The Nitty-Gritty: Evidence of the #LibDemFightback

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 admin of the Lib Dem Newbies Facebook group and lives in Reading.

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  • Bill le Breton 23rd Mar '16 - 11:18am

    We are in the same situation in which the Liberals found themselves in the 1970s and early 1980s.

    We built our fighting capacity with the use of three ‘Cs’: Concentrate, Campaign, Communicate.

    What this useful piece does is remind us of the need for that basic technical discipline.

    I see little evidence that the people who matter understand this or have any comprehension of what this entails. We are still behaving as if we have 20% levels of support, any army of fanatical activists and a national (international) platform.

    We have become a party dominated by administrators rather than campaigners. They were part of the problem as to why we got into this mess. They have none of the imagination to appreciate that they were part of the problem, so they remain the problem.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Mar '16 - 11:44am

    Bill le Breton 23rd Mar ’16 – 11:18am
    So, is it your view that “the people who matter” are in the local parties continuing to take familiar actions?
    If so, the situation is different because of the 2016 referendum, different from the 1975 referendum and different from times in which there were no referendums. The future of the UK is at stake and, for what it is worth, the latest polls show a risk of exit based on expectations of differential turnout.

  • Opinion polls are saying one thing, council by-elections another. If the polls are right we will suffer more substantial losses in May, if the evidence of by-elections is a good guide then we should hold our own, with gains matching losses.

  • @richard underhill – perhaps brexiters don’t feel the need to vote UKIP as they are keeping their powder dry for the referendum? Why race out to vote for a no hope UKIP candidate on a cold rainy night when you have a strong campaigner from the Lib Dems?

    We are also not in Government and it’ll be interesting to see how we do after the last week’s Tory shenanigans. We need to batter Labour over Corbyn/McDonnell with third party voters in Conservative facing seats as well.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Mar '16 - 11:57am

    Is it not true that a lot of good local election results are based on campaigning against developments? It doesn’t sound like a recipe for a big Lib Dem revival considering plans to build 300,000 houses per year, which with mass immigration won’t even solve the housing problem.

    I don’t know if local elections are in my ward in May. I’ve searched on the Internet and I think they are but no one is campaigning. The electoral commission think we should ring someone up to see if an election is on. I’m not doing that – they should just post the elections on the Internet.

    The main thing making me want to vote Lib Dem is loyalty to this website and some other Lib Dems, but the national policy platform is going in the wrong direction, in my opinion.

    A lot of youngish people do not know where they will settle down. I don’t know which city I will be living in in 12 months – I’m not going to base my vote on community politics unless something catches my eye.

  • Matt (Bristol) 23rd Mar '16 - 12:13pm

    “I don’t know which city I will be living in in 12 months – I’m not going to base my vote on community politics unless something catches my eye.”

    Eddie Salmon has just put his finger on some key issues around youth, perceptions of ageism, and possibly why we are behind other parties (eg the Greens in this city) in key places.

    To have community politics you need to persuade people they belong to the community in your head, or more likely to succeed, find the community they already belong to in their head.

    If the community people belong to is online, you need to go there.

    The only lib dem I have seen do this really really well was the chap in Richmond (I think) who ran a record shop, who started out as an Independent.

    The video I saw of him walking around his town and explaining why he opposed Tory town planning decisions was inspiring. More of this might work.

    Most people I know don’t know what their local ward is.

  • The party has a good chance of 4th place in major Urban areas where the passion and dedication of the on the ground team will count. A plucky fight in places like Manchester Liverpool may get a healthy 4th spot but its going to be difficult. I do wish party members would see that as positive and not turn there nose up at any position that’s not first.

  • David Evans 23rd Mar '16 - 1:32pm

    Eddie The answer to your question “Is it not true that a lot of good local election results are based on campaigning against developments?” is “No, it’s not true.”

  • Bill le Breton 23rd Mar '16 - 2:14pm

    Richard, I am not quite sure of your question, but here’s a go : even local campaigning has become sclerotic. When was the last time you saw any innovation?

    But, then, in the 70s and the 80s was a time when people built a network – ALC – hard and expensive in those days – to share campaigning ideas and problems. Today it should be very much easier.

    So what I think is required is some unlearning. I am not certain, because now, no-one bothers to collect centrally examples of campaigning. ALDC sends a few people out to look at say a large council group probably with power or influence and they pick up some stuff while they were there.

    And that is not actually where you are likely to find innovation. Because those groups are forced (if they want cash) to confirm to a stereotypical campaign.

    There is no missionary zeal that I can discern. Just conformity. And actually that conformity has not been delivering for almost a decade or more. Most flexible, locally generated campaigning died away in the shires by or before 1987. Our campaigners became council leaders and became experts in administration. Our city campaigning blossomed at this time because of the severity of the task, but probably lost that verve by 2005.

    So, if we are to ‘keep afloat’ in the next couple of years, then, it will have to be through local campaigning.

    The more connected any new’pioneers’ are to each other the better – the party centrally should be doing all it can to assist that process. People need to be inspired, trained and acknowledged by the best campaigners we have. But as of now to many people think they know how to campaign and are spouting nonsense … the nonsense of an outdated formula and actually illiberal formula.

  • Glynn Quelch 23rd Mar '16 - 2:22pm

    Its not complete yet (4 more months of results left to add) but here is a map of all by-elections since May.

  • The ONLY way to battle a well organised, centrally run machine is with a better centrally run machine. The younger members, growing up in a globalised world where successful corporations run in exactly that way, seem to have an intuitive grasp of this. It’s a lesson from the wider world which public sector Liberal Democrats seem reluctant to accept. 

    Change is inevitable. The only question is how long the conservatives in the party manage to delay that change for. 

    Leaps in popularity stem from being able to sell big ideas at a national level. Just think of the surge after Nick Clegg won the TV debates. Members who have spent countless hours on local campaigns may be reluctant to hear it but Nick did more in a couple of hours than we’d collectively managed for a decade. With Nick having gained us that ground, local party activists went out and talked to the people……about completely different subjects. Inevitably, we went backwards.

  • Stephen Hesketh 23rd Mar '16 - 8:36pm

    I have wondered for some time now if we are facing something like a ‘shy Lib Dem voter’ effect.

    Instead of Liberal Democracy being seen as relevant, popular and mainstream, the woeful mishandling of our policies and their presentation during the coalition – leading to both deserved and undeserved derision – has left us with an identity issue with potentially tactically-voting Labour and Green supporters but also, I believe, a significant group of people who are likely, given minor encouragement, to come out for us on election day.

    The encouragement for this key group and perhaps a smaller number of former tactical voters, may be as simple as seeing that the Tim Farron-led Liberal Democrats have turned away from Clegg’s equidistance coalitionism and back towards our distinct message of progressive hope and Social Liberal economic policies previously popular with our core supporters and voters.

    Eddie Sammon 23rd Mar ’16 – 11:57am
    “I don’t know if local elections are in my ward in May. I’ve searched on the Internet and I think they are but no one is campaigning.”
    Eddie if you are still living in Pughport 🙂 you do have elections in May and you will have had several leaflets, Christmas cards and surveys through your letterbox since the autumn. You may need to have a word with your dog! Canvassing has also been underway in each ward for several weeks now. Whatever the result on election day, our local candidates are always very committed and dedicated to our community.

    Paul Gray 23rd Mar ’16 – 2:37pm
    Paul, wonderful, but I think you may have posted it 9 days early.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Mar '16 - 8:42pm

    Thanks Stephen. Yes I live in Kew ward now though rather than Ainsdale. I’ve been getting Focus leaflets and I was eager for the next one to see if any details about the election were on it!

    No other parties are dropping anything off though, so I suppose that is good news for you! Received our Stronger In leaflet from the Royal Mail the other day.

  • nigel hunter 23rd Mar '16 - 10:41pm

    When the result is close don’t forget to fight for every cross that is on or near the line.

  • Bill le Breton 24th Mar '16 - 7:27am

    Paul, when Nick Clegg went on a national general election debate with just two other party leaders he had behind him 60 MPs, a party reputation for trust, an ‘army’ of activists, 20% in the polls and a credible campaign about delivering a ‘new politics’.

    That is not the case now. We have lost that trust. We have lost a position of political relevance. We have lost most of our capacity.

    The question for us now is what to do next, given those conditions?

    It requires ruthless targeting of those very scare resources.

  • Since May last year I have found it difficult to remain enthused by the party. So much talk is about the fight-back. Temporarily interesting when we score well. Our new leaders are remaining resolute but it’s clearly difficult to get a hearing in the media. When we see the childish Tories in the HoC, we compare them to our business-like yet considerate ministers of yesteryear and work for a Lib Dem recovery. We pray, not one run by grey Centrists but one of enthusiastic new members with the old philosophy of Liberalism.
    We need a big campaign issue – one which resonates with our principles, yes, but more importantly one which wakes the country from its sleep-walk into further Tory mismanagement by the rich for the rich. At present they are getting away with the sleep-walk because we are not there stopping them. The big campaign issue will emerge – a campaign issue which is both honourable and galvanises millions in support of it. [‘Save the NHS’ and others might coalesce into one great campaign to rid us of Toryism of course]. Meanwhile, congratulations to our stalwarts, young and old, who are sustaining local party membership and planning a return to governing in a better way for everyone.

  • Paul Holmes 24th Mar '16 - 1:13pm

    @Paul Gray What was the ‘big surge’ you speak of -other than the brief spike in the opinion polls that had gone before polling day?

    We averaged 20% of the national vote across the 10 General Elections from Feb 1974 through to 2010. We took 22% of the vote and 62 MP’s in 2005 and 23% of the vote and 57 MP’s in 2010.

    What ‘big surge’?

  • SUSAN Sutherland 24th Mar '16 - 7:50pm

    I would ask the powers that be on LDV to contact winning candidates in local by elections and ask them to contribute a post telling us why they think their local team was successful. In some cases there may be a particular local issue but in others it may be that people are returning to vote for us where there has been a strong Lib Dem presence for several years. This would help targeting. We have always had a lower overall poll in opinion polls than we have in the seats where we are active.
    One thing that bothers me is that I think we still have a party structure that may take up too much of the activists’ time because we need to be a guerilla force to make the gains in local elections that will impact on parliamentary contests. For example surely we should have fundraising events in the summer and winter not in the months leading up to the local elections, likewise regional or citywide meetings. Even if we have a centralised campaign we still need people from surrounding areas to concentrate their effort on winning the most likely local seats. If the local election results for us are good, then we can lobby local media for coverage. I still remember the old days when voters would say they’d vote for us in local elections but not in general elections. They may say that again now but I believe we will be able to change that quite quickly in areas where we have been working hard for years.
    Now we have more and more evidence that our Lib Dem members of the Coalition were acting as a considerable brake on Tory extremism we must put that evidence onto a piece of paper and deliver it as well as using social media to get the message across. We have been here before in terms of national media coverage so don’t despair. Our party is becoming more diverse, there is a fightback going on. Find out where your nearest local elections are taking place in May and go there as much as you can to help.

  • It’s hard to see where the libdems are going to get to where they were before the coalition, considering the voters they lost were the very voters that were brutally hit by the welfare cuts during that time. The disabled and the vulnerable. We’ve had to deal with the brutal bedroom tax where thousands have been evicted from their homes and there is now a good posibility that it is unlawful and a discriminatory law. Then there’s the council tax support where the least well off in society have to pay 30% of there of the council tax from their merger subsistence benefits. These are just a few of the terrible cuts to be placed on the worst off in our society whilst the top Rate of income tax was increased from 40% to 50%. People in life don’t forgive easily and even more so don’t forget. Take the Scotts with the poll tax and the TORIES. The miners and the so called ‘scabs’ during the miners strike. I fear that the libdems in helping the TORIES introduce these cuts have lost what it took them years to build in an instant. From 58 MP’s to 6 MPs overnight your now back to the 70’s all over again and now there’s a new kid on the block UKIP a monster that lives on promoting fear and racial hatred but are arguing points that are socially just towards welfare and disability like:
    Support a lower cap on benefits
    Crack down on benefit fraud
    End welfare tourism with a five-year embargo on benefits for migrants
    Stop child benefit being paid to children who don’t live here permanently and limit child benefit to two children for new claimants
    Scrap the ‘bedroom tax’
    End unfair ATOS-style work capability assessments and return the system and funding to GPs
    Increase Carers’ Allowance to match Job Seekers’ Allowance – £572 more a year.

    I afraid the libdems lost the plot for their 15 minutes of fame and although I think it must have been nice to feel important for a while, all that has now gone and the reality of being wiped off the political map and list its core support I fear it will never recover again to where they were before the coalition. My biggest fear is we vote to leave Europe and consequently see the break up of the Union, and I’m sorry folks history will show that it’s was the decisions the libdems took whilst in coalition was the cause of it all. Break social cohesion and you destroy the very foundations on which that cohesion was formed.

  • Liberal Neil 30th Mar '16 - 9:28am

    @Bill – I generally agree with you in terms of what you think we need to do.

    I’m not sure you are up to speed with all that we are doing though.

    In my role as an ALDC Development Officer I am working with quite a range of local parties and we have been putting a significant emphasis on supporting local by-election campaigns in a wide range of places, based on exactly the logic you set out.

    We are also picking up examples of new ideas from a wide range – and there is actually a lot of innovation out there to pick up on.

    The party still has a long way to go, particularly in understanding that Federal Party HQ needs to be an enabler and supporter of campaigning (see the campaign review etc.), but it isn’t the case that there isn’t already a lot of good work going on.

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