What will happen to the Lib Dems in Thursday’s local elections?

Lib Dems winning hereThere are just three campaigning days left until this Thursday’s local elections taking place across much of England.*

It’ll be tough-going for the Lib Dems…

The last time these seats were fought, in 2009, was a high water-mark for the party: we polled a national equivalent vote-share of 25%. As I said in my morning-after-the-night-before round-up here, they “were, generally, pretty damn good for the Lib Dems”.

Since entering government, the party’s become used to taking a battering in local elections. As the national polls indicate, our vote share has roughly halved since the Coalition was formed. Because we poll higher in local than national elections, this means we’re likely to secure around 15-16% of the popular vote on Thursday. If that’s the case, our number of councillors will again decline.

… But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope!

On the plus-side, our governing partners are also in the polling doldrums after performing well in 2009. Mark Pack has calculated in his latest Newswire that there is a likely swing of 4% from the Conservatives to the Lib Dems. This will be important in key Lib Dem-Tory battleground areas in the south and west, such as Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Hampshire, all areas with incumbent Lib Dem MPs and areas of potential gains in 2015.

Set against that, however, is that the Lib Dems will also be fighting Labour in many seats; and the swing from Lib Dem to Labour compared to 2009 is estimated at 7%. Even if, as hoped, the party does better this year than in either 2011 or 2012, we’ll still end up losing seats to Labour as a result.

On one measure at least, the party is already down compared to four years ago. The Lib Dems are fielding an estimated 1,760 candidates at these elections — that’s 75% of the seats up for grabs. In 2009, we fielded candidates in 90% of seats. Labour (92%) and the Tories (95%) are both putting up candidates in almost all seats.

And what about Ukip?

There is of course a wild-card in this election: Ukip. They are putting up almost as many candidates as the Lib Dems, an estimated 1,727. Their national equivalent share of the vote is estimated at 11%. However, they are likely to suffer from the same problem as the Lib Dems: those votes are evenly spread. The actual number of councillors returned will, therefore, be small.

What everyone is looking at, though, is what impact their showing has on the other parties, especially the Tories. The Sunday papers’ coordinated assault on Ukip (with echoes of the attempt to deflate Cleggmania three years ago) suggests Tory HQ is worried.

What does all this mean for the scores on the doors? Of course each party will pre-spin their expectations as low as possible so that they can proclaim on Thursday night how brilliantly they’ve beaten expectations. Over at PoliticalBetting, Mike Smithson has produced a neat data-gizmo which enables us to toggle between the projected share of the vote and the likely number of seats won, according to Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher’s figures:

The bottom line

Such a result would mean the following this Thursday compared to that Thursday way back in 2009**:

    Conservative: 29% (-6%), 1,221 seats (-310)

    Labour: 38% (+16%), 528 seats (+350)

    Lib Dems: 16% (-9%), 354 seats (-130)

Ukip won just 7 council seats in 2009 and I can’t find a vote-share for them (they were blurred-in among the 18% of ‘Others’ in the parliamentary research paper on the 2009 election). It looks like they should win c.50 seats this Thursday.

Those are the figures I’ll be using as a yard-stick to measure the parties’ relative performances (with the added proviso that the Lib Dems will be focusing especially on those areas where we have MPs or which are target seats).



* Here’s the full list of where elections will be taking place:

  1. all 27 non-metropolitan county councils;
  2. all-up elections in 7 unitary authorities (Cornwall, Durham, Isle of Wight, Isles of Scilly, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire) and to a single Welsh unitary authority (Isle of Anglesey);
  3. one-third of all seats in the unitary authority of Bristol;
  4. direct mayoral elections in Doncaster and North Tyneside;
  5. 27 by-elections for seats on various other councils, including one in Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency.

** around one-third of seats have new boundaries compared to 2009, so the results aren’t actually directly comparable in this way, so take these figures with a small pinch of salt.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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26 Comments

  • Alex Macfie 29th Apr '13 - 9:05am

    We might be faring better if our PEBs had focused on our LOCAL record. Doing PEBs on our record in national government legitimises the idea of voting in these elections on national issues, which means us taking a battering.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 29th Apr '13 - 9:18am

    And don’t forget the Melrose and Leaderdale by-election in the Scottish Borders, too. The Liberal Democrat candidate is John Paton-Day and a spirited campaign is being run.

  • “Doing PEBs on our record in national government legitimises the idea of voting in these elections on national issues, which means us taking a battering.”

    It does seem a peculiar strategy. Presumably the idea was to try to neutralise the negative influence of some national issues by meeting the problem head on. But you don’t really achieve that by selecting different national issues where there isn’t perceived to be a problem, and talking about them instead. Indeed, you may achieve the worst of both worlds – drawing people’s attention to national issues without answering the criticisms of the national party.

  • I have thought for sometime that the Lib Dems might well manage net gains on Thursday. Even Ian Dale is on that wavelength now:
    http://iaindale.com/posts/2013/04/28/the-real-winners-on-thursday-could-be-the-libdems

  • Do not pay so much attention to Rallings and Thrasher.

  • paul barker 29th Apr '13 - 1:48pm

    Rallings & Thrasher have a fairly good record on The Locals. Essentially they are saying that we will get the same sort of vote-share we got in the last 2 years, that feels reasonable to me. We are being punished for being in government, just like The Tories & like Labour in the past.
    We have to remember that performance in The Locals is a very poor rpredictor of how Parties get on in General Elections. Our particular problem is that we cant compare our performance to the last time we were in Power at Westminster.
    On The PPB, its a dilemma, few of the people who watch it will vote on thursday & most of those who will vote will miss it. The whole idea of a National broadcast that has to say something about Local issues is a contradiction in terms, inevitably Party HQ get blamed for being too local & not local enough.

  • David Evans 29th Apr '13 - 3:06pm

    I fear anyone who thinks we will make net gains on Thursday is on too many happy pills, I think Rallings and Thrasher’s objectivity will be much closer to the facts when they emerge on Friday.

  • Roger Hayes 29th Apr '13 - 3:45pm

    this is poor psephology from Rallings and Thrasher – for Labour to make 350 gains on Thursday they will have to win every single seat in the country where they came second in 2009 and then still take a goodly number of seats in addition from third place – oh look low flying pigs …

  • Joseph Donnelly 29th Apr '13 - 4:44pm

    @Roger Hayes

    I can think of several examples in Lancashire where I would be very surprised not to see Labour come from 3rd place to take a seat off the Tories.

  • Peter Watson 29th Apr '13 - 4:55pm

    @Roger Hayes “for Labour to make 350 gains on Thursday they will have to win every single seat in the country where they came second in 2009 and then still take a goodly number of seats in addition from third place – oh look low flying pigs …”
    You’re not playing the game, Roger! 🙂
    The only way we can accuse Labour of failing to do well enough is by setting a high threshold for them.

  • I would expect UKIP to win about 175 seats on Thursday. Their breakthrough is going to be the story by the end of Friday. I’m sure there are decent (misguided) UKIP members, but unfortunately their success is going to subtly legitimise unpleasant traits in our society which have become unacceptable to express over recent years. That is not to suggest that UKIP policies are racist, misogynistic and homophobic per se, but…..

  • tony dawson 29th Apr '13 - 9:47pm

    @Paul Barker:

    “The whole idea of a National broadcast that has to say something about Local issues is a contradiction in terms”
    The idea of the Lib Dems producing a half decent election broadcast may be a contradiction in terms. But it is hardly rocket science to produce a decent nationwide broadcast focusing on common local themes.

  • Please note that a number of councils are reducing the number of seats – in Oxfordshire from 74 to 63 for example. All aggregate results must be corrected for this. All boundaries have been re-drawn here, many of our previous seats are now much more marginal versus the Tories … UKIP is definitely on the rise here.

  • UKIP will do better than the projected national polls suggest – they are recepticles for the protest vote. In my area there are loads of UKIP posters. Knowing some of their candidates they are clearly not choosing people who would be “good” councillors but anyone who happened to join up. I thought they would have a uniform 15-20% of the vote, but I think in some safe wards they could mop up the opposition votes and break through to win.

  • andrew purches 30th Apr '13 - 9:41am

    Peter.Tyzack is probably right, we can only wait and see. What I have gleaned on the doorstep and in the wider community down here in self satisfied,rich and comfortable West Sussex is an overall ” why bother” attitude to voting. If the overall number of votes caste this time round exceeds 25%, I will be surprised. Apart from a belief in a general level of self confidence in local matters, we Lib Dems have very little to offer voters having been hogtied by Westminister, and can only pick away at what is left on the table. My real despair though is our total inability to take advantage of this poll to fight locally against the whole mishmash of the forthcoming Scot’s Independence referendum next year, which will destroy everything that we stand for if the people north of the border vote to break away. If that happens, then we will be stuck with a right wing English government for years to come, being an amalgum of rightish Tories and Ukip. And then, God help us.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Apr '13 - 9:54am

    Alex Macfie

    We might be faring better if our PEBs had focused on our LOCAL record. Doing PEBs on our record in national government legitimises the idea of voting in these elections on national issues, which means us taking a battering.

    I’m wondering if the real plan from the leadership is the other way round – these PEBs aren’t to help us win votes, but so that, as with the Eastleigh by-election, Clegg and the Cleggies can claim that votes gained by local work are an endorsement of the national leadership and its tactics rather than gained in spite of it.

    These elections are very skewed geographically, not many contests where Labour is strong, large numbers where politics is still LibDems v. Tories. I’ve now heard from a number of people I know living in such places who were sympathetic to the LibDems but had become very anti-LibDem in the past three years lines such as “Well, they’ve got a good local candidate here, and it’s either them or the Tories, so I probably will vote LibDem”. Such people would not have show up in recent opinion polls as LibDem. UKIP is likely to take more votes that would otherwise be Tory than votes that would otherwise be LibDem, so that will be an additional factor pushing up LibDems seats even though not LibDem votes.

    The danger for the LibDems would be a revival of the Labour vote in areas which have become Conservative v. LibDem. If there’s a significant shift of LibDem votes to Labour in such places, that’s very bad news for the party.

  • robert sayer 30th Apr '13 - 10:31am

    As a Lib Dem campaigner for close on 50 years, I think some of you newer converts need to understand more about the voters.
    They are split between those who listen and make judgements on their local experience of a party and those who” alwaysvote” for a party without thought or concern. Local leafletting is able to bring people on board from the first batch etc but PPBs are attempting to engage the other group. Our Tax policy ,which is very popular allows for us to demonstrate there is a benefit in voting for us. As a Council Leader in days gone by we increased our numbers from 8 to 31 by local actions, despite being low in the opinion polls and with a paucity of MPs…where you work you win is a fair mantra and the difference between us and the other two parties .. in Kent, the first decision of the Tory party in 2009 was to raise their allowances by 10%, in Canterbury this year the Tories whilst moaning about central government grants raised their allowances .UKIP like every fringe party before them will wax then wane as scrutiny increases…Keep working lads thye best is yet to come

  • Peter Chapman 30th Apr '13 - 12:07pm

    How we do on Thursday will be down to one thing
    How good local parties are at going back to the basic principle of targeting resources ruthlessly and fanatic hard work
    Over the 30 years I have been a councillor we have won seats with big majorities when we were at 8% or less in the opinion polls
    We last monthly won a bye election with a swing away from Labour to us and increased our vote share
    it was down to one thing local work and ring-fencing your ward as much as possible from the national parties performance!

  • My gut instinct is that the Lib Dem vote has bottomed out. These elections effect county council seats so will tell you more about how the Tories are doing than how this party or labour are fairing. As an East Midlander I do suspect Labour will take control of Nottingham and possibly Darby. If the UKIP vote is strong, the Lib Dem’s could gain some seats from vulnerable conservatives. So it might be a mixed bag of wins and losses.

    If the Conservatives lose more than 300 or so counsellors it spells big problems for Cameron. It”s worth remembering that in the long haul Labour need fewer gains to win a general election and that even popular governments rarely improve on their vote in power.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Apr '13 - 1:16pm

    robert sayer

    As a Lib Dem campaigner for close on 50 years, I think some of you newer converts need to understand more about the voters

    As I’ve only been a member of the party and one of its predecessors for 35 years maybe you’d count me as a newcomer, but I’m not a convert, I was never a member of any other party. If you think I’m not a long-standing enough member to be able to criticise the decision to make a PPB which is supposed to be about local elections all about policy which is national government policy, you might note Tony Greaves was also very critical of it.

    They are split between those who listen and make judgements on their local experience of a party and those who” alwaysvote” for a party without thought or concern. Local leafletting is able to bring people on board from the first batch etc but PPBs are attempting to engage the other group.

    So, what is wrong with making a national appeal based on good examples of what we are doing locally in various places? Our party has the problem that it has very few who always vote for it, and also that its national image tends to be over-dominated by its leader. If we are to build up a broader national support, we do need to get away from the idea many have, particularly those who don’t follow local politics, that it’s just a fan club for its leader. So a PPB for a national audience which presents other aspects of it might help.

    In addition, right now, our leader and the national image he is portraying are not very popular. Where we are winning locally, it is where we are campaigning locally, and the people coming out for us are doing so because of that local campaigning. A PPB which reinforces that is likely to be more helpful than a PPB which reminds people of our unpopular national leader and makes it look like a vote for a local candidate is an endorsement of him.

    Finally, I am sorry, but I do have a sense of what is right and what is wrong, and to me if you are given free time on television paid for by public money to put your case for a vote in the local elections, the local elections are what you should talk about in that time. If you use that time to talk about something else – which the LibDem PPB did – that is using public money for an intention other than it was given for, and to me that is morally wrong.

  • How many people watch a Party Political broadcast, by the time it was held half had probably voted by post anyway.
    When a PPB comes on I turn off, whichever party it is.

  • Aaron Trevena 3rd May '13 - 6:15am

    It’s funny you should mention Cornwall – it’s historically been regarded as a safe lib dem region, of course that means we’ve been taken for granted for a long time, so hardly surprising that the liberal democrats have been losing council seats and MPs at every election for the last 8 years.

    I think Nick Clegg and the westminster bubble have managed to totally disenfranchise local liberal democrat support – local activists didn’t bother leafletting my ward, I’m not even sure we have a candidate at either parish or local level, so if the lib dems get a kicking, for all the “oh, that’s the price of being in power” excuses, I hope those at the top may reconsider their attitude the party grassroots and stop ignoring the coalition agreement, conference policy and party policy as they have done with all the big-ticket legislation this parliament such as NHS privatisation, Welfare system cuts/demonisation (reform is too positive word to use), and secret courts

  • Peter Watson 3rd May '13 - 8:27am

    “It looks like they [UKIP] should win c.50 seats this Thursday.”
    We’re only a fraction of the way to the results and they already have 42 seats.
    It was interesting to hear Simon Hughes dismiss UKIP as a 3rd party since we have more seats on a lower share of the vote than UKIP. Who wants proportional representation now!?

  • Peter Watson 3rd May '13 - 6:20pm

    “Those are the figures I’ll be using as a yard-stick to measure the parties’ relative performances”
    Conservative: 1,221 seats (-310) Actual -1116
    Labour: 528 seats (+350) Actual – 538
    Lib Dems: 354 seats (-130) Actual – 352
    Apart from underestimating UKIP’s performance it looks like the predictions were pretty good for the other parties.

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