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.

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I agree broadly with this; it was a good night and it was better than expected. What it actually shows that as a party our support is solidifying and becoming cohesive and loyal and that we are not just a party of protest as we are so often dismissed. It shows our support is broad and has the potential to grow.

The question that I tried to pose in a half-cocked way elsewhere is this; how do we move beyond these areas of support into new areas. You quite rightly say that people are not convinced by the Conservatives but are totally fed-up with Labour. So, from our perspective that provides us with an opportunity doesnt it? It provides us with an opportunity to reach out to the disaffected Labour vote who are fed-up and feel abandoned by Labour but don’t want to vote Conservative and it opens up those who are open to voting Conservative but feel that they do not represent the kind of change they really want.

We have had alot of discussion on here about e-campaigning and how we can use that; it is something that could be useful in creating a Lib Dem base where currently there is none; those places where this time around our councilors were picked off.

by Darrell on May 2, 2008 at 6:37 pm. Reply #

Liberal England is coming back. In 20 years, we’ll have fully defeated the Sun and the Daily Mail and all the filth they represent.

by asquith on May 2, 2008 at 6:59 pm. Reply #

Maybe….i personally find 20 years a bit pesimistic…it is pretty clear to me that unless something radically changes the next government will be a Conservative one; that will open up the opportunity for us to constitute ourselves as the opposition force especially as Labour is likely to fragment and spend a considerable time in the hinterland.

by Darrell on May 2, 2008 at 7:07 pm. Reply #

Yes, but perhaps the liberals (both large and small l) can hold a gun to Cameron’s head, for example if he formed a minority government. In the same way that Blair and Brown have disappointed the left, we can finally see the end of the bilge coming from scum like Littlejohn and Heffer.

by asquith on May 2, 2008 at 7:14 pm. Reply #

I dont think it will be a minority government to be honest. The sentiment against Labour has two years to grow….it feels like the end and it is…we really need to position ourselves on that basis.

by Darrell on May 2, 2008 at 7:23 pm. Reply #

I wonder, who actually delivers and campaigns for Labour and Gordon Brown nowadays, sociologically speaking? They seem to be an utterly dead party led by a mumbling ditherer.

by Anax on May 2, 2008 at 9:08 pm. Reply #

Impressive spin chaps.

Ultimately the Lib Dems are 1% down on what Ming garnered in support whilst against a deeply unpopular Labour Party – I’m of the belief that currently Labour are more unpopular than they were during the Iraq conflict and it must be regarded as a blow for the Lib Dems not to have made more progress tonight.

by scottishtoryboy on May 2, 2008 at 10:24 pm. Reply #

A good election for the Tories, but if they want to form a majority government they need to take seats from the Lib Dems as well as Labour.

Colchester, Cheltenham, Eastleigh, South Lakeland and others suggest they will find it much harder than their optimistic bloggers thought.

The striking thing about this election is the resilience of the Lib Dems against this Tory surge in most of the places that matter.

by Richard Church on May 2, 2008 at 11:19 pm. Reply #

Yeah, we are constantly spinning to each other on our own website, Scottishtoryboy…

Honestly, how can you be so graceless? The article itself says you guys deserve credit for getting a result that looks like more than just an anti-Labour protest. So the fact that we’ve held on to the massive gain level we made in 2004, gained one further council and over thirty new councillors is a major achievement – most of us were expecting a squeeze and losses of up to 100 councillors.

You haven’t been hanging around in saloon bars with Jeremy Vine have you?

by Alix on May 2, 2008 at 11:20 pm. Reply #

I’m interested in the blog reporting.

The bloggers on TV did well in the slot they were given (Hi Alix ;-), but I was hoping to see more use of e.g., live streaming direct to blogs from mobile phones using services such as qik.com , interviews on Youtube and so on.

Alix – I’d be interested to know whether the Beeb imposed any editorial control on your postings to their website. My (limited) experience of working with the Beeb (Britbog Roundups) has been that they are quite open if you are in the role of an independent commentator, but nervous if they can’t make that distinction. It may be different in election reporting.

My thoughts are on the link above. More later.

Matt W

by Matt Wardman on May 2, 2008 at 11:44 pm. Reply #

Just a brief update from Yorkshire and the Humber. According to the figures in at 3pm yesterday, we had a net gain of 10 councillors and a gain of 2 councils – Hull and Sheffield. The BBC are currently running the headline ‘Lib Dems on both banks of the Humber’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/humber/7378890.stm

Thank you to all candidates, activists, supporters, voters and professional staff – brilliant result.

Franny Marritt
Chair Y&H Liberal Democrats

by Francesca Marritt on May 3, 2008 at 9:17 am. Reply #

How did we balls it up so royally in London – no, I’m not talking about the hopelessly ineffectual Paddick, but the assembly elections, where we suffered swings against us and lost two seats. Our so-called strategist and cheif excutive Lord Rennard is surely drinking in the last-chance salon of the Crewe and Nantwhich by-election…

by jim on May 3, 2008 at 10:48 am. Reply #

Jim: you can always console yourself that you were predicting a net loss of 150 seats and a vote share of 20% in the local elections, so the actual results were hugely better than you expected 🙂

by Mark Pack on May 3, 2008 at 10:57 am. Reply #

I am happy that we made a (tiny) net gain, but we cannot be satisfied. We must ALWAYS be pushing for more. And the London election performance was poor, again.

I think the big lesson from Thursday is that from now on most of our gains and our votes will be coming from labour. We should abandon our territorial fight with the Tories where we are likely to lose and hit Labour hard in their moribund areas up north, and in the south if we can.

First step, apply that to the Crewe by election- position ourselves as the party best able to help the poor, the young and the old and soak up the labour vote- we could win by a couple of hundred votes!

by matt severn on May 3, 2008 at 12:27 pm. Reply #

To say that we did “well” or “better than expected”, is frankly an understatement.

On our resources, which do not include the money of (Lord) David Sainsbury (of Turville), or (Lord) Michael Ashcroft (of Tax Haven) or (Lord) Irvine Laidlaw, we’ve done fantastically!

by Neale Upstone on May 3, 2008 at 1:29 pm. Reply #

Matt,

While the approach you advocate sounds extremely sensible, I think that you will find that the problem is that there are a large number of Lib Dem seats in the south which are straight fights against us (i.e. Tories). So poor Mr Clegg and his strategy department are caught in a bit of a bind; do you try to capitalise on the anti-government sentiment but risk compromising your seats in the South, or do you concentrate on holding on to what you have but watch support run straight from Labour to Conservative in the North. Or do you try to face both ways at once, and risk falling between two stools? It is going to be a tough decision and it will be extremely interesting to see the outcome.

by passing tory on May 3, 2008 at 1:32 pm. Reply #

Hi fellow liberal democrats.Well done all the winners. Bad luck those that lost,i did 4 years ago but life is still good! Keep on building a Liberal world.

by David Sheppard on May 3, 2008 at 2:38 pm. Reply #

It is important that we should not underrate our real advances in this year’s round of elections. As far as I can make out, we have had more councillors returned in English metropolitan districts in any comparable year since our party was founded (and even in 2004, a non-comparable year in which whole councils were up for re-election, the number of Lib Dem councillors returned was just a little lower, when divided by three, than the number that have been elected this year).
We have also done really well in a significant number of unitary authorities and district councils electing by thirds where we were defending seats which we had not won in the two previous years in the electoral cycle ; the headline result from Winchester is simply that we gained one seat there, but in fact we had 12 councillors elected this year by comparison with 4 in 2006 and 8 in 2007, and that is an excellent performance by any standards.
It is also the case that we have polled a majority of the votes in the wards making up numerous individual parliamentary constituencies, and I am sure that it would be a real tonic for our collective morale if LDV could post the figures for the constituencies involved (some distinctly unexpected !).

by Hugh P on May 3, 2008 at 4:31 pm. Reply #

Amid all the jubilation and drowning of sorrows, something in the overall spinning of this year’s results sounds hollow.

The Tories ought to be wary of patting themselves too heartily on their backs as it will be a big challenge to keep up the perception of momentum.

While we look to have consolidated under an untested new leader, who has now established himself, we have to ask: how much further can Labour fall?

If there is no new, resurgent or long dormant political movement making waves in the shires and suburbs (BNP, Greens, anyone?) this could well be the high water mark of the blue tide and the moment it begins to ebb.

by Oranjepan on May 3, 2008 at 4:31 pm. Reply #

*Clegg: previously untested

by Oranjepan on May 3, 2008 at 4:33 pm. Reply #

“We have also done really well in a significant number of unitary authorities and district councils electing by thirds where we were defending seats which we had not won in the two previous years in the electoral cycle”

In theory in the mets this should have been the easiest round to defend as you would be standing the top candidate from 2004 who, if restanding would be the most popular/best established. Of course that makes any gains against incumbents even more impressive/disastrous depending on your point of view

by Hywel Morgan on May 3, 2008 at 5:06 pm. Reply #

Hywel, point taken. Can I take the opportunity to point out that the word “than” should have appeared in my post before “in any comparable year” (just in case the meaning of the sentence in question may have seemed obscure to LDV readers).

by Hugh P on May 3, 2008 at 5:30 pm. Reply #

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