The LDV election verdict: a good night for the Lib Dems

by Stephen Tall on May 2, 2008

I think you can sense the relief among Lib Dems today. Despite widespread predictions that the party would end up the loser of the night – both among the media and LDV readers – the Lib Dems have ended up with a net gain of both councils and councillors.

Not only that, but for only the second time in its history the Lib Dems have come second in the national projected share of the vote, with 25%. We couldn’t have hoped for much better; and we certainly feared it might be much worse.

Remember, the last time most of these Council seats were contested was in 2004, at a time when the party was riding much higher in the opinion polls than today, and the Tory party was still in the doldrums.

That year, we made a net gain of over 100 seats, and took 27% of the vote. It wouldn’t actually have been that surprising if we had slipped back a little this time – but it would certainly have been spun against us by our foes. It was clear the BBC had already filed their ‘setback for Clegg’ stories until the party’s encouraging performance spiked their guns.

Indeed, Nick has just emailed party members summarising the many successes from yesterday:

Just a note to thank everyone who helped with the election campaigns yesterday. We had a very successful night – beating Labour into third. Fighting the same set of seats as we did in 2004 at the height of the Iraq war, we’re set to have more councillors and control of more councils than we did even then.

We have gained my home city of Sheffield, as well as St Albans, Burnley and Hull. We are also the largest party and came within just one seat of gaining overall control in Oldham, Warrington and Cheltenham. And we made important gains in key seats like Derby, Colchester and Reading.

In Wales too our progress has been impressive. We’ve made gains across the country and strengthened our position as the largest party in Cardiff. The results aren’t yet in from London. But we do know that Brian Paddick and his team have done an outstanding job in flying the flag for us in that important contest.

In fact, this year’s results followed a similar pattern to last year’s: Lib Dem councillors in areas where we don’t have significant strength were picked off. But in those areas which will decide our success at the next general election – the Tory-Lib Dem battlegrounds in the south, and Labour-Lib Dem battlegrounds in the north – the party more than held its own.

Credit is due to the Tories. There’s no doubt their performance exceeded expectations; certainly I didn’t expect them to poll 44% of the national vote, and it looks like they will gain over 300 councillors. That is a strikingly good performance, and one that suggests the party really will be a serious contender for government at the next election. It’s still not clear to me that the public is convinced by the Tory party’s message. But such is their fed-upness with Labour, for the moment they’re happy to overlook their scepticism.

There were two big losers from the night: the Labour party and the BBC. For Labour, these were not simply mid-term blues: this was a wholesale rejection of a tired, grey government which looks dead on its feet. It is hard to see how they can turn this Titanic performance around; even harder to see Gordon Brown as a man brimming with energy and ideas capable of seizing back the initiative. The writing is on the wall.

For the BBC, last night perhaps marked the nadir of their election coverage – as anticipated here on LDV by PoliticalBetting.com’s Mike Smithson last month – and has attracted deserved and widespread criticism for its infantilising television coverage. (With the notable exception of the bloggers’ panel, and our own fragrant Alix Mortimer, of course). Not only did they fail to recognise Lib Dem successes until late in the day – so determined were they to run an anti-Clegg line – but they insulted the intelligence of all voters by relying on tacky and confusing gimmicks. The BBC is still covering politics as if this were the 1970s. They need seriously to re-think their approach or become a laughing-stock instead of a national institituion.

NB: Lib Dem Blogger of the Year James Graham has an excellent analysis over at the Guardian’s Comment Is Free site.