Local elections ’09: the LDV verdict

What to make of 4th June’s local elections in England, how to sum it up? The clichés are easy: a mixed bag, a curate’s egg, et bloody cetera. The reality is simpler, in my view: Thursday’s local elections were, generally, pretty damn good for the Lib Dems. That’s not to gloss over the disappointments – and, yes, there most definitely were some (of which more, later) – but nor should those setbacks allow us to discount the very clear successes which were achieved either.

Let’s start with the good:

  • 1. The Liberal Democrats came second, with a nationally projected vote according to the BBC, of 28%, compared to the Tories 38% and Labour’s 23%. This is the joint highest popular vote ever recorded by the Lib Dems in a set of local elections, beating the 27% recorded in both 1994 (when the Ashdown-led party was at its post-Eastleigh, pre-Blair high water-mark) and 2004 (when the Kennedy-led party was at its post-Iraq high water-mark), and equalling the party’s 2005 local election vote share, held on general election day.
  • 2. Not only has the party equalled the projected share of the vote it received in 2005, when these seats were last contested, it is up on last year’s excellent 27% – meaning the Lib Dems are the only party to have maintained/improved our projected share of the vote when compared either to last year, or 2005.
  • 3. The Lib Dems took control of Bristol, winning 15 of the 23 seats up for election. This means four of the UK’s biggest cities – Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Bristol – now have majority Lib Dem councils. Lib Dems made gains from the Tories in the south, in Essex, Surrey, Hertfordshire, East and West Sussex Leicestershire and Norfolk. In addition, the party gained from Labour in Bristol and Burnley and across the whole of the North and Midlands.
  • 4. The Lib Dems increased our number of councillors in the following areas: Bristol, Warwickshire, Lancashire, Essex, Surrey, Hertfordshire, East Sussex, West Sussex, Cumbria, Worcestershire, Isle of Wight, Suffolk and Bedford.
  • 5. The Lib Dems have had, at time of writing, 439 councillors elected in this set of elections (with four councils still to report) – this compares to Labour’s 159. In other words, almost three times as many Lib Dem councillors were elected on 4th June than councillors from the governing party.

And now let’s deal with the bad:

  • 1. We lost control of two councils where we had majority control: Devon and Cornwall. We also experienced poor results in Somerset, where the Tories gained majority control from a minority Lib Dem administration in a hung council. (Incidentally, the BBC continues, with wilful inaccuracy, and despite protests from Lib Dem HQ, to refer to this as a Tory gain from the Lib Dems. They are wrong. It is not. It is a Tory gain from No Overall Control, just as the Lib Dem victory in Bristol is from No Overall Control, even though we ran the city as a minority administration).
  • 2. Looking at those three councils, the party lost 19 seats in Devon, nine in Somerset, and the Cornwall transition to unitary status saves our blushes of having a large minus figure next to that authority. At time of writing, the Lib Dems are showing a net loss of eight seats in these elections: 27 losses were concentrated in Devon and Somerset.
  • 3. The Lib Dem vote share in those three areas was also down. In Devon, for example, the Lib Dems polled 37% in 2005 and just 30% this year; meanwhile the Tories edged up from 38% to 42% – that’s a swing from Lib Dems to Tories of just over 5%. Which is substantial, though not perhaps as dramatic as the headline loss of seats suggests. In Cornwall, the Lib Dems trailed the Tories by 28% to 34% – again, a loss, but one which qualifies as worrying rather than catastrophic.
  • 4. I don’t know the local circumstances well enough in those three areas, but I imagine some combination of the usual factors applied to the losses: a breakdown in party discipline; some bad/unpopular council decisions; poor and limited campaigning; councillors starting to represent the council to their voters, rather than the other way around; boundary changes; anti-incumbency protests; reduced turnout compared with the general election; the combination of local elections with European elections bringing out Ukip voters (especially in the south-west); the appeal of independent (and Green) local candidates to Lib Dem-inclined voters. Some Lib Dem groups – eg, Liverpool, Eastleigh, Sutton – manage to retain majority control beyond one election, so there is nothing inevitable about an anti-incumbency swing; but Lib Dem council groups do seem more than ordinarily vulnerable to the syndrome.
  • 5. The unknowable factor in all this is how far such local council verdicts will extrapolate into Westminster voting intentions? For instance, independents and Mebyon Kernow scored more than one-quarter of the vote in Cornwall – it’s hard to see that happening in a general election, so where will those votes go? And of course in a general election, Lib Dems tend to be more reliant than other parties’ candidates on a personal ‘incumbency’ vote. Maybe that trend will be another casualty of the MPs’ expenses row. But residents are more likely to hold their own local (Lib Dem) MP in high esteem than other MPs in general.

So there you have it: five reasons for viewing 4th June’s local election results as a triumph; five reasons for looking at them with furrowed brow. On the whole, by and large, and taking everything into account, I think we can allow ourselves a slightly rueful smile of pleasure.

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37 Comments

  • First of all a big thank you for guiding us all through the highs and lows of the results. We need to study very hard the situation in the South West because it seems to have been a textbook example of a targeted Tory revival that could seriously damage our total number of MPs at the next GE. What were the issues playing out on the doorstep in these areas that caused either defections from us to the Tories or differential turnout?

    Over to our fellow members in the South West for some postings and analysis about this…..

  • You can add Kent to the list of areas that increased its Councillors – now 7 up from 6 (1 loss, 2 gains). With Labour losing 18 seats, the Lib Dems are now the official opposition.

  • Somerset was a Lib Dem majority (of 1) after May 2005 but, AIUI went NOC after a resignation.

    I don’t think it’s massively inaccurate to describe it as a loss from us. However the BBC approach in the past has been to measure gains and losses from the situation on the council the day before polling day.

  • Sky’s results show the Lib Dems as losing (nett) 1 in 10 of the councillor seats that they had before the election.

    BBC’s results exclude some comparisons with the past, e.g. in Cornwall and Wiltshire. The effect is to under report LD losses.

    As a Conservative I am happy that you are happy with the results!

  • Herbert Brown 6th Jun '09 - 10:09am

    “The Lib Dem vote share in those three areas was also down. In Devon, for example, the Lib Dems polled 37% in 2005 and just 30% this year; meanwhile the Tories edged up from 38% to 42% – that’s a swing from Lib Dems to Tories of just over 5%.”

    The Lib Dem-Tory swing of 3.5% since 2005 based on the BBC national projections from local elections is pretty much identical to what you’d get from Anthony Wells’s average of national opinion polls (currently showing the Tories at 37% and the Lib Dems at 19%).

    And I think you’d expect that swing to be rather higher than the average in areas where the contest is between the Tories and the Lib Dems (such as the South West) and rather lower in areas of Labour strength where the Lib Dems must be benefitting to some extent from the government’s huge unpopularity (even if many disaffected Labour supporters are abstaining or going to fringe parties).

    On the whole, the situation looks much more favourable than it did when the Tories were nearly 30% ahead of the Lib Dems in the opinion polls.

  • “6.Chris Huhne in his excellent appraisals said Somerset MP.s would hold their Seats based on the swing to Tories on June 4th in the Local Election.”

    Eh? Jeremy’s and David both have majorities under 1000 – a swing of 0.5-0.7%.

    Was the swing to the Tories really less than that in Somerset – I can’t see it as they took Street from us which IIRC we’ve held for a long time.

  • (Street may have been down to an ex Lib Dem Cllr with a considerable personal vote running as a “no party”)

  • John Minard 6th Jun '09 - 10:52am

    Could have been worse but should have been better!

    It’s foxed me for months now, why there is not more public anger about the credit crunch, the national debt, Fred’s Pension, unemployment etc etc and how and when it would start to show.

    It’s not the barely comprehensible billions then but the duck ponds and trouser press stories that have exposed the underlying failure of parliament and governance on so many levels.

    So the party of radical change should have risen above a few bad expenses allegations and captured this poll.

    We have to work on the narrative, to speak over the heads of the media editors to the public.

    I hope that part of that narrative will be to that a strong Lib Dem party in parliament – the more MPs we have, the more honest and open our democracy will be.

    And part of that narrative should extoll the virtues of STV, not just any type of PR, sub regional multi-member constituencies (most people live sub-regional lives) and power over the party machines.

    Must do better!

  • Ruth Bright 6th Jun '09 - 12:04pm

    Unfortunately the gain in Surrey disguises the fact that we did badly in Guildford. Hampshire wasn’t great either.

    Conversely I was out delivering in Southwark (in a patch where Lib Dems would have been lynched three elections ago) and the reaction was terrific.

  • I’m not certain how the libe dems can spin this into a good result. Every commentator i’ve read all say it was a very poor day for them.

    another thing – we have seen all of this before at local elections – they CANNOT be compared properly to the general election, where the lib dems always flatter to deceive.

    they have LOST seats – how is that a good result?

  • David Boycott 6th Jun '09 - 12:45pm

    Thanks for that contribution, Stephen. Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth:

    http://page.politicshome.com/uk/local_elections_results_analy
    sis.html

  • David Boycott 6th Jun '09 - 12:58pm
  • These results are good but partly reflect a fear i’ve had that the parties organisation is falling behind it’s popularity or potential popularity.

    Outside the Westminster bubble former staunch Labour voters are genuinely deserting the party and looking for a new home. In the last month I’ve had a lot of close friends and family members who were previously Labour voters asking me about and voting for the Lib Dems.

    I have no reason to think this isn’t what’s happening elsewhere BUT if those freinds hadn’t had me to ask they wouldn’t have voted Lib Dem – because 1) they hadn’t seen any Lib Dem election literature 2) some of them weren’t registered to vote until I told them they needed to 3) they don’t have a local Lib Dem councillor or candidate who they can identify with.

    This crisis has smashed the Labour vote to pieces and if we’re not there to pick up those pieces someone else will. We need to ratchet up our fundraising – our existing donors should be made aware that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and why isn’t there a fundraising widget I can put on my facebook page? – we need more supporters/members and activists – why aren’t members being asked to recruit their friends and more importantly being given the tools to do that? we need better organisation in the regions (like the Tories have) with more paid organisers and press officers.

    And most important of all we need a new list of target seats that targets Tory and Labour seats embroiled in the expenses scandal as well as targeting any and all Labour seats where we are second, whether their majorities are big or small. The anti-labour vote is bigger than the positive vote for any party at the moment and we should be capitalising on that.

    I know all of these are ideal world scenarios but the party needs to know that this is the time to up our game – in the face of a Cameron government and a labour party in meltdown eyes are turning to us and we need to be ready.

  • Michael Headley 6th Jun '09 - 2:19pm

    Thanks for listing the result in the new Bedford unitary in the “Good” section. In fact the news is even better as this means we have now become the largest party. Lib Dem 13, Tory 9, Lab 7, Ind 7.

  • I think what this shows is that Lib Dems can aim for winning some seats, but sacrificing overall share of the vote by concentrating their efforts in a few winnable seats; or they can go for share of vote – which requires them to spread their efforts to all areas, but they then risk losing seats on a first past the post system.
    Of course Lib Dems are in favour of PR – but that gets extremists in too.

    Unless Lib Dems want the rules changed for PR, but only so they benefit, by placing hurdles for the fringe parties and extremists high enough that they don’t get through.

    The Lib Dems best hope is with first past the post, with Labour suffering such a melt down that the Lib Dems become the natural main party with the Tories (as it was 100 years ago).

  • David Boycott 6th Jun '09 - 3:05pm

    “Utterly bizarre” as in you don’t like it?!

    It’s based on a substantiated measure of expectations prior to the poll, unlike the opinions of the pundits you choose to quote.

    I am personally sceptical of the value of the PH100 panel – the betting markets are usually better indicators. Nonetheless, the fact is that the Tories did better than expected and the LibDems did not.

    You may take issue with those expectations if you wish – perhaps people ascribed too much impact to the expenses scandal.

    You can also take comfort in your percentage of vote if you wish, but so will the other minor parties. It will not deliver power.

  • Herbert Brown 6th Jun '09 - 3:13pm

    ollie:
    “they have LOST seats – how is that a good result?”

    With local elections, it’s always a question of “compared to what?”

    Obviously in contests with the Tories the Lib Dems are in a weaker position than in 2005, and in contests with Labour in a stronger position. The net result has been a loss of seats because, essentially, more seats were lost to the Tory advance than were gained from the Labour retreat. The numbers indicate the same would be true in a general election. So the position is not “good” compared with 2005.

    Where I think it can fairly be said to be good is compared with last year. Last year’s locals would have indicated an 8% swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories since 2005, whereas this year’s indicate only a 3.5% swing – and a much bigger swing from Labour to the Lib Dems.

    On that basis the Lib Dems might even gain enough parliamentary seats from Labour to cancel out losses to the Tories. That’s certainly not what the numbers were indicating last year.

  • Herbert Brown 6th Jun '09 - 3:45pm

    The other thing that is not really being commented on is how weak the Tory vote is, considering the huge unpopularity of the government.

    Even though Labour is in the low 20s, Tory support is at its lowest since the “election that never was” in the Autumn of 2007. The 38% Tory figure projected from the locals is almost identical to what the national opinion polls are saying.

    Clearly the expenses scandal has hurt the Tories quite badly. If Labour did ditch Brown and pick an attractive leader who could engineer some kind of honeymoon, acompanied by signs of economic recovery, 37-38% in the polls would not be the most comfortable starting point for Cameron.

  • Ian Roebuck 6th Jun '09 - 5:07pm

    Add Dorset to the net gains column, figures pre-polling day were C25, LD 15 lab 4 and Ind 1. Now Con 28 LD 16 and Independent 1 (no Labour).

    Difference from BBC is that we had a LD borough and county councillor in Weymouth defect to the Tories last year (having been promised the Tory nomination for his county seat) and we beat him with a 1.7% swing from Tory to Lib Dem relative to 2005.

  • Sorry Ruth but you are wrong about Hampshire.

    All the county seats were held in the Eastleigh constituency, Romsey and the Test Valley polled well and in the new Winchester constituency there was a 4.4% swing from Tories to Lib Dems to produce notional percentage of 47% LD to 38 Con.

    I would have though that was actually quite a good performance in Hampshire.

    In Somerset and Devon there were some swings in tight marginal seats, but for example we polled well in Taunton and Yeovil.

    If, as expected, UKIP do well in the Euro SW seats tomorrow, will this encourage them to stand candidates in a GE and help split the Tory vote? There will be definitely be some very hard fights in our west country seats – and a lot of squeeze messages will be employed – but it ain’t all doom and gloom down there.

  • The LDs didn’t increase their number of councillors in Worcestershire. 8 in 2005, 8 in 2009.

    On the other hand, one positive you missed out was what councils weren’t up for election this year. Scotland, Wales, London, a number of cities in the north. We should do well their at a GE, especially with labour making big losses.

  • Sorry to be a party pooper for all you liberals here. I’m afraid there’s bad news for you – the collapse in the Labour vote at the GE will not give you extra seats.

    Guys – I haven’t seen a single GE poll with the libs on 28%. Another thing, even if you did poll that, a report on Sky said it would not equate TO A SINGLE EXTRA SEAT AT THE NEXT GENERAL ELECTION.

    Here’s my prediction – the lib dems will LOSE seats at the next GE – including Mr “we held our own” Huhne’s.

    You will lose seats to the Tories in the south, and the predicted collapse of Labour won’t be as beneficial to the libs as you all seem to think.

    Time for a sharp reality check for the Limp Dims.

  • The results in Devon, dire they they were, actually represent an improvement on the last round of all-out 2nd-tier elections. For instance, Ilfracombe went Tory at district level, but was held by us last Thursday.

    Dorset I would describe as “OK, but could do better”. The loss of Wimborne Minster is regrettable (it is moving into Annette Brooke’s constituency, I think), and the slim majority in Corfe Mullen is uncomfortable. In West Dorset, Beaminster, Burton Bradstock, Chickerell and Sherborne Rural were all won at District level, I seem to remember, but we didn’t win them last Thursday (perhaps the boundaries are slightly different). The results in Dorchester and Blandford were amazingly good, however, and demonstrate that the residual Labour vote there has been pushed to rock bottom.

    In Somerset, Yeovil and Taunton delivered, but the rest of the county went to pieces. Why is it that David Heath has never succeeded in increasing his wafer-thin majority? Those towns and villages are not particularly prosperous. Why do they go on voting Tory?

    Hampshire was another “just about OK”. Eastleigh, Winchester and Romsey all delivered. Having said that, there are divisions in Hampshire where the Tories are now getting 70%+ that we held within living memory (Lymington being the outstanding example).

    There are Tory held seats where the Liberal Democrats remain competitive: Chelmsford, Chippenham, Eastbourne, St Albans, possibly also Dorset North and Guildford.

    I don’t think the expenses business really hurt anyone that much. In Gosport (home to Sir Peter “duck house” Viggers) the Tories gained two seats. And I think they won everything in Bromsgrove.

  • Good results in Cumbria +5. 4 of which were gained against the Conservatives in South Lakeland, were Tim Farron has a 267 majority in the parliamentary seat. All the district and county coucillors in Kendal (the largest town in south lakes) are now Lib Dems. In addition many of the seats in Eden where quite close and the Tory leader of the county council lost his seat.

  • I know the Beeb is reporting that overall we lost seats – but the people that really know – the anoraks on vote2007 – have said that the Lib Dems are up 5 on 2005.

    I know who to trust on this one (and it’s not the BBC)…

  • Herbert Brown 6th Jun '09 - 11:44pm

    “I know the Beeb is reporting that overall we lost seats – but the people that really know – the anoraks on vote2007 – have said that the Lib Dems are up 5 on 2005.”

    Well, the BBC is quoting a slim overall loss of 4 seats, so maybe the difference from the anoraks’ figure is based on seats that changed hands between 2005 and Thursday.

    But I assume that is based on a comparison that excludes councils that technically didn’t exist in 2005, because Sky News is quoted an overall loss of 48 seats for the Lib Dems.

    At least, I assume that’s the reason for the discrepancy. If not, no doubt the anoraks will explain.

  • I love Kitty “I don’t like my ceiling” Usher’s comment on Labour’s wipeout to us and the BNP in Burnley: “I think we were the victims”. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/lancashire/8085392.stm) Not quite sure what planet Usher is on, but I hope we put that on a focus leaflet!

  • Pete Whitehead 7th Jun '09 - 1:32am

    Sesenco Says:
    6th June 2009 at 10:05 pm

    “The results in Devon, dire they they were, actually represent an improvement on the last round of all-out 2nd-tier elections. For instance, Ilfracombe went Tory at district level, but was held by us last Thursday.”

    This is incorrect. Aggregating the votes cast in 2007 for all the Devon CC divisions would have resulted in 35 Conservative seats and 18 LDs
    The Actual result was 41 Conservatives and 14 LDs. Would it be more accurate to say that the result in Ilfracombe represented an improvement?

    “In Somerset, Yeovil and Taunton delivered”

    Taunton delivered a 2000 vote Conservative lead.

  • Pete Whitehead 7th Jun '09 - 2:06am

    “Dan Says:
    6th June 2009 at 10:55 pm

    I know the Beeb is reporting that overall we lost seats – but the people that really know – the anoraks on vote2007 – have said that the Lib Dems are up 5 on 2005.

    I know who to trust on this one (and it’s not the BBC)…”

    Dan if the LDs are up 5 in total it is because of the increased number of seats in Cornwall, Wiltshire, Shropshire and Bedfordshire. In Wiltshire for example the size of the council doubled from 49 to 98. The LDs won 16 seats there in 2005 and 24 in 2009 – an increase of 8 but a real terms decline (ie they would have need to win 32 to do as well as in 2005). There are 158 extra seats in total in these new unitary areas compared with 2005 and the LDs are up net 13 in these areas (down 10 in Cornwall though despite the increase in size from 82 to 123).
    In the 27 counties which are fought on the same basis as 2005 the LDs are down 24. Factor in Bristol which is also unchancged and the net loss is 20.

  • Lonely Wonderer’s comments echo what happened here. In our Division our selection process meant the voters did not get the candidate they wanted, so they showed their disapproval by either voting UKIP or not voting at all. In the Division next to us, a Tory seat, in spite of a drop of 20% in the turn out our candidate held our vote up and cut the Tories majority by a half. Many seats were lost because of other parties splitting the vote and letting the Tory in, but there isn’t a lot of evidence of the Tory votre increasing much, if at all.

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