Results are still coming in, but the overall picture of this year’s local elections is clear: this has been a second successive disappointing result for the Lib Dems. Here’s a topline summary:
National vote share: The projected currently projected share of the national Lib Dem vote is 16%, with Labour on 39% and the Tories on 31%. This is the same share of the vote for the party as in 2011. So while the anger on the doorstep against the party may have lessened compared to 12 months ago, we’ve fallen a long way short of translating that into enthusiasm to vote Lib Dem. If last year’s elections were a anti-Lib Dem protest, this year’s are an anti-Coalition protest. Though I guess that’s a little fairer — both governing parties sharing the blame for voter discontent — it’s still no help to the party, even if we are now all in it together.
Number of councillors: The party’s total number of councillors across the UK will dip below 3,000 after these elections (as I write Lib Dem losses stand at 125 on the night) — that’s half Labour’s total number of councillors, and a third of the Tories’. For a community politics-based party which prides itself on its record of action in local government, this hollowing-out of our activist base is worrying.
The local picture: Amidst the gloom, there are a few bright spots. The line the party has pushed throughout the night is that in those areas where the Lib Dems have an MP or strength on the council there have been some local successes. There’s some truth to this with Lib Dems achieving good results in a range of places where we face the Tories, such as Portsmouth, Cheltenham, Eastleigh, Southport, Cheadle and Colchester. There was also a terrific trend-bucking defence by the party in Hull against Labour. Of the seven majority-controlled English councils the Lib Dems were defending — Portsmouth, Cheltenham, Cambridge, Colchester, Eastleigh, Three Rivers and Watford — we’ve had results in five, and the Lib Dems are likely to retain control in all of them (albeit in Cambridge with the mayor’s casting vote). But generally there’s no hiding from the fact that the party’s overall direction of travel is down.
Our second set of mid-term blues
First, and though I know it risks sounding glib, I think Ed Davey’s line last night wasn’t a bad one: the Lib Dems have been waiting 90 years to experience mid-term blues. The fact is we’re in government now. On the plus-side that means we get to see Lib Dem policies actually put in place: for example, just this week the Freedom Bill — which rolls back Labour’s surveillance state — became law. In the budget, millions more low-earners were lifted out of income tax, at the same time as wealth taxes were raised. But on the debit side, it means voters will blame us for the things they don’t like. And in particular in the urban north, where the Tory vote has long since been wiped out, voters wanting to kick the government are going to target Lib Dems.
This is an anti-Coalition result
Secondly, this is about the Coalition, not Nick Clegg personally — as I pointed out earlier this week:
The Lib Dems are bracing ourselves for a Tricky Thursday followed by Frit Friday if, as commentators suggest, we stand to lose in excess of 300 councillors. If that happens, someone somewhere is bound to suggest now is the time to change party leader. Yet this polling data suggests Nick Clegg isn’t actually a significant factor at play here. The fact is that a coalition with the Tories at a time of double-dip recession is proving toxic for the Lib Dems with many voters. There’s no magic wand solution to this.
‘It’s the economy, stupid’
Thirdly, our fate will to a large extent hinge on the economic recovery. Whatever the causes of the current economic troubles — whether you buy the Balls-Miliband line it was ‘made in Downing Street’, or if (like me) you think it’s a more complex result of Eurozone problems and household deleveraging — a double-dip recession has happened on the Coalition’s watch, and voters will blame both parties for it. And while the economy is likely to stutter into life again this year, we can’t necessarily be sure the voters will thank us for it, especially as the cuts haven’t actually started yet. Only from next year will overall public spending fall in real terms: until now, we have been witnesses to ‘phoney austerity’, but from 2013 the ‘real austerity’ kicks in. That’s when the public are likely to start seeing a front-line service impact.
The Coalition parties are stuck with each other
Fourthly, there is one consequence of the battering the Coalition has taken which few have commented on — now the Tories are also starting to share the pain of being in government, both parties have to make this government work because neither party will want to trigger an early election in the current circumstances. So even as party activists from both the Yellow and Blue corners try to persuade their leaders to up-the-differentiation-ante to give their own side something to cheer, the overwhelming pressure on Messrs Clegg and Cameron will have to be to make the Coalition deliver on the big issues — the economy, unemployment, household income — by 2015.
What about the 2015 general election?
Fifthly, as the party’s local base shrinks we’re going to need to take some necessarily tough decisions about how we choose to fight the 2015 general election: who are the voters the party must now win over or win back by 2015? What implications does that have for the seats we fight hardest to win? What can we learn from those places that have bucked the national trend? Do we, in effect, fight a guerilla campaign of 57 local parliamentary by-elections — is that viable and can it work? These are all questions that are going to require answers. This year’s elections have shown the party can still win — but that it will be much, much tougher than in any election in our lifetimes because this time the stakes are much, much higher.
This year’s elections show the very real threat that 30 years of electoral progress risks being wiped out: that will be a high price to pay for five years of Coalition government. But nothing is inevitable in politics. Three years ago, who’d have predicted Nick Clegg would be Deputy Prime Minister within a Lib Dem / Conservative Coalition? If, like me, you think there’s a lot the party can be proud of in its record in government, then the next three years are our opportunity to say that loud and clear to the voters — one thing’s for sure, if we don’t no-one else will!
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.