During the Coalition Government, the Lib Dems paid a heavy political price, including the loss of many local councillors. This has been well documented and widely understood. What is a bit more surprising is that they have continued to bob along at the bottom. At the 2015 General Election they lost 49 seats. Their share of the vote plunged to 7.9 per cent. On that same day, in the local elections, they lost over 400 council seats. Just consider that those losses were on top of when the seats had been contested in 2011 and the Lib Dems lost 750 seats. Since then I have been looking out for a revival of the Party. Not that I have done so with any enthusiasm – their campaigning at local level is especially dishonest and unprincipled. It just seemed that the Lib Dems regaining territory would means the laws of political gravity were taking place. Given Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party, and the Conservatives taking responsibility for Brexit, surely there could be no escape from the Yellow Peril?
Yet the Lib Dems have almost been forgotten about. In the 2017 General Election they gained only four seats. In terms of council elections that year they actually lost another 43 seats overall. In the 2016 local elections they had made modest net gains – as they did last year.
Four years on, it must surely finally be likely that the Lib Dems will make substantial gains – well into three figures. Most of the seats being contested are for district councils. 121 of those councils have all their seats up for election. Often those are battles between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Labour sometimes struggles to even field a full slate of candidates. The latest opinion polls suggest the Lib Dems are only a point or two up on their dire vote share in 2015. But the Conservatives are doing much worse. We got 37 per cent of the vote in the 2015 General Election. The gap has narrowed. I know that measure is problematic as Change UK and the Brexit Party aren’t contesting the elections this week. Yet it gives some sort of indication – and the Lib Dems progress in Council by-elections in recent months points the same way.
Lord Hayward, the Tory peer and elections expert, predicts far greater Tory losses to the Lib Dems this week than to Labour. He says:
“Rallings and Thrasher last week predicted Tory losses in the range of 500-1000. I would fall slightly on the higher side of that at around 800+, of which, Labour will probably gain somewhat less than 300 and Lib Dems probably more than 500. This would only be an adequate result for Labour and better for the Lib Dems. Anything around this level of Tory losses is just shy of losing 1:4 or 1:5 they are defending.
“Since these elections are in essentially the Tory shires and Labour heartlands (where Labour already hold most of the seats), the Lib Dems would expect to be well ahead of Labour in overall gains. The key measure for the two main opposition parties is therefore not only how many seats are gained but also the share of the Tory spoils.
“Roughly two gains for the Lib Dems for each one Lab gain (2:1) is broadly what I would expect (500-300 falls in that range). Anything closer to 3:2 (LD gains against Labour gains) would be bad for the Lib Dems and good for Labour. The corollary to this therefore is that anything clearly better than 5:2 (Lib Dem gains in comparison with Lab gains) heading for 3:1 would be good for the Lib Dems and bad for Labour.”
Perhaps the most modest target for the Lib Dems is North Norfolk – which is currently under no overall control. A reasonably good night for the Lib Dems would see them sweep to power in Lewes and St Albans. There is also Winchester – but that is trickier for them, as only a third of the seats are up for election. If they are to recapture lost ground, then we look to Devon – councils such as North Devon and Teignbridge. On the same basis they would look to Somerset. There is a new district council with elections in Somerset West and Taunton (a merger of Taunton Deane and West Somerset). That is the sort of Council the Lib Dems should be winning if they are having a serious revival. In Surrey, if they are doing well, Guildford might be vulnerable? In Berkshire there might be a Lib Dem threat in Wokingham.
Beyond the districts, it becomes harder for the Lib Dems. But North Somerset is a unitary authority with all of its seats up for election, so that is one to watch. Ditto Bath and North East Somerset.
Just as there will be a chance for the Lib Dems to steal a march on Change UK, this will be an important test for UKIP – as it faces being eclipsed by the Brexit Party. In 2015 UKIP gained 176 seats. They also took control of their first council – Thanet. In the General Election they took 12.6 per cent. This time round they are not standing candidates in most places and most of their councillors from last time have resigned or defected. Could Thanet be a Conservative gain?
Tendring (what most of us would call Clacton-on-Sea) in Essex is a place that UKIP would expect to do well. Also Dover in Kent and Boston in Lincolnshire. The problem for UKIP is that even if they win a few seats here and there it would still be a big net loss on the results in 2015. They could claim to be “back from the dead” by comparing their performance to the last couple of years – but that would be all.
What about the Green Party? The anti-establishment mood should help them – as should the high profile for climate change protests. But the feeling is that their progress will be modest rather than dramatic. I was surprised that they are only contesting 30 per cent of seats – down from 38 per cent last time. In some places the Lib Dems’ resurgence could be problematic for the Greens if they are scrabbling around for the same votes in places like Lewes. Apparently the Green Party are working hard in Trafford – where they have a full slate of candidates. Brighton and Hove is another area where they are strong – the whole Council is up for election there and Labour are split.
There are six contests for directly elected Mayors. Five of these cover local authorities – Bedford, Copeland, Leicester, Mansfield and Middlesbrough. There is also a regional mayor for North of Tyne. With an anti-politics mood we could expect lost of abstentions but also a strong showing by independents. Most of these contests have at least one independent candidate – although not in Bedford where the Lib Dem incumbent is seeking re-election. So we will see if there are any upsets….
Anyway, the main headlines on Friday will probably be about Lib Dem gains. The first time we will have heard such news for many years. Just remember that they are below 500 than they are not that impressive in the context of past results. That would merely restore their position before 2015. To get back where they were before 2011 they would need to gain well over a thousand seats.