How did the Lib Dems do in the local elections? (LDN #112)

Liberal Democrat Newswire #112 came out last week, looking at the Lib Dem performance in the 2018 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.

Since this edition came out, I’ve done a bit of further analysis of the election results:

  1. Two important patterns behind the Lib Dem local election results
  2. How have Labour leaders in opposition done in local elections?

I’ve also put together graphs showing both the vote share and the seat changes for the Liberal Democrats and our predecessor parties in local elections over the years.

Two things to note about these vote shares:

  1. There are two different teams who produce calculations each year as to what the national vote share would have been for each party if the whole country had been up for election. That makes comparisons between different years possible as this means they’ve adjusted for the variations in what wards are up each year.
  2. The two teams use their own data and their own (rather different) methodologies. Hence we can have a high degree of confidence in their figures as these two different approaches produce such similar figures.

The seat changes graph is much more cyclical as this one only shows the raw numbers, i.e. not adjusted for the number of seats up for election each year.

Lib Dem seat change graph Lib Dem vote share graph

What to make of the picture painted by those graphs? Here’s the full analysis in Lib Dem Newswire to do just that.

Last year, I pointed out that despite the headline seat loses, the underlying picture for the Liberal Democrats in the local elections was rather better. This year it’s the mirror of that.The headlines are massively better – the best for many, many years – but when you dive into the details behind the headlines, it’s a much more mixed picture.

But first, let’s dwell a little on some of the stories making those positive headlines. In particular, two Liberal Democrat victories this week had me ripping my shirt off, running around the office chanting, “Yes! Let’s conga like we’re all Alex Cole-Hamilton“. Nearly.

One was the Lib Dem clean sweep in Muswell Hill ward, Haringey – the ward where I was a campaign manager for the first time and where Lynne Featherstone’s road to winning a Parliamentary seat began. So you could also say it’s the ward where the legalisation of same-sex marriage also began. That gain in Muswell Hill was part of an impressive half-dozen gains from Labour as the Haringey Lib Dem team moved back up to 15 seats. I think the Lib Dem Muswell Hill team is happier now than when this photo was taken.

The other was up in Barnsley. Not one of the party’s hotspots of support over the years. So much so that during one Parliamentary by-election I remember a visiting Lib Dem MP doing a great job of talking up Lib Dem prospects in the region. All was going well until the journalist pointed out that in the Barnsley local elections that year the the Lib Dems were putting up the princely total of one candidate. So in a year when Labour was (meant to be) riding high, fabulous to see Hannah Kitching win. From a standing start. With a 778 vote majority.

Kudos too to the Sheffield team led by Shaffaq Mohammed. Not only did they make gains from Labour, winning all the seats in the Sheffield Hallam constituency, but they’ve been great at helping neighbouring parties such as previous support for the Barnsley team and also helping Rotherham win their own first councillor last year.

And commiserations to those who missed out, especially those who missed up by tiny margins. That is galling at the best of times and often even more aggravating when you’re surrounded by others celebrating their own good news. It is, I hope, consoling news that there’ll be another set of elections coming along when you can put that right.

On to the analysis below, and if you find it useful please do forward this email on to others you know who you think will find the analysis useful or interesting.

Best wishes,


In this edition:

Map of the Liberal Democrat gains in Kingston-upon-Thames

The best Lib Dem result for a decade

A net gain of 75 seats, just two fewer than Labour, and the largest net gains for the party since 2004. A net gain of four councils – better than either Labour (no net gain) or the Conservatives (net loss of two) – and the largest net gain of councils since 2003. Even the defeat of Mr Gladstone was good news. Progress this year also has set up very plausible chances of gaining control of councils such as Winchester, St Albans and Hull in future years.

Time to break out the bunting then?

In many respects, yes. As I wrote before these elections:

When it comes to seats, the starting point is to bear in mind that the party has gained seats only once in the last nine years (stretching back to include pre-coalition contests too, note – the problem with the party’s slipping strength pre-dates coalition). Simply being up this year would be a good break in that trend.

And yes, the party did make a net gain of seats, far more than predicted. Not just a good break, a very good break.

All the more so as this year’s elections are, perhaps surprisingly considering the dominance of London in the results, usually pretty typical of all the years in the four/five year local government election cycle. Although Caron on Lib Dem Voice wrote that, “This one in the electoral cycle has been historically brutal”, I don’t see that in the figures. Plot out either the vote shares or seat changes each year and you don’t see the cycle that came up this year as being consistently worse (or better) than the other years in the cycle. If anything, the cycle which came up this year has a record of being dead on the trend seen from the previous year and extended into the succeeding year. Which, however, still gives an optimistic conclusion as it suggests that these gains are the sort that most likely herald more next year unless major political events intervene.

Add to that the slight upward drift in the party’s poll ratings pre-polling day – up by a smidgen but as it is across the board with nearly all pollsters, there might be a whiff of a real trend there which these results and positive headlines could continue. Plus the very healthy membership renewal rates at party HQ. And the failure of the plethora of new parties to establish themselves as rivals for the Lib Dems (total seat haul for them this time: zero).

So you can easily paint a Lib Dem mood to match the baking sun tempting me away from my keyboard as I type.

That’s the good news to luxuriate in. It’s not, however, the full picture.

Why looking beyond the headlines matters

A little bit of, ahem, trumpet blowing, helps explain why we should go beyond those positive headlines. Regular readers may recall that ahead of the 2017 general election I pointed out how, if you looked beyond the headlines, the polls weren’t really all over the place and the range of likely results they pointed to actually included the Conservatives losing their majority.

And ahead of this year’s local electionsLib Dem Newswire readers got the scoop on how a cool look beyond the headlines about the local elections, one which considered instead how support has changed since 2014, meant it was possible it would be Jeremy Corbyn, not Theresa May, under pressure as the election results come in.

I’m two for two. Just don’t look back to earlier years…

So let’s look beyond the headlines again, as that’s where the real insight into what might happen next in politics often lies.

Central to that look are the national vote share calculations done for each round of local elections. The most important thing to know about them is that they are not raw vote totals, but rather adjusted figures to cater for the fact that there are different wards up each year. The raw totals are therefore adjusted to make for figures which can be compared year on year.

What’s more, there are two different teams who do such calculations – John Curtice and co. for the BBC is one, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher make up the other. They use different methodologies too, yet come up with figures that are consistently very close and tell the same story.

That’s worth bearing in mind because without fail over the years when I’ve quoted such figures the supporters of the party whose figures are most surprising or disappointing say versions of, “ah but you can’t compare different years as different wards are up for election”. We can, because the figures are adjusted to allow us to do just that.

So far, only the Curtice/BBC figures for vote share have been published, so those are the ones I’ll use in what follows.

BBC national projected share of the vote in local elections

Lib Dem vote share slips to 2011/12 levels

Those figures quoted above about the best seat and council change results for a decade and a half make for good media fodder and the party’s media operation deserves kudos for pressing them successfully.

A note of caution, however.

On that sort of measure, the 2017 general election result (7% and 12 seats) counts as a better result than the 2010 general election result (23% and 57 seats) because 2017 was up 4 whilst 2010 was down 5. Moreover, gaining 75 seats undoes less than a third of the damage down with the loss of 307 seats four years ago.

What, then, of vote share? The BBC vote share figures put the Liberal Democrats on 16% this time. That sounds good compared to the current national polls and that 16% is also up on 13% four years ago. Now the buts begin.

The party always does much better in local election vote share than in general election voting intention opinion polls. “We’re doing better in council elections than in the national polls” is about as revelatory as “Mark is going to eat chocolate tomorrow”.

What’s more, 16% is two points down on last year (and remember these are comparable figures I’m using). This fall in the Lib Dem vote takes the party back down to the level it was at in 2011 and 2012. I don’t think anyone would write up those two years as being amazing local election results.

Nor even was that 16% accompanied this time by the sort of further emergence of a strong consistent basis of support that could, core-vote style, underpin long-term success.

16% is also worse than during the party’s near-death experience after the 1988 merger when the party was on 18% three years in a row. Between 1982, when this data series started, and the party entering coalition, we averaged 25% on this measure.

As I wrote in advance about what how a 16% vote share this time would rate: “The Lib Dem vote share in 2014, it is worth noting, was 11% (13% BBC) so it could slip on last year and still be up on four years ago. That would have to count as disappointing – a bullet dodged, perhaps, and maybe only mildly disappointing depending on the figures. But you can’t call vote share going down on last year great.”

Only once in the last eight years now have the Lib Dems polled higher than this 16% on the BBC measure, making it more ‘meh’ than ‘ugh’. Even so, it’s not ‘woop’.

Podcast recommendations

Two podcast episodes to highlight for your listening pleasure when out delivering those thank you leaflets or catching up on being a normal human:

  • The Limehouse Podcast has been interviewing Gina Miller: “We traverse a lot of what has flowed under the political and legal Brexit bridge. Her energy and courtesy is genuine and I think that really comes across in the conversation.” (iTunes / Soundcloud)
  • For the latest edition of Nick Clegg’s Anger Management, “the former Deputy Prime Minister reconnects with his old Cabinet sparring partner and Coalition frenemy [George Osborne] – once Chancellor of the Exchequer, now editor of the Evening Standard, firm opponent of Brexit and helpful supplier of constructive criticism to the current Prime Minister (of whom he is famously fond).” (iTunes)

101 Ways To Win An Election: Chapter 10

News in brief: Norman Lamb’s life-changing moment

Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb has talked of the “life-changing moment” when he was told he had suffered a stroke. His colleague in the Commons, Layla Moran, helped launch a new cross-party campaign for a referendum on the Brexit deal. Christine Jardine has been urging the Prime Minister to make cannabidiol available on NHS.

Although Wales didn’t have local elections this year, the Welsh party hasn’t been quiet on the re-building front, with leader Jane Dodds setting our her vision of a “fair and liberal” Wales. Likewise in Scotland where Willie Rennie has set out grounds for optimism about the party’s prospects.

Former leader Nick Clegg, meanwhile, it turns out was often the one standing up to Theresa May over immigration during the coalition government, with other Conservatives hiding behind him.

Admin errors resulting in former MP Sarah Olney being quizzed by the police over her election expenses, but the CPS decided not to proceed with any action. (A side note about Zac Goldsmith expounding on how awful this all is. He seems to have forgotten what the Electoral Commission found about his own expenses.)

One tricky loose end from the local elections: one of those elected under the Lib Dem banner had been suspended from the party just before polling day following allegations they had spread extremist hate online.

As well as the elections, there’s been some councillors switching allegiance, of sorts. In Torbay a Lib Dem councillor has left the Lib Dem group to take a place in the Conservative Mayor’s Cabinet although is reported to be staying in the party. Shortly after, a Conservative councillor in Torbay switched to the Liberal Democrats.

Finally, kudos to the Lib Dem team in Berwick for getting the local newspaper to run with “New chairman sets up new committee“.

Give your Lib Dem campaigning a boost

Increasingly, the online world is the frontline for political struggles. But why leave it just to the extremists and peddlers of fake news to be good at promoting their causes? We liberals, democrats and Liberal Democrats need to step up too.

So want to get better at promoting the Lib Dems in what you do online? Then the daily tips in my new short Liberal Democrat Digital Power-Up course are just for you.

Lessons from London

The mix of lessons good and not so good from across the country come together most clearly in London. The good was very, very good – huge seat gains to take control of the council in Richmond and Kingston, plus those big gains in Haringey mentioned above. The gains in Kingston included electing Jaesung Ha, the first Korean origin councillor in the country, and Andreas Kirsch, a German national elected in Kingston’s most pro-Brexit ward. Add to that more candidates than last time and the headlines are rosy.

Scratch under the surface and it’s a mixed picture. Yes, candidate numbers in London were up. Yet despite the party’s membership in London being at a record high, candidate numbers were still down on where they used to be pre-coalition. Record membership hasn’t translated into record candidates even though we were a long way short of maxing out on the number of vacancies there were to contest.

What’s more, the number of London councils with zero Liberal Democrats went up, not down, this week. Merton’s growth from one to six and Camden’s from one to three showed that success was not just for the bigger teams. Progress elsewhere was frustrated by agonisingly small margins, such as just missing out on getting Lib Dems back on the council in Bromley and Tower Hamlets. Even so, overall the smaller Lib Dem teams went backwards, not forwards, overall.

Partly that is, similar to the weak Welsh local government results last year, a function of only having local elections every four years and it taking time for organisations to start growing again post-coalition. New members don’t translate into greater success overnight.

This was only the first post-coalition local government opportunity for Lib Dems in London. The big challenge for local parties, and the regional party, is now to keep activity and rebuilding growing so that, for example, the smaller local parties who put up more candidates this time but came away with zero councillors continue to grow and have a real chance in 2022 as opposed to the familiar model of things grinding to a halt for a few years and then there not being enough time left to make the scale of progress required.

There’s an awful lot more still to do.

Please Like Lib Dem Newswire on Facebook

Liberal Democrat Campaign for Race Equality (LDCRE) launched

In case you missed them first time round, here are the highlights from my blog over the last month:

It’s been a busy few weeks for Parliamentary selections:

As ever, council by-elections were few in number in the immediate run-up to the big May elections. That didn’t stop Lib Dem teams scoring some impressive successes:

To get the full council by-election results every week, sign up for my blog posts digest.

PolitiStats by-election tally 4 May 2018

Remember to follow-up your meetings

Apologies, I’ve run out of time to cover in full the results from the joint Liberal Democrat Newswire / Your Liberal Britain survey into what people think of the meetings and events the party puts on. More on that next time, but here’s a taster of the key finding: people get a warm and friendly reception when they turn up, but the positives then slip when it comes to how good a use of time people feel attending has been (good chairing is crucial), and they slip further when it comes to thinking that the event they attended was followed-up properly.

So don’t let silence descend after all the many campaign events and meetings in the last few weeks. Make sure people feel they know what happened and what, along with what comes next.

More next time.

A little favour?

You can help others find out about this newsletter by pointing any friends, colleagues or Russian bots at www.libdemnewswire.com.

Best wishes and thank you for reading,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.