Local council by-elections: the recovery continues, again

Two months on, it’s time to update my post about the trends in local government by-elections.

Week by week local by-election results can fluctuate greatly as the luck of the draw over which seats are up adds to the variations in local circumstances to produce a large spread of results. However, aggregated over longer periods the pattern of local by-elections does say something about the state of the parties, which is why I’ve been looking at the trend in Liberal Democrat performances since May 2011.

This following graphs show the change in the Liberal Democrat vote share in by-elections, measured since the seat was previously contested and – to even out for those local factors – taken in two month averages.

* Mark Pack is Party President and Co-leader of the party. He is editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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This entry was posted in Local government and News.


  • Good news if its true but could I just clarify what we are talking about here? Are we looking at county, district and unitary councils – ie ‘proper’ authorities or are we referring to parish councils? Previous reports of come-backs have centred on parish councils which most people would agree are not really indicative of anything – http://politicalscrapbook.net/2012/03/lib-dem-local-election-results-richard-morris/

  • Of course, the odd thing is that while your figures for local by-elections appear to show an increase of nearly 14 percentage points in the Lib Dem vote since last May/June, the national opinion polls have shown no detectable change in the Lib Dems’ Westminster voting intention over the same period.

    If your figures reflect a real change in votes (and I’d be more convinced if you showed a bar for March/April last year to demonstrate that the May/June one isn’t a statistical fluke), doesn’t that suggest that local and national voting behaviour have become completely divorced?

  • mike cobley 7th Mar '12 - 11:56am

    I would be interested to see a comparison of turnouts, since that would give a more accurate reading of actual support.

  • Labour looking worse and worse under unelectable leader. As Tories protest more and louder about Lib Dem tail wagging Coalition Government dog, more and more obvious Lib Dems in government are making a difference. Don’t expect to be loved any more, that’s for oppositionist fantasy politics. Hope to be respected as actually exercising power to some good effect.

  • paul barker 7th Mar '12 - 12:48pm

    Hi Mark, Dan & James. I have started a parallel series which partly answers your points since I look at the 3 month average vote share for the 3 main parties. The result for the 3 months up to the end of feb are
    con 36%
    lab 22%
    libdem 28%
    That covers 40 elections & about 50,000 votes.

    Our 28% is in the middle of our usual range suggesting , for now at least, that we have recovered from last years slump.
    Right now I am being cautious & predicting LD losses of less than 50 seats but I think we should be prepared for a wide range of results. I dont want our people to get their hopes up only to have them dashed but I really want us to be ready if we do well & Labour badly.
    Most of us will look at that Labour – 22% & think thats implausable; I find it shocking but not surprising.
    Sorry this was so long.

  • paul barker 7th Mar '12 - 12:53pm

    Can I clarify, my figures include town/parish councils. A vote is a vote & worth infinitely more than the casual opinion of people who may never vote.
    On the turnout question, local byelections generally have similar turnout to full council elections.

  • paul barker 7th Mar '12 - 1:35pm

    George Kendall, I doubt theres very much complacency around in our party right now. The real danger is people giving up or thinking this is a time to keep our heads down. You are right about the need for work but we also need to stop apologising & hold our heads up.

  • Nice and positive – good to see. Any chance of getting this broken down by region? or even North / South? please?

  • @Paul Disagree about the relevance of parish councils as they are far more subject to which parties actually put up candidates. Where I am, Labour never bother to contest the Town, which means LDs used to poll 200+ better than on the matching District wards by picking up soft Labour tactical votes (and notably, less than 100 better post-coalition).

  • David Evans 7th Mar '12 - 2:51pm

    Sadly, as I have pointed out before, our normal performance improvement in local govt by elections over the last decade or so has been in the range +5% to +10%. This is because a) we are good at by elections, b) we get lots more outside help which is not available for all out elections in May.

    It looks like an improving trend which is positive, but it will need to be much better for us even to expect to break even in May.

    @ Paul Barker – I would like to believe your comment “LD losses of less than 50 seats. ” Is that England only, just the Mets or what? According to ALDC we are defending 795 seats in May, of which 185 are in the Mets. Last May we went down by substantially more than 50 in the Mets alone (sorry – can’t spot the data on ALDC anymore). Are you sure your prognosis is valid?

  • paul barker 7th Mar '12 - 4:00pm

    David Evans, interesting point. Is that just your estimate or can you point me to some figures ?
    I think I am being fairly cautious, I hope so.

  • “You can’t argue with a barchart!”

    I dont think some of the bar charts I have seen in Focuses over the years would stand up to much statistical scrutiny!

  • Tony Dawson 7th Mar '12 - 10:09pm

    “@paul barker “I doubt theres very much complacency around in our party right now””

    Is that not a rather complacent assertion? 😉

    I would suggest that there is plenty of complacency, but would be reluctant to point here to precisely where it is.

  • Paul McKeown 8th Mar '12 - 12:21am

    Isn’t the contradistinction between polling for national voting intention – for a GE which is not imminent, on issues yet to be defined – for LDs and actual voting returns rather normal?

    And certainly not unexpected when
    1) the LDs are in national coalition government at a time of global economic crisis, having to make some very difficult and often unpleasant decisions
    2) whilst Labour snipes from the sidelines blaming the LDs for being closet Tories
    3) to a crescendo of complaint from the Tory press that the LDs are holding the Conservatives back from of a raft of their dafter manifesto commitments?

    So voters are willing to elect hard-working LDs on the back of good service to the local community, whilst reserving opinion on the LDs in national government until early 2015. Hardly a surprise. Whatever the LDs are, they aren’t the demonic monsters in national government they are painted by their opponents. One can expect the voting public gradually to stop kicking the LDs for not being an angelic host.

    But warnings against complacency are certainly appropriate.

    The LDs must be able to demonstrate some clear wins for popular, sensible, just policies, and articulate a clear vision for a better society that a large number of voters will be prepared to buy into.

  • Spirit of 56 8th Mar '12 - 9:14am

    Some of the comments here do have an Orwellian feel to them. Of course the opposition has the civic duty to oppose policies they don’t agree with as Labour are doing, as we did when we were not in Government. It is through this criticism that new ideas emerge. The opposition also has no need for a coherent position until the next election when they are proposing an alternative government. This is where our problem is and will be in 2015, We stood on one economic policy and have governed on the one we opposed, so the big question will be “why should we trust the Lib Dems?” This needs to be addressed and soon, until then even I, a Party Member since 1983, an agnostic.

  • “We stood on one economic policy and have governed on the one we opposed”

    I disagree. What we said was (which was broadly similiar to the other 2 mian parties):

    – we need to tackle the deficit
    – here are some costed ways to tackle the deficit (we went further than the other two on this)
    – we need to see the true picture before we are able to say exactly what we would do

    We then saw the books, helpfully anotated by Liam Byrne (“there’s no money left”) and put in place a deficit reduction plan. We are still spending north of £150bn more than we are getting in receipts.

  • As a few people have asked about more detailed stats there is a rolling update of our performance in by-elections on the ALDC website: http://www.aldc.org/elections/by-election-analysis/

    If you scroll down the page you’ll see some other analyses as well and the Local Elections page on the same section of the website also shows what’s up this May and how we performed last May broken down by type of council.

    As with Mark Pack, ALDC doesn’t include parish or community councils in its figures. There are lots of parish elections every week and we only usually get notified when we are in contention for the seat. For that reason we don’t even try to make our list of parish or community council by-elections comprehensive. Even if we did have a full list the results are subject to the vagaries of whether a council is party political or not and whether the seat was ever contested in the first place, which many aren’t.

  • I would like to thank ALDC for producing such useful information to base a discussion on.

    The real danger we see from a number of previous posters is taking this information ad raw data and extrapolating it. The professional opinion pollsters make great efforts to try and balance their reults with the people polled. They have to publish tables and quote a MoE of 3%

    The crude analyses we see here have not taken into any account the seats polled, the respective changes against previous elections and any local issues. The MoE for this data will be so large as to make the extrapolation worthless.

    If we take the ALDC numbers for 2012 we see that there have been 20 seats, 3 of which with an incumbent Labour councillor (only one more than UKIP) and there has been a net loss of LD seats. There also seem to be a lot of LD/Con seats without even a Labour candidate.( I have asked a question on UKPolling Report where they are more knowledgeable than I am) on the use of council by-election data as a prediction of VI.

    The complacancy is evident,’ everything is really getting better’ and’anyway we do poorly in mid-term’ when there is no evidence to back either claim up (the first because the data is poorly analysed and the second because in the past the LD were not in Government).

    It seems that several posters are looking for evidence that the coalition has not damaged the LD vote at all and all will be well in 2015.

    The alternative could be at the most radical breaking the coalition (does not seem likely to me) or perhaps going into the election of 2015 with a different leadership. Clegg (with Alexander but I do not think he will win Inverness anyway so possibly a moot point) is damaged goods

  • Dear Moggy, I’m not sure Labour is the only party with an unelectable leader, sadly. Rightly or wrongly that’s the truth of it.

  • It will be interesting to see what happens to the LibDem vote if they end up backing the NHS bill. I predict a giant sucking sound as voters flee.

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