What do the local elections tell us about Lib Dem prospects?

When it comes to local election results, punditry usually heads in one of two directions. Either the local elections will be held up as an ironclad prediction for the next general election result or they are an utter irrelevance which tells you nothing about how people will vote in national elections.

Strangely, which of the two positions punditry tends towards seems to be very much linked to whether the local elections have been bad or good for the party backed by the pundit in question.

As you might expect, of course, the truth lies somewhere in between – and the data can actually tell us something useful about Liberal Democrat prospects at the next general election, whenever that may be.

For decades various teams of political scientists have been working out National Equivalent Vote Shares (NEVS) based on local election results. That is, they take the raw figures and make adjustments to take account of the fact that local elections take place in different parts of the country each year (for instance, most of the councils which had elections in May this year won’t have elections again until 2022).

This means that the NEVS is, broadly speaking, a reliable snapshot of support for each party UK-wide at the time of the local elections.

However, this does not mean that a NEVS is the same thing as how the party will perform in a general election. In the case of the Lib Dems, we have routinely underperformed our NEVS from the previous year in a general election.

The table below shows the Lib Dem performance in each of the past six general elections as well as our NEVS in the year before’s local elections. As can be seen, typically the Lib Dem vote has dropped by 1 to 7 points between the local election and the general election – and the two general elections with the lowest drop were dominated by the Iraq War and Cleggmania respectively, making them fairly atypical.

GE Result Year Before’s NEVS Difference
1997 17% 24% -7
2001 19% 26% -7
2005 23% 27% -4
2010 24% 25% -1
2015 8% 13% -5
2017 7% 14% -7


So, given that the typical drop has been 6 or 7 points, what does this tell us about Lib Dem prospects at the next general election?

Well, in the May 2017 local elections we got a NEVS of 16% which would typically mean that we’d expect to get around 10% if there was a general election in 2018 – though incidentally our NEVS for by-elections last month was 20%.

What 10% would mean in terms of seats is very much dependent on how well the other parties do, but a very rough and ready prediction on ElectoralCalculus.co.uk shows that translating to around 18 seats – a net gain of +6 on our current 12.

Interestingly, the specific seats that Electoral Calculus show as falling to us are all very plausible gains based on how close we came in them at the last general election: Cheltenham, Richmond Park, St Ives, Fife North East, Sheffield Hallam and Ceredigion.

However, these also show the extent of the real problem facing the Liberal Democrats. If all of those are gained at the next general election then there are very few remaining seats with strong second places left which could be plausible targets at the subsequent general election.

North Devon, Cheadle, Leeds North West, Lewes, St Albans, Southport, Wells and Hazel Grove are about it before you start looking at swings of more than 7% being needed to be able to gain the seat. Some of those will likely find it much harder to achieve the necessary swing than others and even if, by some miracle, we gained all of them we’d still be left with a paltry 26 seats – still smaller than the SNP.

This then is the real challenge for the Liberal Democrats at the next election: not to gain seats, but to gain many more close second places. If we can’t manage that then any recovery for the party is likely to be very slow indeed.

* George Potter is a councillor in Guildford

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Warren 4th Dec '18 - 1:35pm

    The problem is unless we get reform of the voting system then we are always going to hit a ceiling.

    In February 1974 the Liberal vote surged but the party still only got 14 seats across the UK.

    Our best hope is another hung parliament after the next General Election and if we along with other parties committed to PR can get the change that is needed then great.

    As far as the local elections next May are concerned I think we can do well.

    The last time these seats were up was in 2015 which was a terrible year for the Liberal Democrats so I confidently predict gains in 2019.

  • Peter Martin 4th Dec '18 - 2:20pm

    @ David Warren,

    ” The problem is unless we get reform of the voting system then we are always going to hit a ceiling. ”

    Not necessarily. The voting system, imperfect as you might think it is, rewards parties that exceed a certain threshold. You just haven’t reached that threshold. If you haven’t you have to ask yourselves why you haven’t.

    How about some new policies?

    I’d suggest going for a radical program of guaranteed full employment for all with an emphasis on providing a good NHS and education service. We used to have that in the postwar period, so it can be done and at the same time deliver growth and a successful economy. You can renationalise a few things if you like but that’s not essential. You wouldn’t be advocating recreating the GDR in the UK and there’d be nothing that was incompatible with traditional Liberal/Social Democratic values.

  • paul barker 4th Dec '18 - 2:35pm

    An average of the last 50 Opinion Polls puts us around 9%, still below what we were getting at the peak of our last Recovery, in April 2017. During the current Recovery we have been going up by an extra 1% every 5 or 6 Months; its painfully slow & another Snap Election might well set us back again.
    Sorry if that sounds a bit gloomy but its all of a piece with the present logjam in British Politics. The next few Weeks & Months may see the ice breaking up, we will have to wait & see.

  • George, this is a very interesting article which sets out what lots of us already knew – we do better in local elections than in general elections. I will try to remember that the difference is most likely to be 7%.

    With regard to the problem of second places, again you have stated something that many of us knew than since 2015 we have few second places. In 2015 we had 63 second places; in 2017 only 38. It would be interesting to know how many second places we had after each election. I would be particularly interested in 1979 and 1992. In 1983 we made about 12 seats (net) gains and in 1997 we gained 30 and lost 2 from the 1992 result.

  • David Warren 4th Dec '18 - 3:16pm

    @Peter Martin

    Agree with you on full employment, NHS and Education.

    I would add to that Social Care which I believe should be covered by the NHS.

    Rail and Water would be good candidates for any renationalisation programme.

    A radical Liberal programme to capture the nations attention is what is needed.

  • nigel hunter 4th Dec '18 - 3:54pm

    As well as all the above,new policies, gaining 2nd places etc., recruitment of activists and volunteers (those who deliver leaflets write, address envelopes and so on) must be a constant and valued. In the down periods effort should be put in to hold these people.

  • I think this assessment is a little too gloomy. What George does not take into account is the phenomenon of “bounce back”. By “bounce back” I am referring to the ability of a political party that has suffered a crushing defeat to recover within the space of one, two or three elections. The Tories bounce back routinely, particularly after losing Parliamentary by-elections. Christchurch and Ripon are classic examples. And in 2015 they bounced back in most of the seats that they had previously lost to us. The Liberal Democrats and their predecessors have also bounced back on occasions. North Cornwall and North Devon were both lost in 1979 but regained in 1992.

    So how does all that help? Let me explain. The 2017 General Election saw an overall slight drop in the Lib Dem vote share, but in certain constituencies there was a substantial increase. Consider the following:

    Richmond Park +25.8%
    Bath +17.6
    OXWAB +14.8%
    Twickenham +14.8%
    St Albans +13.9
    Kingston & Surbiton +10.3%
    Winchester +10.1%
    St Ives +9.4%
    Norfolk North +9.3%
    North Devon +8.6%
    Cheltenham +8.2%

    Yet, in a majority of formerly held seats the vote share actually went down on 2015.

    The trick must surely be to replicate in other seats (and in particular formerly held seats) what was achieved in the 11 listed above. OK, Richmond Park followed a Parliamentary by-election, and St Albans never actually has been a held seat, so neither is quite within the bounce back model, but both results are still well against the national trend. What made the difference? Europe clearly played a big part in most cases, as did a history of strong local government performance. And, indeed, well-known candidates. But not in all cases. What is that added magic ingredient that turns failure into success?

    On the less optimistic side, there are formerly held seats that have not even selected candidates as I write and are delivering below par local government performances.

  • marcstevens 4th Dec '18 - 4:41pm

    Rail and water definitely, I would look at energy too. Another sector where prices are too high to the benefit of the Chief Execs etc. Include Social care with a particular emphasis on the elderly who are very much neglected when it comes to care and residential homes, if you’re not in council housing the costs are extortionate. I also feel there should be sort of funeral grants and it should be party policy to aid families struggling to pay the ever increasing costs of funerals or perhaps create a nationalised funeral service.

  • John Marriott 4th Dec '18 - 4:46pm

    Without some form of PR the chances of a third, or even fourth party making significant progress in terms of seats are remote. I admire Messrs Martin’s and Warren’s chutzpah; but surely they should realise that word words from within their comfort zone are just not enough.

  • @Sesenco – the good vote increases in a small number of seats coupled with a larger reduction in second places must be the expected result of the hyper targeting of seats that the party did in 2017. It gained us a handful of extra seats at the likely cost of future bounces being smaller.

  • Here in the former Lib Dem heartlands of the westcountry, tactical voting (Labour to Lib Dem) prior to and in GE2010 artificially boosted Lib Dem votes and seats. The unwinding of this in GE2015/2017 was a key factor. Additionally effective forced tactical voting from Ukip to Conservative in GE2017 (due to No Ukip candidates) resulted in even bigger Tory majorities. A good example of this was in Yeovil in 2017 when Ukip did not stand and formally endorsed the Tory. The net result was that the Ukip vote went from 8000 to 0 and the Tory vote went up by 8000. These are additional reasons that there are less close 2nd places. In future GEs I would expect a degree of “bounce back” in Lib Dems favour (would help if UKIP to put up candidates again).

  • Lorenzo Cherin 5th Dec '18 - 1:20am

    The article does not relate to reality in our politics, now, in one sense only, it is possible so much is going to change with parties, no election is taken as based on theory or previous ones, the Tories, Labour, this party, might have different personnel in charge, might split and reform, one dos not know.

  • Martin Land 5th Dec '18 - 7:56am

    My problem is that much of this statistical analysis is deeply flawed. Our low vote share in the last two General elections is due, in part, to our HQ’s decision to ruthlessly target, abandoning large swathes of the country leading to good second places becoming third places and deposits lost.

  • Graham Evans 5th Dec '18 - 8:32am

    @marcsstevens While the salaries of CEOs of former national ised industries are bad PR, there impact on prices is pretty negligible. The main reason water charges have risen is because of substantial investment, plus the enhanced profit margin which investors expect. Under direct Government control investment in improving the water infrastructure was always way down the list of government priorities. For the energy sector the situation is more complex because, unlike water, it is less of a natural monopoly, and there is a degree of competition both in generation and distribution. Nationalising the industry would not necessarily produce savings for consumers overall, and could actually prevent new entrants to the market. Lastly, the railways are simply a mess. The infrastructure is already essentially nationalised and some if the recent problem are actually due to failures on the part of Network Rail. There might be a case for replicaring the structure of TfL in other parts of the country for bus and local commuter services, while having a single operator controlling main line servicrs.

  • Graham Evans 5th Dec '18 - 8:34am

    @ Sorry about the typing errors.

  • nvelope2003 5th Dec '18 - 9:41am

    David Warren: Network Rail was nationalised in September 2014 and the train operators have been brought under tighter state control since 2016. This period has been a disaster. The Rail Review and the need to cancel HS2 because of huge cost increases will be enough change for the moment.

    The BBC political reporters are saying that the present party system is broken because both the large parliamentary parties are irretrievably split – the Conservatives by Brexit and Labour by Corbyn. Both groups hate each other. They are saying that new groupings are now inevitable. We shall see.

  • Peter Watson 5th Dec '18 - 10:13am

    “typically the Lib Dem vote has dropped by 1 to 7 points between the local election and the general election”
    Perhaps another feature of past performance that might be a cause for concern is that apart from 2011 (coalition) and 1988 (merger) the Lib Dem national equivalent vote share usually bounces back the year after a General Election but in 2018 it fell from 18% to 14%.

  • Peter Watson 5th Dec '18 - 12:45pm

    As an update to my last post, I’d not remembered that the 2017 local elections were held before the 2017 general election so we have:
    11% in 2014 local elections (I believe the article quotes the 2013 figure)
    8% in 2015 general election
    14% in 2016 local elections
    18% in 2017 local elections
    8% in 2017 general election
    14% in 2018 local elections
    so there was a bit of a bounce back after the 2017 general election.
    Also, if one considers the local elections immediately before the 2017 general election the drop is even bigger than if one looks at 2016.

  • Not sure how accurate these LE share of vote projections are since the facts tell us that LE2018 were much more successful than LE2017. In 2017 there was a net loss of councillors and no councils gained. In 2018 there was a net gain of councillors (more than Labour once late results from Southwark declared) and a gain of 3 councils and none lost.

  • Peter Watson 5th Dec '18 - 4:16pm

    @Mike Read “Not sure how accurate these LE share of vote projections are”
    I think they try to correct for the different composition of seats up for election each year, e.g. a high proportion of leafy suburban seats one year and a low proportion the next might give a misleading impression of the direction of travel for Lib Dems if only the “raw” results are considered.
    Also, I guess it gives a relatively consistent measure of performance from year-to-year. Directly comparing gains/losses in local election results between years is not very meaningful and means that triumphalist claims that 2018 delivered the “best results in 15 years” seem a bit odd when those same results can also be described as “underwhelming” (http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/liberal-democrats-2018-local-elections-performance/).

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