Saturday, 6 June 2009

On the 2009 local election results

There are two arguments about the Liberal Democrats’ performance at the local elections.  One is about votes and the other is about seats.

The party’s biggest achievement on Thursday, as noted by Stephen Tall, was to win 28 per cent of the (projected) national equivalent vote, which put us in second place.

Professor John Curtice, writing in today’s Independent, is less convinced.

". . . Nick Clegg has less progress to celebrate than he might have liked. At 28 per cent of the projected national vote the Liberal Democrats was up on the 25 per cent it secured last year. Even so, it was still no better than its local performance in 2005 [the last time the same seats were contested]."

Assuming that the 28 per cent figure stacks up in the final number-crunch, I’m with Stephen on this one. 

"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."

[To verify Stephen’s stats, click here.]

 But Professor Curtice’s follow-up point is telling:

"With the Tories well up on their 2005 vote, it meant the Liberal Democrats were bound to lose the councils it was defending against a Conservative challenge, Devon and Somerset."

He is correct.  And, thinking about the next general election, the main lesson from the Liberal-SDP Alliance’s performances in 1983 and 1987 was that under first past the post voting, electoral success is all about seats, not votes.  On this basis, the Lib Dems may not have done so well.

The BBC says that the Lib Dems suffered a net loss of 4 council seats.  Yet Sky puts the figure for net Lib Dem losses at 48 – just below the threshold for a “bad Lib Dem result” (a net loss of 50-plus) that was set before polling day by, for instance, the Financial Times.  Looking at their results pages, Sky have – quite validly, I think - compared ‘notional’ results for the new unitary authorities from 2005 with the 'real' results from Thursday.  The BBC did not try to do that. 

Predictably, I don’t agree with Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome that this shows “the decline of the Liberal Democrats”.  The party’s share of the national vote was too high and the swings to the Conservatives in key Devon and Somerset constituencies too low to draw conclusions of that kind.

Still, picking up John Curtice's point, what the local results bring home is the possibility that in 2010 (or whenever), the Lib Dems may win a more than respectable vote -- but a resurgent Tory vote may depress the number of seats that we win.

This neatly illustrates, once gain, the party’s dual strategic challenges.   The first is beating the Tories in seats that we hold. In many Lib Dem-held seats that should be achievable, especially after the expenses scandal and with the traction that Nick Clegg is now picking up. 

The second challenge is also obvious: to win more seats from Labour.   With the government in freefall, that too may be more of a runner than used to be the case.  But the Lib Dems will need to do better than we have since 2005 at picking up support from disgruntled Labour voters – and ‘tactical’ Tory voters -- in areas where that can translate into extra parliamentary seats.

On now to the European election results and the next round of opinion polls . . .



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