being Prime Minister seems, the more voters polarise between Labour and Conservative, making it much harder for Lib Dem local organisation and energy to buck that picture. This time with a widely predicted (though not certain) victory for the Prime Minister, we could well be back into a period where that local strength, shown in local council results, can translate into seats.

Third, the party got its targeting wrong in 2010 and 2015. In 2010 the party’s vote share even went up whilst seat numbers went down. The reality check of Thursday will help temper the sort of over-optimistic diffusion of targeting efforts that was otherwise in danger of taking off.


Friends TV show: pivot scene with a sofa

The awkward pivot

Perhaps the most significant part of Thursday’s voting pattern for the party’s longer-term health is the pivot towards basing the party’s support even more strongly on people who voted Remain in the European referendum.

That would provide the sort of coherent and solid long-term foundations for success which I’ve argued in favour of many times before Friends clips too):

For the Liberal Democrats and its predecessors the party’s strategy for success at general elections was based on the accumulation of random chance through hard work. That is, a particular Parliamentary seat would become winnable through the combination of the right mix of personalities coming together at the local level, opposition errors, issue opportunities and helpful demography or tactical situation. Causal factors one and all, but with the accumulative appearance of random chance.

It made for a diverse set of winnable, and won, seats without nearly as much in common between them – and those who voted Lib Dem – as is the case with other parties.

Hence the problem of the Liberal Democrats never having built up a large core vote, with all the downsides in terms of vulnerability to bad times and the certainty of losing a large chunk of support in a hung Parliament regardless of what you do.

Such a change in the party’s base of support may be beneficial, but of course also is not easy or comfortable to do when the party has won elections in areas which don’t neatly match up to this new vision, however more beneficial it may be in the long run.

The local elections demonstrated this clearly because the overall seat loses came alongside a degree of successful pivoting. The more Remain an area is, the better the Lib Dems did. That is shown by the following figures from John Curtice, based on a sample of over 900 wards where the Lib Dem vote share change has been compared with the estimated Leave share in the referendum:

Lib Dem vote share change vs Leave referendum result

What this means for the general election is that there are three categories of seats the Liberal Democrats can realistically hope to target in the general election:

  1. Labour-held seats in heavily Remain areas – there is only limited local election data to shed light on this, but the very promising early signs in the aborted Manchester Gorton by-election will most likely keep the party interested in such seats.
  2. Conservative-held seats in Remain areas – places such as Cheltenham where the Lib Dem vote was up in the locals, which voted Remain and which had a Lib Dem MP until 2015.
  3. Conservative-held seats in Leave areas with a very strong Lib Dem candidate – realistically this will often also have to mean ‘a popular former MP’ given the snap election, although not necessarily in all cases. It’s worth noting that in some Leave areas the Lib Dems did prosper, ending up the night up one seat in both North Norfolk and Cornwall; the Referendum vote is not unadulterated destiny.

Not forgetting, of course, the need to hold on to the seats the party already has.

What do you think of the Lib Dem election results? Join the discussion on the Lib Dem Newswire Facebook page.

Other snippets

  1. Labour lost seats for the third year in a row – the first time since records began that an opposition has done this.
  2. How bad could it get for Labour? Labour only has to lose 24 seats at the general election to have a worse result than 1983.
  3. The Conservatives have shown how carefully selected politics and campaigning is the best way to realign party support, rather than time-consuming and controversial seat deals – something which the Lib Dem history with such things demonstrates too.
  4. That said, I’m sure Lib Dems won’t mind the Green Party decisions not to put up a candidate in a smattering of seats where there is a serious Lib Dem versus Conservative contest, with Oxford West and Abingdon, Richmond Park and Twickenham all in the news as a result in the last few days.
  5. Lib Dem Lesley Rickerby won after the votes were tied and straws were drawn, denying the Conservatives a majority on Northumberland County Council. Every vote sometimes really does matter.
  6. The Lib Dem vote share in the local elections over-performed compared to the national opinion polls by the largest margin since 2001. I put it down to a book of course. You might put it down to random fluctuations or a sign that Lib Dem organisation is regaining its ability to overcome national trends.

An operating theatre

Lib Dems launch 1p on income tax for NHS policy

In the last edition of Lib Dem Newswire, the general election manifesto preview, I talked about how, “on the NHS and social care, the big issue to look out for is whether the party firms up talk of raising taxes to pay for better health and social care”. That happened earlier today, with the party publishing plans to increase all rates of income tax by 1p in order to pay for better health and social care. This move would raise £6 billion and would be the first step towards introducing a dedicated health and social care tax.

Lib Dem health spokesman Norman Lamb says of the plans:

The NHS was once the envy of the world and this pledge is the first step in restoring it to where it should be.

A penny on the pound to save the NHS is money well spent in our view.

Simply providing more money on its own is not enough and that’s why this is just the first step in our plan to protect health and care services long-term.

We also need to do much more to keep people fit and healthy and out of hospital, and that is why this new funding will be targeted to those areas that have the greatest impact on patient care such as social care, general practice, mental health and public health.

Full details of the plans are here [now removed] or watch the video below.


The Liberal Democrat plan to save the NHS.


Post-it note - "In case you missed it"

Catch-up service: people don’t pay much attention to politics

In case you missed these stories from my blog first time round:

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My usual coverage of party committees is on hold during the election as their usual meetings are also either on hold or confidential during the campaign. However, Geoff Payne managed to eek out an impressively long Federal Policy Committee report for a meeting of which all he can really say is, ‘we’re going to have a general election manifesto but I’m not telling what is in it yet’.

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