Where Do the Liberal Democrats go from here?
Since 1997, the Liberal Democrats have regularly polled a national equivalent vote share of 25-30% in local elections, a very good performance historically. What must be frustrating for them is that this has led to no real increase in the proportion of council seats which they hold (around 20% of the overall total).
This is because the Conservatives have recovered strongly in local elections over the same period. Throughout the 1980s and during the Major years, the Liberal Democrats took hundreds of council seats from the Conservatives.
By 1997, they had forced the Conservatives into third place in local government. Yet since then, the Conservatives have very largely regained the territory they lost to the Liberal Democrats when in government. Although the Liberal Democrats have made some impressive gains from Labour, they have made no headway overall.
In my view, the Liberal Democrats have no choice but to accept that the days of large gains from the Conservatives are over â€“ at least until there is another Conservative government.
They must instead concentrate their efforts against Labour, and aim to take advantage of the fact that Labourâ€™s vote share is likely to fall well below 25% in next yearâ€™s round of local elections. There must be a real prospect of their doing significant damage to Labour in its heartlands, and winning boroughs like Oldham, St. Helenâ€™s, Rochdale, and perhaps even Sheffield.
Labour currently have only about 1,600 more council seats than the Liberal Democrats, and there is a fair chance that the Liberal Democrats can push them into third place in local government by the time of the next election. At that stage, the Liberal Democrats may even be able to convert their strength at local level into strength at Parliamentary level, as they did in former Conservative strongholds in 1997.
I do not whether it is better for the Liberal Democrats to tack to the Right, and seek to win the anti-Labour vote in these areas, or to tack to the Left, and aim to pick up disillusioned Labour voters. I would welcome the views of Liberal Democrat posters on that point.
One thing that the Liberal Democrats must do is to see off the challenge from the Green Party. Both parties poll well among the urban intellectual Left, and under our first past the post system, that means they damage each otherâ€™s chances.
Itâ€™s clear that the Liberal Democrats would have had rather a good set of London results on May 5th, were it not for the fact that the Greens polled so well across the Capital.
Last nightâ€™s by-elections resulted in one gain for the Conservatives, but Labour will be pleased to have held two marginal seats.
Breckland DC – Swaffham: C 851, Lab 243, Lib Dem 189. Con hold on a huge swing.
Cumbria CC – St Johns: Lab 658, C 430. Lab Hold. A rare swing to Labour compared to 2005.
East Hertfordshire DC – Great Amwell: C 314, Lab 36, Green 26, Lib Dem 25. Con hold, in a part of the World where the Conservative vote is weighed rather than counted.
Hertfordshire CC – Knebworth Codicote: C 1759, Lab 322, Lib Dem 310, Green 133. An easy Conservative hold.
Lancaster CC – Skerton West: Lab 826, C 336, BNP 220. An easy Labour hold. The absence of an independent makes any comparison with last time difficult.
Mid Devon DC – Yeo: Lib Dem 565, C 382. Lib Dem hold.
Plymouth CC – Southway: Lab 1624, C 1517, Lib Dem 214, BNP 200, Ukip 139, Green 53. Lab hold. Labour will be extremely pleased to have held this seat, which they narrowly lost in May, although both Labour and the Conservatives sharply squeezed the Liberal Democrats in this contest.
Weymouth and Portland BC Westham West: C 436, Lab 412, Lib Dem 340, Ind 58. Con gain from Lib Dem.
Sean Fear, a Tory activist, writes a regular column on local elections.