Lib Dems surge as Corbyn’s Labour falters behind Tories

Since May 2016, the Liberal Democrats have been the clear winners when it comes to taking seats in local by-elections.  Many campaigners will have seen the following graph:
With 21 seats gained, and only 1 lost, the net result of +20, with our vote share averaging up 9% is a good recovery which the party should be proud of.   We need to continue to work hard, but at the same time, steady progress.

Conventional thinking would have us believe that when a party is in Government, they do badly in elections.  Conversely, opposition parties should be doing well.  Therefore, if Labour were to be on a serious road to power, it should be thrashing the Conservatives by achieving net gains from them.

Yet if 2016 has taught us anything about politics, it’s that convention has gone out of the window.  Digging deeper into local authority by-election figures, I was shocked to learn that the reverse is true – the Tories are gaining seats off Labour.  Since 2016, Labour have won 3 seats off the Tories.  This figure should be a lot higher for the Official Opposition.  Surprisingly though, the Conservatives have won 7 net seats off Labour, including a result in Pendle last Thursday:

This figure now means that Labour are still losing seats, but as of Thursday 24th November they have lost more Councillors net (-11) compared to the Conservatives (-7).  For every seat Labour gain off the Tories, they lose two.

There are clear signs that this is a trend, because Labour are losing net Councillors not only to the Lib Dems (-5), and the Conservatives (-4), but other parties as well. Whilst Scottish Labour are trading seats with the SNP (2 net gains and losses means it’s even here) they’ve also lost seats to Plaid.

Labour are even -1 seat down to UKIP.  Yes, leaderless, MEP-punching, leadership-contender-resigning, expenditure-investigated, xenophobic UKIP are taking seats off Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.

Worse may be yet to come.  The Liberal Democrats saw a strong surge in Witney, where they were clearly competitive, resulting in some fabulous body language from different candidates on the night:


The excellent Liz Leffman slashed the Tory majority down to around 6,000 votes, leapfrogging both UKIP – and also Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.  At the time of writing, the latest polling sees a Lib Dem surge in Richmond Park, with Zac Goldsmith falling down to 46.7% and the Lib Dem Sarah Olney surging to 43.3%.  With polling day next 1st December, the Lib Dems may capture the seat with a late surge.  Labour, a distant third, are out of the running.

What of Corbyn’s Labour then?  With the late Jo Cox’s seat respectfully not being contested by the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and others, comparisons are impossible here.  However, the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election provides Labour with an opportunity, where Labour came a distant second in 2015. Yet early signs are that Labour are struggling to make an impact.

Despite Jeremy Corbyn visiting the constituency, Ladbrokes lists Labour’s chances of winning at 100/1.  Again, a serious Official Opposition would be competitive in this seat.  Instead, Labour, having selected a Brexit candidate for this by-election, are splitting the anti-EU vote with UKIP and the Conservatives.  Meanwhile, many commentators have noticed the 40% Remain vote is rapidly concentrating around the Lib Dem’s Ross Pepper who has emerged as the serious pro-Remain challenger.

Unlike opinion polls, both Parliamentary and local authority by-elections are real.  They represent collectively, not hundreds, not thousands, but tens of thousands of votes cast in real elections, with local by-elections being held all over the country since May 2016.  The continued trend of losing local council seats is something that the Labour Party, as the Official Opposition, cannot afford to ignore.


* Simon Foster is a lecturer in Politics and Economics, and has published twenty-five books on Politics, PSHE and Citizenship.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Without a doubt the Lib Dems are taking votes from Labour and so they should be. Initial signs are good, but they should be doing even better. Labour are in total disarray and could be totally humiliated at the next GE. You need more Question Time performances from Tim and a couple of headline policies to keep them coming. Housing and job security are massive problems – do the Lib Dems have any sensible, costed policies in these areas? If you have you need to get your message out because fighting brexit alone just isn’t enough.

  • Laurence Cox 28th Nov '16 - 12:58pm

    Tony Greaves is the best-placed person to explain the Pendle result (he has done this already in another place).

  • Simon Foster 28th Nov '16 - 2:37pm

    Malc – I agree. In particular, Tim Farron was brilliant on Question Time last week.

    Laurence – do you have a link to where Tony has written on the Pendle result? I haven’t seen this yet.

  • Richard Warren 28th Nov '16 - 6:29pm

    Simon Foster – good article. Love that chart!

    Malc – I also agree with you.

    Aside from Brexit, I feel we ought to offer voters a package aimed at giving them more power over their lives (including that sense of job security mentioned), eg through mutualisation as an alternative to nationalisation and prvatisation. Housing co-ops are also the most economically efficient at producing social housing (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors), so that’s a measure that can kill two birds with one stone: increase housebuilding and give people control over their lives.

    PR could be in that package aimed at giving people control over their lives too. Other measures? It was that feeling of powerlessness that has driven so many people to vote for Scottish independence and Brexit.

    Also, another housing point, Caroline Pigeon had a great idea for London – use the soon-to-end Olympics precept to seed fund housing construction in the city. Maybe there’s something at national level that could be diverted to homebuilding?

  • Latest guardian/icm poll – carried out after the Autumn Statement.

    Conservatives: 44% (up 2 points from ICM earlier this month)

    Labour: 28% (no change)

    Ukip: 12% (up 1)

    Lib Dems: 7% (down 2)

    Greens: 4% (up 1)

    Conservative lead: 16 points (up 2)

    The tables (pdf) show the Tories ahead of Labour amongst every social grade, even DEs (where the Tories are on 33% and Labour 32%). The Tories are also ahead amongst all age groups, apart from 18 to 24-year-olds.

  • Peter Watson 29th Nov '16 - 2:23pm

    @Richard Warren “Aside from Brexit …”
    … there is little consensus amongst Lib Dems on this site. 🙁

  • That’s a pretty misleading barchart – why is the LD tower so much taller than the Tory (negative) one which shows exactly the same number (21 and -21)? And Labour’s is -19 but clearly the LD tower is disproportionately tall!

  • Simon Foster 16th Dec '16 - 10:15am

    R Parker – you’re misreading the graph. The graph shows NET gains/losses. So the Tories 12 gains and 21 losses gives us a net figure of -9. This is of course smaller than the net gains of +21 that the Lib Dems have.

    Note that the figures have now changed, and following 3 Lib Dem gains last night from the Conservatives (all interestingly in Leave areas with swings of +20% to the Lib Dems in each case), the Tories have now lost the most seats.

    Interestingly, this has now been the best year for the Lib Dems in local by-elections since 2002, with 27 seats won (net figure is +25 now since May 2016).

    Malc – the opinion poll figures are now all out of date as well. The latest I’ve seen is the Lib Dems on 14%, +4, and in a clear third place over UKIP with Labour on 25%, it’s lowest poll rating since the 1980s in Opposition. Whether this is just a post Richmond Park bounce or signs of a longer trend we’ll have to see. However, the local by-election results suggest the latter.

  • Simon Foster 16th Dec '16 - 2:41pm

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