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Benchmarking the Lib Dem local election performance

April 10, 2018 2:22 PM
By Mark Pack Author, 101 Ways To Win An Election in Liberal Democrat Newswire
Mark PackThe first Thursday in May sees a big round of local elections across England (along with a few extra by-elections scheduled for that day). Most of the seats up for election were last fought four years ago, which means there will be rich pickings for anyone wanting to talk up or talk down any party. That's because you can legitimately argue over whether the best comparisons are with last year (the last big round of locals) or with four years ago (the last time most of these seats were fought). Add to that the massive decline in Ukip over the last four years, giving scope for all parties to hope to gain votes or seats from them, and it's even possible every major party will be able to talk about being a winner.

What will count as success for the Liberal Democrats? One benchmark is votes. Here we can make comparisons across the years because each year an 'equivalent national vote share' is calculated for each party. This takes the actual vote totals from each year and adjusts them to take into account the differences in seats fought so that you get figures which can be compared across the years. In fact, two different teams do this - Thrasher and Rallings and the BBC. Both tell a similar picture although their exact numbers for each party often vary a little.

The story of local elections during the coalition years (2011-15 inclusive) was of low and falling Lib Dem vote shares: 16% falling to 10%, with an average of 13% for Thrasher and Rallings (16% to 11%, 14% average for BBC). 2016 saw a small recovery - back up to 14% (15% BBC) - with a bigger recovery in 2017, taking the party up to 18% (also 18% BBC). In all the other electoral headlines last year, the fact and size of that Lib Dem vote share recovery were mostly missed (unless, ahem, you were a Lib Dem Newswire reader).

So what counts for success in 2018?
  • Under 13% (under 14% BBC): awful - back down to coalition years vote shares, and worse even than the average in those years.
  • 13%-18% (14-18% BBC) would be disappointing as that would mean slipping back on last year yet a result in this range would still be up on the coalition years to varying degrees. The Lib Dem vote share in 2014, it is worth noting, was 11% (13% BBC) so it could slip on last year and still be up on four years ago. That would have to count as disappointing - a bullet dodged, perhaps, and maybe only mildly disappointing depending on the figures. But you can't call vote share going down on last year great.
  • 19% and 22% (19-23% BBC) would be good - vote share up again although not yet back to pre-coalition levels.
  • Over 22% (over 23% BBC) would be amazing - not only a big increase in the Lib Dem vote but also back up to where the party was at a couple of times in the pre-coalition Parliament.
When it comes to seats, the starting point is to bear in mind that the party has gained seats only once in the last nine years (stretching back to include pre-coalition contests too, note - the problem with the party's slipping strength pre-dates coalition). Simply being up this year would be a good break in that trend.

If the party is down and it is a two digit fall, then when you factor in by-election gains and the gains in May 2016 it'll mean that overall the party has been flat since coalition. Worse than that and it starts to get into much more troubling territory for the party.

Thinking about the other parties, the factor that most strikes me is one people haven't been mentioning. Since 2014 there has been a swing from Labour to the Conservatives (yes, away from Labour and to the Conservatives) in the national polls. The Conservative boost at the expense of Ukip* has more than outweighed the Corbyn revival of last spring for Labour. For example, in March 2014 Labour was averaging a four-point lead over the Conservatives. In March this year, it was a half-point Conservative lead.

So could the Conservatives pull off seat gains from Labour, helped too by the fact that Labour hasn't actually managed to close the turnout gap on the Conservatives? Could the headlines be about Conservative triumph? It seems unlikely, especially given all the signs of serious Conservative meltdown in London and the shortage of Ukip seats for the Conservatives to win compared with their likely loses in some areas. And yet... at the very least, expect plenty of variation in the pattern of results around the country.

In particular, watch out for how the Conservatives fare against the Liberal Democrats across southern England including - though not only - in heavily Remain voting areas. This has been particularly fruitful territory for Lib Dem progress in council by-elections.

Yet for all the very real progress in by-elections - as one Conservative Cabinet minister told BuzzFeed, "They're definitely doing better than we've seen for a while" - as last year showed, promise in council by-elections is no guarantee of progress in the May contests. To help make that promise real, you can of course donate to the Lib Dems.

* Yes, the churn within the figures makes it rather more complicated than that. The overall pattern though is Conservatives up, Ukip down.