What will happen to the Lib Dems in Thursday’s local elections?

by Stephen Tall on April 29, 2013

Lib Dems winning hereThere are just three campaigning days left until this Thursday’s local elections taking place across much of England.*

It’ll be tough-going for the Lib Dems…

The last time these seats were fought, in 2009, was a high water-mark for the party: we polled a national equivalent vote-share of 25%. As I said in my morning-after-the-night-before round-up here, they “were, generally, pretty damn good for the Lib Dems”.

Since entering government, the party’s become used to taking a battering in local elections. As the national polls indicate, our vote share has roughly halved since the Coalition was formed. Because we poll higher in local than national elections, this means we’re likely to secure around 15-16% of the popular vote on Thursday. If that’s the case, our number of councillors will again decline.

… But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope!

On the plus-side, our governing partners are also in the polling doldrums after performing well in 2009. Mark Pack has calculated in his latest Newswire that there is a likely swing of 4% from the Conservatives to the Lib Dems. This will be important in key Lib Dem-Tory battleground areas in the south and west, such as Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Hampshire, all areas with incumbent Lib Dem MPs and areas of potential gains in 2015.

Set against that, however, is that the Lib Dems will also be fighting Labour in many seats; and the swing from Lib Dem to Labour compared to 2009 is estimated at 7%. Even if, as hoped, the party does better this year than in either 2011 or 2012, we’ll still end up losing seats to Labour as a result.

On one measure at least, the party is already down compared to four years ago. The Lib Dems are fielding an estimated 1,760 candidates at these elections — that’s 75% of the seats up for grabs. In 2009, we fielded candidates in 90% of seats. Labour (92%) and the Tories (95%) are both putting up candidates in almost all seats.

And what about Ukip?

There is of course a wild-card in this election: Ukip. They are putting up almost as many candidates as the Lib Dems, an estimated 1,727. Their national equivalent share of the vote is estimated at 11%. However, they are likely to suffer from the same problem as the Lib Dems: those votes are evenly spread. The actual number of councillors returned will, therefore, be small.

What everyone is looking at, though, is what impact their showing has on the other parties, especially the Tories. The Sunday papers’ coordinated assault on Ukip (with echoes of the attempt to deflate Cleggmania three years ago) suggests Tory HQ is worried.

What does all this mean for the scores on the doors? Of course each party will pre-spin their expectations as low as possible so that they can proclaim on Thursday night how brilliantly they’ve beaten expectations. Over at PoliticalBetting, Mike Smithson has produced a neat data-gizmo which enables us to toggle between the projected share of the vote and the likely number of seats won, according to Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher’s figures:

The bottom line

Such a result would mean the following this Thursday compared to that Thursday way back in 2009**:

    Conservative: 29% (-6%), 1,221 seats (-310)

    Labour: 38% (+16%), 528 seats (+350)

    Lib Dems: 16% (-9%), 354 seats (-130)

Ukip won just 7 council seats in 2009 and I can’t find a vote-share for them (they were blurred-in among the 18% of ‘Others’ in the parliamentary research paper on the 2009 election). It looks like they should win c.50 seats this Thursday.

Those are the figures I’ll be using as a yard-stick to measure the parties’ relative performances (with the added proviso that the Lib Dems will be focusing especially on those areas where we have MPs or which are target seats).



* Here’s the full list of where elections will be taking place:

  1. all 27 non-metropolitan county councils;
  2. all-up elections in 7 unitary authorities (Cornwall, Durham, Isle of Wight, Isles of Scilly, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire) and to a single Welsh unitary authority (Isle of Anglesey);
  3. one-third of all seats in the unitary authority of Bristol;
  4. direct mayoral elections in Doncaster and North Tyneside;
  5. 27 by-elections for seats on various other councils, including one in Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency.

** around one-third of seats have new boundaries compared to 2009, so the results aren’t actually directly comparable in this way, so take these figures with a small pinch of salt.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.