Surrey Heath was a close shave the Conservatives won 18 seats. There are now 17 opposition councillors. The Lib Dems gained nine to end up with ten. The independents gained three to end up with four. The Green Party gained two seats having had none before and Labour held its one seat. In other words a very safe Conservative council is now on a knife edge.
Chesterfield is an example of a place where the Lib Dems used to be strong, it had become safe Labour territory and now the Lib Dems have fought back into contention. The Lib Dems gained eight seats. There are now 28 Labour councillors, 17 Lib Dems and three independents.
Lib Dems net gains are now 691. That puts them back in the game but does not yet make them the municipal force they once were. For that to happen they would also need to notch up these sort of number next year and the next and the next. Will they manage that if the Conservatives and Labour cease to face such difficulties in terms of national politics? It must be conceded that the Lib Dem recovery is real, whether it is sustainable is another matter.
The Lib Dems net gains are now over 600. Worth noting that this solid performance of gains has not been offset by many losses. For instance, in the few councils the Lib Dems already controlled they have consolidated. In Oadby and Wigston they won an extra five seats and now have 24 councillors with just two Conservatives. In Eastleigh the gained another couple of seats. They now have 34 – with just three independents and two Conservatives,
The Lib Dems net gains are now over 500. That is an important threshold. When these seats were last contested in 2015 they lost over 400 seats so simply regaining that number would have been rather modest progress. But the 2015 losses were on top of 750 losses when the seats were contested in 2011. So on that measure, they still have quite a long way to go.
Teignbridge has been lost by the Conservatives to the Lib Dems. This is the tenth council the Lib Dems have gained.
The Conservatives have lost North Somerset to no overall control. The Lib Dems gained seven seats but the independents gained 11.
The Conservatives have lost control of Eden (in Cumbria). The Lib Dems picked up three seats there.
The Lib Dems have gained Mole Valley. That is their ninth gain of a council. On that Council, the Conservatives lost ten seats , including nine to the Lib Dems.
The Conservatives have lost overall control of Malvern Hills. We lost ten seats, including four to the Lib Dems. But also three to independents. The big increase in the number of independent councillors has meant that we have more hung councils. In many places who actually takes charge in these councils will not be determined for days, or even weeks. Brexit probably has blunted the Lib Dems potential as an anti establishment, protest party. That has left any independents standing well placed.
The BBC’s projected national share of the vote has Labour and the Conservatives each on 28 per cent, with the Lib Dems on 19 per cent. Obviously, that has the Lib Dems outperforming their opinion poll score. There is also some evidence that they have managed to get the votes out where they need them – either through their good fortune or effective targeting in their campaigning.
Currently the Lib Dems have a total of overall net gains of 413.
The Conservatives have lost control of Warwick. The Lib Dems have gained seven seats there.
Better news from West Devon where the Conservatives have maintained overall control – albeit by a single seat. The Lib Dems gained a couple of seats.
What about the areas which used to be Labour/Lib Dem battlegrounds? Is the Lib Dem revival also a challenge for Labour? Only to a modest extent. The Lib Dems used to run Liverpool Council. They gained a couple of seats there yesterday. But Labour still maintains a huge lead. As recently as 2011 the Lib Dems were in charge of Sheffield. They gained three seats yesterday – but Labour still has almost twice as many as them. Also until 2011, the Lib Dems had control of Newcastle-upon-Tyne Council. Yesterday they gained just one seat – they are now on 20, while Labour is on 54. In the case of Cambridge City Council, the Lib Dems only lost control in 2012. They gained a seat yesterday and it is getting a bit tighter – Labour is now on 26, the Lib Dems on 15. In all these councils only a third of the seats were up for election. However among those contested yesterday, Labour won more than the Lib Dems in each city. So the Lib Dems do seem to be a bigger threat to the Conservatives.
No elections in Cornwall – where the Lib Dems are traditionally strong. But they have results to look forward to from Devon and Somerset. Both those are counties where they performed well in the past. Early indications are that they will make big gains. In North Somerset the Conservatives have lost a seat to the Lib Dems by just three votes but on a big swing.
The headlines tend to focus on the councils where control switches from one Party to another. But even when that doesn’t happen there can be a big shift below the surface. The Conservatives have held Dacorum – but lost 15 seats to the Lib Dems. In New Forest, the Conservatives have won with a large overall majority – but they still lost 12 seats including 11 to the Lib Dems. While the Lib Dems only had a couple last time they are now up to 13. Where they have retained some representation in previous years it is much easier to recover.
St Albans has been lost by the Conservative no overall control. The Conservative lost eight seats – seven to the Lib Dems and one to an independent. Although the Lib Dems might have hope to do better here it would have been a challenge to have gained control of the Council as only a third of seats were up for election.
Sir Vince Cable says:
“Voters have sent a clear message that they no longer have confidence in the Conservatives, but they are also refusing to reward Labour while the party prevaricates on the big issue of the day: Brexit.
Our army of 100,000 members and 250,000 supporters have shown us to be the strongest campaigning force in local government, in remain and leave areas alike.
We are winning from leave-voting Chelmsford to remain-voting Cotswolds, gaining ground in rural England and cities too.”
Of course, we should remember that an estimated 32 per cent of Lib Dem supporters voted to Leave the EU. But his suggestion that the Lib Dems are gaining support from Brexiteers seems pretty implausible. Chelmsford was Leave-voting – but only by 53 per cent to 47 per cent. Have the Chelmsford Brexiteers really turned out for the Lib Dems? More likely is that they will have mostly voted Conservative previously but abstained this time. That leads us to a wider point. While the wider results are a recovery for the Lib Dems how fragile is it? If these are windfall gains courtesy of Tory abstentions how sustainable will they be if and when a proper Brexit finally comes to pass?
Many results are being counted today but the Lib Dems have already picked up over 300 gains from last night. That ends an incredibly long losing streak for the Party. On Tuesday I noted that they made heavy losses during the years of the Coalition Government and had not recovered since. Yet the Lib Dem decline goes back even further. In many district councils the battle is between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. During the years when the Conservatives were in Opposition under David Cameron’s leadership from 2006 to 2010 the Lib Dems were already losing ground.
In a typical year, several thousand council seats are up for election. Over 8,000 were contested yesterday. So gains or losses of below a hundred seats is pretty negligible. Treading water. The last time the Lib Dems made net gains of over a hundred seats was in 2004 – and then it was only 137. The last time the Lib Dems made gains of over 300 seats was in 1995.
Some of us remember when the Lib Dems were a powerful force in local government. The era of “pavement politics”. Hyper local issues would be taken up with one set of promises for residents in one street and a different (sometimes contradictory) set for another. The Lib Dems campaigning could be criticised for being opportunistic, even downright dishonest. On the other hand, their councillors tended to be hard working. But they were a formidable operation. That was long ago. If they had continued to languish in local elections would they survive? Might the Party of Gladstone and Lloyd George fizzle out? That now seems much less likely.
In terms of councils so far the Lib Dems have gained the following from the Conservatives:
- Bath & North East Somerset,
- Hinckley & Bosworth
- Vale of White Horse
They have also gained another two, from no overall control:
- North Devon
- North Norfolk
In some of those there was a big change in the number of seats. For instance in North Norfolk the Conservatives lost 19 councillors – the Lib Dems gained 15, while independents picked up another four.
South Oxfordshire the Conservatives have lost to no overall control after losing 23 seats – including 11 to the Lib Dems.