As I analysed in some detail in the last Liberal Democrat Newswire, the Lib Dem performance in this year’s local elections is a mirror of last year. Last year the headlines were poor (seat losses) but the details behind them promising (vote share up). This year the headlines were more than promising (seat and council gains) but the details behind them worrying (vote share down on last year and back down to 2011/12 levels*).
If you’ve not yet read that full analysis, I’d urge you to do so. The way to more successes is not only to cheer those that happened but also to understand the less cheery bits too. (If you aren’t a subscriber to LDN and so don’t have the latest edition in your inbox, sign up here now and you’ll get a reply with a link to the last edition.) Plus what follows in this post is very much a follow-up to that fuller analysis.
One obvious question that fuller analysis prompts is whether there was a variation in the Liberal Democrat results across the country that helps explain this mixed picture. And there is. Put simply, the Liberal Democrats did much better in district councils than in the urban (Met and London) councils.
As David Cowling has pointed out, in 22 shire districts the Lib Dems made gains, and in 11 the party made losses. Overall, this reflected the pattern I’ve been regularly highlighting in council by-election results – the Lib Dems making good progress against the Conservatives in southern England.
However, turn to the Mets and the Lib Dems made gains in 8 of those councils but made losses in 10. Similarly, in London, the party made gains in 5 but losses also in 5. Many more of these contests than the shire districts were contests with Labour. (The Lib Dems also tied on gaining and losing in 4 unitaries each.)
So the story is partly one of making progress against the government but finding it harder going against the main opposition party. That’s a familiar pattern from Liberal Democrat history.
It is also a promising pattern for next year, as not only are the seats up next year the ones last fought when the party had its worst ever local election performance. They are also seats in which the shire district councils feature very prominently.
The other pattern that helps explain the results is the continuing re-orientation of the party’s base of support towards those who voted Remain. Some Leave voters do or might vote Lib Dem. Overall, however, the party’s support is much stronger amongst Remain voters (e.g. the last YouGov poll has the party on 2% amongst Leave voters and 13% amongst Remain voters) – and this trend looks to be strengthening.
Last year the Lib Dem vote share did better the more Remain an area was, and hence my description of the results as an awkward pivot. Despite initial signs to the contrary this year, that pattern, with some wrinkles, continued in a modest form this year as John Curtice’s analysis shows:
As Jonathan Calder has pointed out, the Brexit effect on the Lib Dems is a little more complicated than this. It’s not just that Lib Dem vote winning efforts do better with Remain than Leave voters. It is also that even in Leave voting areas where the party has done well, the reason many of the key activists in that revival joined the party was Europe.
Where Europe is, however, benefitting the party only a little, so far, is in winning over urban liberal Remainers who voted Labour in massive numbers in the 2017 general election. Hence the modest pattern in the table above and the awkwardness of the pivot last year.
One or two areas of great success in doing this – such as in Haringey, where this month’s gains took the party back up to its 2002 performance in Hornsey & Wood Green – belie the much more widespread failure so far to really eat into that vote.
Cracking that is important not only because it opens up another route to gaining seats and votes beyond the Conservative shires. It also is a necessary part of building up a reliable core vote for the party which can be the bedrock of future sustained success.
Prior to the 2017 general election, this sort of vote looked very soft and winnable for the party in the early days of the cancelled Manchester Gorton by-election. Now Lewisham East will provide another opportunity to see how soft that vote is and how good the party’s approach to winning it over is.
* Vote share based on a like-for-like comparison, i.e. taking into account that different wards are up for election each year. This fall in the Lib Dem vote is shown by the two different methodologies used by two different teams using two different sets of data – i.e. it is a good, solid finding.