What to make of 4th June’s local elections in England, how to sum it up? The clichés are easy: a mixed bag, a curate’s egg, et bloody cetera. The reality is simpler, in my view: Thursday’s local elections were, generally, pretty damn good for the Lib Dems. That’s not to gloss over the disappointments – and, yes, there most definitely were some (of which more, later) – but nor should those setbacks allow us to discount the very clear successes which were achieved either.
Let’s start with the good:
1. The Liberal Democrats came second, with a nationally projected vote according to the BBC, of 28%, compared to the Tories 38% and Labour’s 23%. This is the joint highest popular vote ever recorded by the Lib Dems in a set of local elections, beating the 27% recorded in both 1994 (when the Ashdown-led party was at its post-Eastleigh, pre-Blair high water-mark) and 2004 (when the Kennedy-led party was at its post-Iraq high water-mark), and equalling the party’s 2005 local election vote share, held on general election day.
2. Not only has the party equalled the projected share of the vote it received in 2005, when these seats were last contested, it is up on last year’s excellent 27% – meaning the Lib Dems are the only party to have maintained/improved our projected share of the vote when compared either to last year, or 2005.
3. The Lib Dems took control of Bristol, winning 15 of the 23 seats up for election. This means four of the UK’s biggest cities – Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Bristol – now have majority Lib Dem councils. Lib Dems made gains from the Tories in the south, in Essex, Surrey, Hertfordshire, East and West Sussex Leicestershire and Norfolk. In addition, the party gained from Labour in Bristol and Burnley and across the whole of the North and Midlands.
4. The Lib Dems increased our number of councillors in the following areas: Bristol, Warwickshire, Lancashire, Essex, Surrey, Hertfordshire, East Sussex, West Sussex, Cumbria, Worcestershire, Isle of Wight, Suffolk and Bedford.
5. The Lib Dems have had, at time of writing, 439 councillors elected in this set of elections (with four councils still to report) – this compares to Labour’s 159. In other words, almost three times as many Lib Dem councillors were elected on 4th June than councillors from the governing party.
And now let’s deal with the bad:
1. We lost control of two councils where we had majority control: Devon and Cornwall. We also experienced poor results in Somerset, where the Tories gained majority control from a minority Lib Dem administration in a hung council. (Incidentally, the BBC continues, with wilful inaccuracy, and despite protests from Lib Dem HQ, to refer to this as a Tory gain from the Lib Dems. They are wrong. It is not. It is a Tory gain from No Overall Control, just as the Lib Dem victory in Bristol is from No Overall Control, even though we ran the city as a minority administration).
2. Looking at those three councils, the party lost 19 seats in Devon, nine in Somerset, and the Cornwall transition to unitary status saves our blushes of having a large minus figure next to that authority. At time of writing, the Lib Dems are showing a net loss of eight seats in these elections: 27 losses were concentrated in Devon and Somerset.
3. The Lib Dem vote share in those three areas was also down. In Devon, for example, the Lib Dems polled 37% in 2005 and just 30% this year; meanwhile the Tories edged up from 38% to 42% – that’s a swing from Lib Dems to Tories of just over 5%. Which is substantial, though not perhaps as dramatic as the headline loss of seats suggests. In Cornwall, the Lib Dems trailed the Tories by 28% to 34% – again, a loss, but one which qualifies as worrying rather than catastrophic.
4. I don’t know the local circumstances well enough in those three areas, but I imagine some combination of the usual factors applied to the losses: a breakdown in party discipline; some bad/unpopular council decisions; poor and limited campaigning; councillors starting to represent the council to their voters, rather than the other way around; boundary changes; anti-incumbency protests; reduced turnout compared with the general election; the combination of local elections with European elections bringing out Ukip voters (especially in the south-west); the appeal of independent (and Green) local candidates to Lib Dem-inclined voters. Some Lib Dem groups – eg, Liverpool, Eastleigh, Sutton – manage to retain majority control beyond one election, so there is nothing inevitable about an anti-incumbency swing; but Lib Dem council groups do seem more than ordinarily vulnerable to the syndrome.
5. The unknowable factor in all this is how far such local council verdicts will extrapolate into Westminster voting intentions? For instance, independents and Mebyon Kernow scored more than one-quarter of the vote in Cornwall – it’s hard to see that happening in a general election, so where will those votes go? And of course in a general election, Lib Dems tend to be more reliant than other parties’ candidates on a personal ‘incumbency’ vote. Maybe that trend will be another casualty of the MPs’ expenses row. But residents are more likely to hold their own local (Lib Dem) MP in high esteem than other MPs in general.
So there you have it: five reasons for viewing 4th June’s local election results as a triumph; five reasons for looking at them with furrowed brow. On the whole, by and large, and taking everything into account, I think we can allow ourselves a slightly rueful smile of pleasure.