Lib Dems love facts and figures – and evidence-based policy – so I thought I’d do some digging of my own to see how the #LibDemFightback is looking in the run-up to May’s elections. While we only have opinion polls to guide us for the devolved assembly elections, there have been dozens of council by-elections already in 2016.
This year, up to February 19th, Britain Elects calculated that Lib Dems stood in 17 first and second-tier council by-elections across the country where the party had contested the seat last time around – fewer than the Conservatives or Labour (26 and 21 respectively), but half again more than UKIP (11). However we were the only ones with a positive average swing – +4.2%, versus average swings of -0.97% for Labour, -1.26% for the Conservatives, and a wince-inducing -8.06% for UKIP.
Since then, by my count, we have stood candidates in ten out of thirteen by-elections, gaining two, holding two, losing none. Seven were in wards where Lib Dems stood last time – these averaged a +11.73% swing (the only fall was in Whissendine (Rutland), where we were the prohibitive winners with 65.1% of the vote, despite a -0.7% swing). In the three where we stood anew, we netted 4% in Bloomfield (Blackpool), 8.4% in Ashby-de-la-Launde (North Kesteven), and a stonking 46.5% in Alderholt (East Dorset) – an 8-vote near-miss to the Tories at the first attempt.
What does this tell us? Well, three things leap out at me.
First, Tim Farron was about right when he said that “where we work, we win” is true again. Local teams, with some support, have results to be very proud of. The stand-outs were our two gains: Sutton (Cambridgeshire), with 52.5% of the vote on a +19.8% swing, and Aylsham (Broadland), a win with 48% on a 17.1% swing. Others are heartening too, including in Faraday (Southwark), where an upbeat campaign placed second to a prohibitive Labour lead, a good position to build upon. The same can be said of our Hutton (Redcar and Cleveland) team who came a clear second to a large Conservative lead. And of course, Alderholt (East Dorset) showed that a standing start can have a good chance of winning at the first attempt.
Second, spectacular swings are quite achievable – seven achieved double digits, Studley with Sambourne (Stratford-on-Avon) (+24.1%) and Hutton (Redcar and Cleveland) (+10.1%) being the highest and lowest of these. Many of these are partly due to other parties not standing, to be sure – but this merely underlines the importance of always standing a candidate (conversely, where we don’t, we risk gifting similar swings to our rivals).
On the other hand, very often our vote has remained virtually static or fallen. Results of 4-8% are not uncommon, in line with our share in opinion polls. This is not to impugn local parties working hard in difficult wards, but as Mark Pack has said if that really is our vote’s floor, we should get used to results like this where local activists can often only fight a ward or two at a time. It should be in those one or two wards that we should look for signs that the #LibDemFightback is taking hold – and if the results so far are anything to go by, something positive is happening.
* John Grout is a member of Greater Reading Democrats.