The local elections were even better for the Liberal Democrats than they looked on paper
By Gabriel Barton-Singer
With 704 gains, and 10 new councils the Liberal Democrats had a storming night on Thursday. There are 1.1 million more people who will be governed under Lib Dem majority administrations, not to mention the likely 10 or so more councils which are likely now to be governed by Lib Dem-Green coalitions. In practical terms, in symbolic terms, in almost every sense, these elections have been great for the party. But there are three aspects to these victories which pundits have either ignored or not noticed.
The first is that the use of electoral pacts with the Greens has been incredibly successful. Especially in Oxfordshire, where the Conservatives lost South and West Oxon councils to a putative Yellow-Green coalition, the pact has delivered for both parties: gaining 14 and 5 Oxfordshire seats respectively. This was trialled last year in Richmond Park, with great effect, flipping the local council area covering Zac Goldsmith and Sir Vince Cable’s seats. Where local Green Parties have been given autonomy (although the national party is rarely thrilled) they have found natural allies in the Liberal Democrats against the strain of our First-Past-The-Post electoral system. Although the Greens did have a very good night on Thursday, the benefit of co-operation has made their success look even more widespread than it was.
If these pacts become regular and more established this will put tackling climate change back into the heart of our local government agenda. And it is not just the Greens who can refocus Lib Dem minds; coalition experience of local government alongside experienced local administrators should curb some of the Green Party’s more ‘experimental’ policy-making. The fact is that the memberships of these parties are demographically very similar and share far more in values than national manifestos would imply; this slow forming alliance brings great prospects for the future.
A second missed point relates to where the Lib Dems are winning. Some argued that we were simply reclaiming the 411 seats we had lost in 2015. Apart from the fact we almost doubled up and were quite obviously gaining in new places. Some looked back further to 2011, another mid-coalition election, and said it was these seats we were claiming back – but this was not true either. We have not controlled Chelmsford Council since the 1990s, the newly formed Somerset West & Taunton which had been formed of councils that were Tory one-party-states. What is more our vote has been incredibly concentrated. Just look at places like East Cambridgeshire, where we were just two seats off overall control; we have never run the council there and yet we were able to come from no seats to a near-majority.
These victories represent the development of a new core-vote in Tory heartlands with a new electoral base: Tory Remainers. This achievement, if cemented in general elections, poses a major threat to the Conservative ability to govern in majorities. Without seats like Richmond Park, Chelmsford, Guildford and Wantage (all of whom now have Lib Dem led local administrations) the Conservatives cannot form governments. The loss of places like Bath and Oxford West and Abingdon in 2017 should have been the canary in the mine for Conservatives, but as they continue to alienate their remain leaning voters, they create a permanent problem for themselves. This is more than merely a recovery to our rather disparate electoral base from the pre-coalition years, these are the first steps of an electoral realignment in Britain.
Finally, looking at Cambridge, it is becoming clear that we are finally getting through to Labour Remainers too. Last year in the city council elections, though we won almost all the same wards (Trumpington was lost by four votes), the margins were much, much smaller. The victory in Castle, which got a shout-out from Stephen Bush no less, saw the Lib Dem majority increase from 25 to 488. Castle, West Chesterton, Newnham, Market, and Trumpington all look unassailable for the Labour Party, where previously they were marginally held. Labour barely held on in East Chesterton, where they had an especially popular incumbent, and faced serious challenges in Petersfield and King’s Hedges (the latter of which used to be thought of as a no-go area). The most striking change was in the share of the vote city-wide. Labour dived from over 45% of the vote to just 37% to our 35%. Not only is the council obviously in contention next year following boundary changes, but the parliamentary seat is now likely to be in play as well. This is not just good news for Lib Dems in Cambridge but for Lib Dems facing Labour areas nationally – the shine is finally coming off Labour’s Brexit position and seats like Manchester Withington, Leeds North-West and Sheffield Hallam (where we now control every ward) look increasingly promising. This is not to mention that many North London seats may now be brought back into play, such as Hornsey and Wood Green or Bermondsey, all of which didn’t feature in these elections.
With previous Lib Dem local election results, advances were seen, but they had been much like the Green local election advances: widely spread and without much hope of transforming into parliamentary seats. If the new Lib Dem core vote holds up, we may find seats in Westminster fall much more quickly, easily and with a lower share of the national vote than they did in the many years of long slog under Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy.
We’re back, and it looks like it will be hard for Labour or the Conservatives to govern without us. If there is to be a General Election, somebody better warn Corbyn and May to put their pipe dream Brexits on hold; we’re not going to let it happen.