Just how good were the local election results for the Lib Dems? LDN #124

Liberal Democrat Newswire #124 came out at the weekend looking, surprise surprise, at the Lib Dem performance in the 2019 local elections.

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

Welcome to Lib Dem Newswire #124, which frankly I was tempted to keep very short. Just the number 704 in as big a font as possible to fit on your screen. Perhaps then with a footnote explaining why 704 and not 703. Followed by a massive big 704 again.

But I guess you’re going to want more than that. So along with celebrating those amazing results you’ll find stories below that put the results in context and look at the lessons for the party from them – both the good and the more challenging.

It’s only been one of many factors in these results, but I am, I’ll confess, really pleased at the results of the work I put in with others last year to ensure ALDC had the funds to do its biggest ever round of Kickstart training ahead of these elections. The training was great and as for the results…

Likewise, the work I put into helping people such as Ruby Chow mobilise more support from London members for those with elections elsewhere looks to have paid off – with some small winning margins in wards where London members travelled repeatedly to help. Thank you to everyone who made those trips and well done too to the local organisers who directed the help they received so accurately!

Happy reading,


P.S. Just after the Euros polling day I’m giving a talk in Skipton about the future for the Lib Dems. Grab your ticket here.

In this edition:
Vince Cable on the local elections - Lib Dems are now the clear choice for Remainers in the Euros



This was well above Liberal Democrat expectations, not only those given out publicly but those internally as well.

By polling day, I was thinking that around 500 gains might be possible, influenced heavily by which wards local parties chose to send me and colleagues to when we turned up to help. Not held wards. Not marginal wards. But long-shot wards. When you are sent to long-shot wards in several different councils, there’s a clear picture emerging of how campaigning is really going.

But even so. 704.

It’s been lovely to have my inbox fill up with emails from colleagues around the country excited by how well they’ve done. Even more telling perhaps has been the remarkably positive tone from those with tales of heartbreakingly close misses. In previous years such emails have frequently contained anger or frustration about what someone else in the party (often ‘them at HQ’) supposedly did which messed up their chances. This time, rather, the tone has been much more frequently of determination to try again – even from those for whom next time is four years away.

It’s tough losing, and even tougher when so many around you are celebrating big wins. To still be able to share in the joy at the party’s results shows just how much joy there is to go around. If you want to go for it again, I’m sure your time will come soon. Thank you for being a part of our national vote share and the national media story – it has really made a difference.

Thank you too to the hundreds of volunteer agents, especially as a key part of your job, getting all the legal paperwork sorted and submitted, is still to come.

Before looking at some of the context and lessons, here are some of the highlights from the victories:

+704 net gains
More than the Liberal Democrats have ever achieved and more than I can find in any records for the SDP and Liberals going back to 1945. (It’s just possible that, say, in a post-Orpington year the party topped 704 – do let me know if you know better.)

National vote share up
19% projected national share of the vote for the BBC and 17% projected share for Thrasher and Rallings – i.e. what the party would have won if the whole country had been up for election. (Different methodologies are used for these calculations. That they consistently come up with similar results gives reassurance that the results are meaningful.)

More Lib Dem councils
18 councils elected a Liberal Democrat majority this time, which depending on how you count is up 11 or 12. To explain, the straightforward 10 are Bath and North East Somerset, Chelmsford, Cotswold, Hinckley and Bosworth, Mole Valley, North Devon, North Norfolk, Teignbridge, Vale of White Horse and Winchester. The eleventh is the new council of Somerset West & Taunton. The twelfth is South Somerset, where the party was technically just short of a majority in 2015 making this time’s 22 seat majority a stonking gain. Not 22 seats; a 22 seat majority.

Those with Lib Dem holds were Eastbourne, Eastleigh, Oadby & Wigston, South Lakeland, Three Rivers and Watford.

There will be even more Lib Dem council leaders as in some councils with no overall control, the Liberal Democrats are in the driving seat for running the council.

And other good news
Safely re-elected was Dave Hodgson as the directly elected Mayor of Bedford.

The results have triggered a wave of new members joining the party and others signing up as registered supporters.

To cap it all off, the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, the Lib Dem sister party, gained 21 seats in their local elections too.

A few results particularly to call out:
  • In what is becoming an annual feature, 2019 saw Lib Dem progress again in Barnsley, three gains this time following up the 2018 breakthrough.
  • Tim Prater is building up quite the electoral record. As he tweeted after gaining a council seat, “A Folkestone and Hythe political footnote. Rory Love, Linda Cufley and Robert Bliss have all led Shepway (now Folkestone & Hythe) District Council in the last 20 years. I’ve now taken a seat off them all – Linda in 2007, Robert (County) 2009 and Rory 2019.”
  • When Chelmsford’s Stephen Robinson first explained to me how they could go from five councillors to control of the council… in just one set of elections, I was rather sceptical. I’m glad I didn’t let my scepticism last. This was by no means the only dramatic Lib Dem advance, but it is the one with the funniest article by a now defeated council leader. Go read how the Conservatives in advance of the election talked about how they had ignored advice from CCHQ and mostly avoided canvassing, didn’t do social media and were still confident of winning
  • Four years ago, Sarah Dyke’s victory by one vote in a South Somerset ward gave the Liberal Democrats 29 seats to 28 for the Conservatives. This time she was re-elected.. with 72% of the vote in a direct head-to-head with the previous Conservative councillor.
  • Lovely to see my former home city of York run up 9 Liberal Democrat gains. That’s the place where I first stood for election and first artworked an election leaflet (and if you’re reading this Andrew and colleagues from back then… I still stand by my choice of a front page story on Bosnia).

Local election results maps and data

BBC local elections scoreboard 2019
BBC map of Lib Dem election results in 2019
BBC local elections analysis of geographic spread of results
Lib Dems did better in Remain areas but not by a large amount - Will Jennings data

Vince Cable’s local government record

Vince Cable will be able to stand down second in the league table for local government performance under a Lib Dem leader, behind only Paddy Ashdown:

  1. Paddy Ashdown: +1,390 seats
  2. Vince Cable: +782
  3. Charles Kennedy: +257
  4. Tim Farron: +14
  5. Ming Campbell: -244
  6. Nick Clegg: -2,068

Cue debate about how much a party leader is responsible for what happens in local government during their leadership…

These figures are the cumulative figures for each May/June round of local elections. They exclude defections and council by-elections though these are not numerous enough to change the overall standings or patterns. What does impact the ratings possibly is that the good year under Tim Farron came in a year with far fewer seats up for election than in this year in the cycle.

Political leafleters warned about dog with letterbox sign

The local election results in context

Long-term readers will know that I view local elections as best understood in terms of both votes and seats. That is why the 2017 local elections were better than appeared at first glance (seat loses got the headlines but the vote share being up showed the result to be better than first appeared). It’s also why the 2018 locals were not as good as at first glance (seats up, but votes down). How does 2019 rate?

First, let’s give some context. There have been four phases of Liberal Democrat and before that Liberal/Alliance local election performance. The long years of mostly growth until a peak in around 1996. Then a period of stagnation, with no real trend up or down, through to 2006. Then prolonged decline (setting in, note, before the coalition) through to 2015. Now the fourth phase of recovery.

During the decline, the party lost over 2,300 seats. The first three years out of coalition saw the party put back on just under 100 seats in the May rounds of elections. With this year serving up over seven hundred extra, the party is a bit more than a third of the way back to its peak. At this rate of progress, there is close to another decade of rebuilding to go to return to where the party was when the decline set in, let alone to ambitions such as being the largest party of local government. 

Added together, the reminder that the party’s local government decline started pre-coalition and that the current rate of progress means we’re so far off hitting new heights, act as a powerful lesson against complacency. Continuing and accelerating the party’s recovery is a must. 

That lesson is reinforced by the story on vote share. At 19% (BBC measure), this year saw the Lib Dem vote share at its highest since before coalition. However, during the 1997, 2001 and 2005 Parliaments, the party averaged 27%. There’s a long way to go. What’s more, on the Thrasher and Rallings measure this year’s vote share of 17% was slightly lower than 2017’s 18%, though otherwise again the highest since before coalition. It too is still a long way off the 1997, 2001 and 2005 averages of 25%.

Candidate numbers also highlight how much further there still is to go. As I highlighted last month, they are deserving of two rather than three cheers.

Cheer number one: the proportion of seats being contested by the Liberal Democrats in this May’s local elections was up significantly from four years ago. In 2015, the Lib Dems fought 46% of the seats. This time around it was up to 53%.

What’s more that rise of seven percentage points was better than Labour, up two (to 77%), the Greens, down eight (to 30%) or Ukip, down twenty-eight (to 16%). It also beat the Conservatives, although as they were at 93% last time, their three-point rise is getting close to as large as it practically can be.

Cheer number two: the strength of the Liberal Democrat presence in these elections puts the party clearly as the third party. Greens, Ukip, Women’s Equality Party – even all added up together, these parties between them they had fewer candidates than the Liberal Democrats.

But no cheer number three. Because even up seven points to 53%, the Liberal Democrat candidate spread was still down on the 59% achieved in 2011, let alone the near two-thirds in 2007.

What’s more, the great Conservative strides in candidate numbers in the last few years, despite their national political predicaments, shows the extent to which candidate numbers is a reflection of organisational determination and focus. The Conservatives have shown what can be done if a party really focuses on trying to up its candidate numbers.

This echoes the lesson, therefore, from the vote and seat stories. There’s an awful lot more for the Liberal Democrats still to do to improve our organisation and capabilities.

Note: for simplicity, I have stuck with seat number changes in this analysis. The number of council seats has changed over the years, so more advanced and detailed analysis should adjust for that. However, the changes in total number of councillors do not alter the overall trends described above. The candidate number figures are from Robert Hayward. Again, other sources differ slightly but the overall picture is consistent.
Lib Dems on the Put It To The People march

How to sustain the Lib Dem recovery

If the results point towards the Liberal Democrats needing to do an awful lot to sustain the party’s recovery, what does that mean in practice?

Part of that is seizing the immediate opportunities for further political momentum which present themselves: the European elections, a likely winnable Parliamentary by-election and the opportunity for media and public interest with a leadership election.

Beyond that immediate short-term, the longer-term challenges are ones I set out – giving both the challenges and the solutions – in my recent speech on Lib Dem strategy at a Lib Dem event in London. It’s just over 30 minutes long, but from feedback so far I hope it’s reasonable to say it is worth the time…
Mark Pack speaking on Liberal Democrat strategy
The Independent Group podium at their launch

Change UK and the Lib Dems: what next?

A dozen political parties founded this year went on to fight the local elections. Change UK wasn’t one of them, gifting the Liberal Democrats (and the Greens) a slice of media attention, public interest and political momentum.

While there was a mini-burst of local arrangements between Greens and Liberal Democrats around the country, including in Layla Moran’s patch, relations between Lib Dems and Change UK has worsened in the last few weeks. It’s been particularly noticeable amongst Liberal Democrat activists, triggered in no small part by the leaking of a Change UK memo that set out a strategy to crush rather than co-operate with the Lib Dems.

Change UK’s stumbles over candidate selection and apparent misunderstanding of the election system being used for the Euros have also not helped their reputation in the eyes of Lib Dem activists. (Although the Euros use a form of PR, vote splitting is still an issue thanks to the way in which the D’Hondt closed list system works, something another key Remain campaigner has appreciated, triggering his withdrawal.)

That attitude may change, especially in the light of the local election results and also if key Change UK figures follow up on the more cooperative approach taken by one of their MEPs, who pulled out in order to reduce the risk of splitting the Remain votes at the Euros.

For all Change UK’s stumbles, however, it is worth Liberal Democrats remembering twp things. First, Change UK looks to have appealed to some voters the Lib Dems don’t reach. The logic of cooperation, in whatever form and amplified by the workings of first past the post, is still there. 

Second, although Change UK has stumbled organisationally several times, and is missing the absence of an equivalent of the SDP’s organisational mastermind Bill Rodgers, the Lib Dems are hardly immune to similar problems. Our candidate vetting procedures may be better than Change UK’s, but we’ve often struggled to deal decisively with problems that have slipped through it. Likewise, at times we’ve been not exactly been brilliant at consistent, strategically savvy messaging. Even Change UK’s problems with complaints from grassroots activists about lack of support hindering their ability to campaign are not a stranger to a Lib Dem’s ears.

The Lib Dems have got much better on all these fronts, but it would be unreasonably snobbish to look down on a new party that encounters similar issues.

Which is why my advice to fellow Liberal Democrats is to keep an open mind on how Change UK evolves. It may yet move away from the antagonism of that memo, and if it does there may well be much to be gained by a warm relationship.
A microphone

Friend or foe? Change UK and the Lib Dems: Never Mind The Bar Charts Episode #7

Relations between Change UK and the Lib Dems also feature in the latest episode of Never Mind The Bar Charts, recorded by Stephen and myself before the local elections but not aged by them.

You can listen to this episode Never Mind The Bar Charts online here.

Or, you can find Never Mind The Bar Charts on Google Podcasts, iTunes, Overcast, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, Spotify and Stitcher

Find Never Mind The Bar Charts on social media
Like the show? Do follow on Twitter or Facebook. It’s a great way to hear more about the podcast – and to let your friends and colleagues know about it too.
Caroline Kenyon

Campaigning for Remain in Leave-voting heartland

Caroline Kenyon, self-confessed former complacent liberal and now an East Midlands Euro candidate, writes about life as a Remain campaigner in the Leave-voting heartland of Lincolnshire.

Until 24 June 2016, like millions of others, I was a complacent liberal. A London expat relocated to Lincolnshire, I was running my own business and trying to care for family and friends as much as possible. The kick to the guts of the Referendum result changed that in a second.
That first awful morning, I walked my small dog down the lane, past the houses of our nearby village, with anger in my heart for all those Lincolnshire folk, I’d read, who voted Leave. Boston, an hour south, had voted to Leave by an astonishing 75%. Glaring at our neighbours’ houses, I was consumed with emotion. So I plunged back into the Liberal Democrats, of which I’d been a member on and off for two decades, to try to do something positive – and to preserve my own sanity.
A year later, I was thrilled to be announced as the PPC for Lincoln in the 2017 General Election. The city hasn’t been anything other than Labour or Conservative since 1974 when Dick Taverne was MP. I ‘came out’ to my friends – Lincolnshire is feudal and the most Conservative of counties – only to find shy Lib Dems sidling up to me at parties to express their support.
In Lincoln, a university city, we were a tiny party – very young, many of them students caught up with assessments and Finals. We were broke. We had just enough money to print one leaflet. I got a picnic table out of the summer house, ordered an orange tablecloth online and someone gave me a rosette.
Thus armed, I set off to Lincoln to set up stall on Lincoln High Street for as many days as I could. That first time I stood in public with my rosette, I was very apprehensive. I was declaring war on what the vast majority of people of the county wanted and I was standing in public announcing it.
The response was mixed, from apathy to outright aggression to some interest and support. One elderly woman was so angry with me that, leaning heavily on her stick, she spat as she spoke. I heard the most appalling xenophobic outpourings, in particular anti-German sentiment, and fantasy nonsense from false Facebook stories with fingers jabbing in my face. “Fact!” they shouted.
I’ve tried really hard to understand the feelings and impulses of those who voted Leave in my adopted home county. I know Spalding well, where there is a large community of East Europeans who work picking fresh produce and in the food processing factories, very much like Boston. These are forlorn towns, forgotten by central government and with local government battling on with austerity-slashed budgets.
And here we are, nearly two years later. Still in the EU. The local party is in better shape than for many years. More members, more activists, more money. I no longer walk past the houses in the village, eaten up with anger. Now, there is hope.
A 'thank yoiu' message with a small plant - CC0 Public Domain photo
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Post-it note - "In case you missed it"

Big increase in EU’s popularity

In case you missed them the first time around, here are the highlights from my blogs over the last month: Spot any stories which you think I should be covering? Do drop me an email – always appreciated.
Rebecca Bell at Limekilns beach

Liberal Democrat selection news

A full set of Liberal Democrat European Parliament candidates is now in place, after a legal dispute. You can find them all here.

Selections of Westminster Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) since last time have included Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute), Lee Dargue (Birmingham Ladywood), Leena Sarah Farhat (Carmarthenshire East and Dinefwr), Rebecca Bell (pictured above, Dunfermline and West Fife) and Danny Chambers (North Cornwall).

You can check on all the selections which have been made public in the prospective candidate list on my website, which includes a batch of other selections from Wales too.

Good luck to them all and if you have been recently selected yourself, this list of tips will, I hope, be useful.

As ever tips on omissions from that list much appreciated; please let me know privately as sometimes a name isn’t yet listed because the local party hasn’t yet press released it.

What the voters are saying

Given such a dramatic set of local election figures, the latest opinion polls – all pre-dating the results – may feel a little dated already. They do, however, at least provide a benchmark against which to judge the national impact of those results. 

Here is what that benchmark shows…
Early May opinion polls round-up
To get updates about voting intention opinion polls, sign up for Polling UnPacked.
As is the norm, the month running up to the May local elections was a fairly quiet one for council by-elections with many held over to the first Thursday in May: The usual round-ups of councillors switching parties and graphs of council by-election results will return next time now that the May elections are over.

So in the interim enjoy the results from Harlow, which in amongst all the turmoil elsewhere were a sea of tranquility:
Harlow 2019 council election results - no changes at all
To get the full council by-election results every week, sign up for my blog posts digest and to be prepared for a council by-election in your patch, see my 7-step guide to getting ready in advance.

A poignant reminder of what democracy is about

Polling station sign on a war memorial in Watford

Thank you for reading

Right, who’s up for some more elections…?

In the meantime, do let me know what you made of the local election results and the lessons to draw from them.

Best wishes,


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