What the 2013 local elections mean – for the Lib Dems and the next election (and beyond)

by Stephen Tall on May 3, 2013

Well, it could have been worse.

The BBC calculates that the Lib Dems have finished these local elections with the loss of a net 124 councillors, slightly better than the projected loss of 130 according to the Rallings and Thrasher model I said the results could best be judged by.

The Tories have done slightly worse (actual loss of 335 councillors compared to a projected loss of 310); while Labour has disappointed its own supprters (an actual gain of 291 councillors compared to the projected gain of 350).

There’s no doubt which party is the biggest winner: Ukip, by an Engish country mile. They have massively out-performed expectations, winning 147 councillors compared to the projected 40. Their vote share, at 23%, is almost spot-on what was predicted by that ComRes poll earlier this week.

The fact that all three parties are tonight licking their wounds makes this year’s Lib Dem losses a little easier to bear. The party has been quick to point out that it’s “strong in our held parliamentary seats”. It’s certainly true that the party’s vote share is higher where we have the benefit of an incumbent MP: we polled 30% compared to the Tories’ 27%, Ukip’s 17% and Labour’s 15%.

However, let’s not kid ourselves too much: that 30% vote share is down by one-third on where the party was four years ago. Overall, at a projected 14%, this is the worst Lib Dem local election vote, down (albeit only a little) on even the last two dire years. It’s some but only scant consolation that this is also the first election when no party at all has polled higher than 30%.

What is clearly the case is that the Lib Dems are being driven further and further back into our areas of core support. We are clinging on, as only cockroaches know how, to our bastions. That’s why today’s local elections on a uniform swing would see the party retain some 50 MPs, according to Rallings and Thrasher’s calculations for Sky News. Even in Bristol, where the Lib Dems had a disappointing day, Stephen Williams would hold on to his seat, for example.

Of course, these are local elections, not national ones. There will be a considerable churn in votes in the next two years. What today’s elections show is that the governing parties are each deeply unpopular; that Labour has failed to convince enough voters it’s a viable alternative; and that Ukip’s hearty brand of bucolic populism has disrupted the established three-way pattern of British politics. I’m actually quite surprised it’s taken this long for an explicitly anti-immigration party to make a breakthrough.

It’s hard to see Ukip winning even one seat parliamentary seat in 2015, however. So what might the long-term significance be of this electoral eruption? Two-fold, I think. First, it makes it much more likely the Tories cannot win the next election (though that doesn’t mean Labour will either). And secondly, it makes it a racing certainty that the next Tory leader, who will probably be elected in 2015 once David Cameron has resigned, will be an enthusiastic member of the Better Off Out group, campaigning for a British exit from the EU. That will put paid to any prospect of a second Lib Dem / Tory coalition. And it makes a future referendum on our EU membership (in itself quite likely) impossible to call.

The next few years are going to be interesting.

* 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.