David Herdson tries to makes sense of the Lib Dem local by-election victories

David Herdson tries to makes sense of the Lib Dem local by-election victories

Why are their by-election results so out of line with their polling?

Another week, another excellent set of local election results for the Lib Dems. Two gains from the Conservatives on big swings re-emphasised the extent of party’s success in the last year, following up on the even bigger and more even more unexpected gains in Sunderland and Rotherham.

If we were being picky (and we should be), we might note that the other three by-elections on Thursday weren’t so hot: one last place and two Did Not Stands. Likewise, while they’ve put on a few points since the general election, most polls still record them in the very low double figures: up on 2015 but down on any other election since 1970. So what’s the real story? Are the Lib Dems surging under the radar or is it well-manufactured froth?

Before answering that, it’s worth looking at some telling data from the YouGov ‘favourability’ poll published a week ago, which reinforce the general trend of voting intention figures; specifically, the net ratings of the two main party leaders split by vote at the 2015 general election, and the ratings of the two main parties themselves. These are:

               Con  Lab   LD UKIP
May            +63  -44  -13  +41
Corbyn         -74   -2  -50  -69
May lead      +137  -42  +37 +110

               Con  Lab   LD UKIP
Conservatives  +70  -69  -31    0
Labour         -80  +39  -54  -81
Con Lead      +150 -108  +23  +81

Put simply, the Conservatives are viewed a good deal more favourably than Labour among the secondary parties, and May outperforms Corbyn even more strongly. These are 2015 voters, remember, but that’s a valid baseline if we’re looking forward to the next election. Furthermore, the support for May and for the Tories among her own voters is a good deal stronger than the equivalent figures for Labour, suggesting that motivation shouldn’t be a problem.

And yet despite all that, the Tories have been losing council by-elections all year, at a faster rate than Labour. What use are these motivated voters and squeezable third parties if the voters don’t turn out and the third parties win? We’ll come back to that.

Is it that the Lib Dems are riding the crest of an even bigger wave? No, it’s not. The figures for Farron and the Lib Dems are:

               Con  Lab   LD UKIP
Farron         -28  -11  +10  -50
Lib Dems       -44  -15  +48  -76

You wouldn’t think that there’s much scope for squeezing the other parties there. Farron’s ratings don’t look that bad but the scale of the negatives is mitigated by fully 52% of people across the board replying ‘Don’t Know’. His favourable to unfavourable ratio is 0.42, not much better than Corbyn’s 0.35 and way behind May’s 1.15. Similarly, while both Labour and the Tories view the Lib Dems better than their main rival, they still have a pretty negative view. Tactical voting only becomes an easy option if the vote is lent to a party viewed in a favourable light by the voter.

And yet, undeniably, week after week, gains – often spectacular gains – are being added to the Lib Dems’ total. Why? How?

One thing that I think we can say is that tuition fees and even the coalition are rapidly receding over the horizon. So much has happened in the last year that despite the fact that Clegg and Co were in government less than two years ago, it might as well have been before the last Ice Age.

But even allowing for a drop-off in toxicity – as evidenced by the numbers above, other than among UKIP voters – I wonder if the answer is hinted at in a comment on the Vote UK forum, which claimed after last week’s victories “the Bradford phone bank strikes again.”

Normally, I wouldn’t pay too much attention to what may well have been a throw-away comment, exaggerating the effect of a few people phoning up. On the other hand, perhaps the Lib Dems are making a deliberate strategy of throwing big human resource into local by-elections. There’d be good sense in it for them. If they are swamping one or two wards a week, that – combined with a drop-off in their negatives – would explain why they’re achieving such mixed results: some massive swings combined with minimal movement elsewhere. It would also explain why they are doing so much better in by-elections than in either the polls or last May’s local elections (where they only regained a seventh of the seats lost in 2012).

Why would it make sense? Because while the vast majority of the public have no idea about council by-elections, the question is of quality not quantity. Some people do pay attention. More specifically, people who matter to them pay attention: other politicians and political journalists. The Lib Dems virtually disappeared from the media after 2015. Making council election gains on a weekly basis gets them noticed by the gatekeepers to the media and, they might hope, is their pass back to being taken seriously again.

So no, I don’t think the polls are wrong, despite a very poor night for the Conservatives on Thursday. Too much points the other way. Following on, I don’t expect the Lib Dems to do terribly well in May though no doubt here’ll be some success. I do, however, expect them to keep making council by-election gains and, perhaps, spring the odd surprise in parliamentary by-elections too. Given Nuttall’s problems, I’d keep an eye on Stoke.

David Herdson

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