Liberal Democrat Newswire #35: analysing the Lib Dem local election performance

Unhappy bear: no bar chartEdition #35 of Liberal Democrat Newswire came out last week, looking at how the Liberal Democrats did in this month’s local elections. You can now read it in full below.

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Mark Pack

Liberal Democrat Newswire #35

Welcome to the 35th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, which this time looks at how the Liberal Democrats did in the local elections – and includes news of the unluckiest candidate, the Lib Dem who has lost by 1 vote two years in a row.

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Thanks for reading,


The context

This month’s local elections saw county councils being elected without a Parliamentary election on the same day for the first time since 1993. (The 1997, 2001, 2005 county council elections all were held on the same day as a general election, whilst in 2009 their elections coincided with those for the European Parliament.)

Politics has changed hugely since the mid-1990s, as has the situation of the Liberal Democrats. No longer do excitable party activists look at polls and election results dreaming of overtaking the Conservatives as the country’s second party. Instead they deal with the rather more sombre reality of being in government – getting more Liberal Democrat policies put into action, yet fewer Liberal Democrat votes in the ballot box.

It was also the fifth year in a row in which the Liberal Democrats have lost seats in the annual round of local elections. The party has had a five year losing streak before, from 1997-2001 (inclusive), though this time the cummulative loses are substantially higher.

Five years, of course, also means that is a trend which started before the party headed into government. As I pointed out in the previous edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, when it comes to vote share, 2009 now looks like the party’s peak before hitting this declining trend. On seat numbers, 2008 was the peak.

Either way, a wave of success for other parties – a burst under Cameron for the Tories, then Labour recovering somewhat from its lowest of lows and now UKIP surging – have each in turn also helped hit the Liberal Democrats, adding to the specific impact of going into government.

UKIP hit Labour the most, Lib Dems the least

UKIP logoThe wards up for elections vary from year to successive year, but after each May's local elections projected national vote share calculations are made which adjust for which seats were up for election. For example, if the wards up for election in one year are mainly in traditionally Labour areas, then the projected national vote share figures allow for this, which means you can compare them with other years when, say, more Conservative areas were up for election.

(In fact, two different such calculations are made, by two different teams of psephologists. They use different methodology but always come out with nearly the same answer, which is always a good reassurance about their accuracy. The LSE has a good blog post about how the calculations work.)

So whilst much of the media coverage has been about how 2013 compares with 2009, it is also worth using these figures to compare 2013 to 2012. After all, we already know that in 2010 Labour left office and changed leader whilst the Lib Dems went into government, both of which had big impacts on their party's popularity. Comparing 2013 with 2009 doesn't therefore tell us about the most recent trends and instead is in part retelling history we're all already familiar with.

Comparing 2013 with 2012 does however tell us the most recent trends and they're different from most of the media headlines.

UKIP were certainly up a lot, but whose votes dropped the most? Labour, with Lib Dems suffering the least.

Labour down 9%, Conservatives down 6%, Lib Dems down 2%

What's happened to Labour is that, having recovered a lot from their 2009 low by the time of the 2012 local elections, Labour has now slipped back a long way (although not all the way back down to 2009 levels of support). 

The BBC figures for national equivalent vote share are:

2009 Con 38% Lab 23% Lib Dem 28%
2012 Con 31% Lab 38% Lib Dem 16%
2013 Con 25% Lab 29% Lib Dem 14%

That 29% figure for Labour is worse than it ever was in local elections under Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock.

Prospects for 2014

London: a tube station and a black cabNext year’s local elections will be on the same day as the European Parliament elections, adding an extra factor to juggle when trying to predict how the UKIP vote will pan out. As this year's contests have shown, in many wards the net effect of an increase in the UKIP vote is often to help the Lib Dems win seats – as long as the increase isn't so large that UKIP itself wins the seats.

Having taken a huge hit after going into government, the levels of Liberal Democrat support have not recovered much during the Parliament. The party’s national polling ratings have crept up a little and are now averaging the best they’ve been since the autumn of 2010, though that is not saying that much. 

However, the party is helped by the big fall in the Conservative vote and the falling back of Labour this year. Let's assume that in 2014 each party polls the same national equivalent vote share as it did in 2013, what would that mean compared to 2010, which is when the seats up in 2014 were last contested?

Con 35% Lab 27% Lib Dem 26%

Con 25% Lab 29% Lib Dem 14%

That would be a swing of only 1% from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives but a swing of 7% from the Lib Dems to Labour. That latter figure is particularly problematic for Nick Clegg's party as next year's contests see far more Lib Dem versus Labour battles than we had this year. 

Moreover, there continues to be a pattern that Liberal Democrat teams who have not yet faced a round of elections in this Parliament often under-estimate how tough the contest will be. It is only once they’ve been beaten up in their first elections in this Parliament that the need to run significantly better campaigns than ever before really seeps through. London in particular next year sees a huge number of wards up for election that are being fought for the first time in this Parliament.

Two factors may yet work in the party's favour. First, if – finally – the economy starts growing regularly then the party should be entering next year's elections in a stronger position. Second, for all the uncertainties about the economy, we can be almost certain that turnout in the 2014 elections will be much lower than it was in 2010. That is because the 2010 local elections coincided with a general election, which has always resulted in a higher turnout than local elections held at other times, even if on the same day as a European Parliament election. That general election fuelled turnout boost regularly favours Labour, and will not be there in 2014.

(All the national vote share figures once again national vote share equivalents, using the BBC's calculations, and so comparable across different years.)

The counties to watch: how the Lib Dems did

Qantock Hills, SomersetIn the pre-election edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, I highlighted how Somerset and Hampshire were places to watch to understand future Liberal Democrat prospects. How did the party fare?

In Somerset (result here), the party came out with no net change in seats and the Tories, despite losing 6 seats, held on to the council. Somerset had been Lib Dem run until the 2009 elections and was an area the party nationally was prioritising this year. That makes the outcome a disappointing one for the party, particularly as one of the handful of candidates heavily promoted internally to motivate activists was from Somerset and did not win. The many Lib Dem MPs in the county will, however, at least draw consolation from the party not having gone backwards in the face of the UKIP surge.

Meanwhile in Hampshire (result here), the Lib Dems did lose seats – down 7 to 18 – and even lost seats in Eastleigh to UKIP. Interestingly, they were in the most Labour-leaning wards. As elsewhere, UKIP did particularly well at picking up votes from older people who did not do A levels or go to university. Hence UKIP doing well in areas that in a really good year for Labour would have seen Labour surging.

As with the Eastleigh by-election, if the support for the party’s main local rivals is hit more than its own, the Liberal Democrats can win even if also going backwards. Hence the Lib Dems becoming the largest political party in Cornwall (result here), despite losing 2 seats – as the Conservatives lost 18 seats.

In only a few areas did the party straight forwardly progress, with net seat gains in Oxfordshire (including improving on the position in the key Oxford West & Abingdon seat compared to 2009), Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Shropshire and Cumbria (with once again gains made in Tim Farron’s seat).

Good results in northern, predominantly Labour areas were much thinner on the ground, though gaining two seats in Pendle (albeit in the less Labour areas) and topping the poll once again in Ashfield were among exceptions for the Lib Dems.

A detailed summary of the results is on the BBC website.

Watch how the coalitions go

Surrey County Council chamber. Photo courtesy of Surrey News. Some rights reserved http://www.flickr.com/photos/surreynews/7073755509/In Cambridgeshire, East Sussex, Lincolnshire and Norfolk, Conservative councillors are the largest party and, leaving aside some unusual combinations involving Labour in some cases, have a choice between minority administration, a deal with UKIP or a deal with the Lib Dems. (There is a similar situation in Gloucestershire too, where a Con/UKIP deal would also need the support of at least one of the independent councillors.)

What overall pattern emerges about the willingness of Conservatives to work with either UKIP or the Lib Dems, and how UKIP reacts to any offered deals, will be an instructive insight into how the grassroots of the parties view each other. Ahead of the 1997 general election, cooperation between Labour and Lib Dem councillors on hung councils helped pave the way for warmer national relations and arrangements between the parties on policy matters. What will these hung county councils do for inter-party relations?

And how will UKIP’s councillors perform? The party’s MEPs have garnered some negative coverage. However, the problems with their expenses, their eccentric behaviour and their poor work rate has cost the party little in public support since 2009 as it has secured little coverage and disdaining an institution you want out of gives at least a vaguely plausible excuse for some of their behaviour.

However, UKIP is now much more in the spotlight and it’s harder to justify spurning doing work at a local council that you are not dedicated to opting out from. A lack of local activity from them will give a ready opening for Liberal Democrats to rebuild their local strength.

How the Lib Dems should react to UKIP

This is what I told The Observer:

Bristol in the 1950sThe anti-establishment rage this time may have been picked up by an anti-European right-wing party, but in other times and in other countries similar protests have taken other political forms. So wise Liberal Democrats will respond to that underlying issue – and the need for a fairer, stronger economy and a more responsive political system – rather than start talking up right wing stances on immigration or Europe.

Some of UKIP’s support comes from places the Liberal Democrat should leave well alone – especially those yearning for a 1950s-style society of white men at work, white women at home and gays in the closet.

But that support which comes from feeling stripped of political power and facing economic tough times is exactly the support the Liberal Democrat should look to win over. It’s a task the party should face with guarded optimism for as the results in places such as Oxfordshire and Pendle have shown, the party is able to make progress where it listens carefully, campaigns intensively and doesn’t stop when polling day is over.

You can join the online debate about this here.

How the Lib Dems fared in their key Parliamentary seats

Liberal Democrat postersAcross Lib Dem held Parliamentary seats with local elections this time, the party topped the poll – just: Lib Dem 30%, Conservative 27%, UKIP 17%, Labour 15%. In most seats that meant a fall in the vote on four years ago, but the UKIP surge has sufficiently disrupted voting patterns for the Lib Dems still to be ahead.

Moreover, in many Lib Dem seats Labour’s vote has stayed very low – under 10% in Eastleigh, Eastbourne, Cheltenham, Mid Dorset & North Poole and Somerton & Frome. That weakness in the Labour vote, and the absence of a significantly revived county councillor base for Labour in those areas, will make continuing the Labour tactical vote squeeze much easier for defending Lib Dem MPs.

Outside Lib Dem held seats, there is a small clutch of others where the party topped the poll: Oxford West & Abingdon, South East Cornwall, St Albans, Watford and Winchester.

Nearly all of those good results were in Lib Dem versus Conservative territory. There was however good news too in that most high profile of Lib Dem versus Labour territory, Nick Clegg's own Sheffield Hallam constituency. There was a council by-election in one of its wards, with the Lib Dems holding the seat and securing a 4.3% swing from Labour to the Lib Dems.

The Thrasher & Rallings projection as to how the House of Commons would look if people voted in a general election the same way as they voted in the local elections put the Lib Dems on 48 seats (with Labour winning a majority of 12 – Labour 331, Conservative 245, Lib Dem 48, Others 26).

That projected Labour majority of 12 is down from the projected majority last year of 76. That Lib Dem figure of 48 is up from the lows of 26 projected by the same method from the 2011 local elections, but is down from the 63 seat projection from 2009.

(As with vote share figures, these figures take into account which seats were up for election and so are comparable across years.)

It's not too early to start thinking about how to win next time

101 Ways To Win An Election - book cover

Its 308 pacy pages cheerfully zig-zag between marketing manual, self-help book, and campaigning A-Z — with dollops of political history, pop-psychology, and behavioural economics thrown in for good measure – Stephen Tall

101 Ways To Win An Election is available from Amazon (paperback and Kindle editions).

For Apple fans it is available on iTunes as an iBook for iPad, iPhone and iPod.

Users of Kobo readers are also catered for with the Kobo ebook version.

And in other local election news…

  • The unluckiest candidate must be Lib Dem John Batchelor in Cambridgeshire, who missed out by just 1 vote – for the second year in a row, and to the same Conservative each time.
  • The BNP lost the one seat it was defending.
  • Former Lib Dem MP Richard Younger Ross and former Liberal Party MP Elizabeth Shields were both elected. A third former MP, Sandra Gidley, just missed out despite securing a massive swing from the Conservatives, cutting their majority from 1,068 to just 143.
  • 20 years after the Newbury by-election, Julian Davidson – the defeated Conservative then – lost to the Liberal Democrats again, this time in the county council elections.
  • A Labour candidate in Cornwall managed to win with just 20% of the vote. Four other candidates received 15% or more. It was a five horse race…
  • The Lib Dems have picked up both an Aberdeenshire councillor (from the SNP) and an East Midlands Labour activist.

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