2009: worst local elections ever?

I wrote a short piece on the local elections on CiF yesterday, which is now live. At the time I was struggling to come up with a proper assessment of how the Lib Dems had done in the local elections so mostly concentrated on the departure of Lord Rennard, but I did write this:

The Lib Dems’ performance in the local elections last week appears to be a perfect example of the perniciousness of the British electoral system. Our overall share of the vote was up but we haemorrhaged councillors because of a swing from Labour to the Conservatives and independents. The Tories certainly performed strongly in this election, but their gains massively outweigh their share of the vote. This ought to make any right-minded individual seethe with a sense of injustice.

At the time I was wondering if the final Lib Dem tally would actually end up positive. Looking at the BBC results service yesterday, every time I refreshed our negative score got a bit smaller. In the end, the BBC have recorded a net -4 result for the party. However, Sky are saying -47.

Why the difference? Well, it seems that the BBC are counting all the new unitaries as entirely new and thus not recording them as gains or losses for any party, while Sky are basing it on notional results. I have to say that Sky are right – these unitaries didn’t appear out of nowhere and in the case of Cornwall they have simply phased out all the district councils. Nonetheless, -47 is an uncomfortable result for the party.

Tim Montgomerie has been jumping up and down on ConservativeHome and the “independent” PoliticsHome to brand this as “the decline of the Liberal Democrats” but let’s have a bit of perspective. Firstly, there is the fact that by all accounts the Lib Dems got more votes on Thursday than in any other set of county council elections. Hardly a decline. Secondly, these losses are almost exclusively limited to the South West – where we had the most to lose. Discount the South West and we made a healthy net gain of seats overall.

Clearly something happened in the South West. Tim puts it all down to the tactical genius of Eric Pickles and the fact that the Tories have finally learned that goose-stepping and doing Hitler salutes (figuratively speaking) isn’t a particularly effective way to win votes. However, we are talking about the South West here and on a day where the county council elections coincided with the European elections. The South West is notoriously eurosceptic and this was presumably a major factor as well. And in Cornwall in particular there is a lot of strong feeling about the creation of the unitary – this almost certainly hurt us.

Should the party have diverted more funds to battling the Tories and UKIP in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset? I’m sure a lot of people in the area think so and it might have stopped Tim from being able to crow today, but long term it would have been foolish. But it might also have simply been a collossal waste of money. You can’t simply throw money around and employ a bag of tricks and win elections. One would have thought that a Conservative, of all people, would understand that.

Hopefully we’ll have some decent county-by-county analysis of these results to chew over soon. My guess is that it will throw up some appalling examples of undemocratic results. Labour have been wiped out in many parts of the country, but they still got more than 1-in-5 votes. The Tory share of the vote is not particularly high and has plunged compared to last year. Their success nationwide is almost entirely down to the collapse of the Labour vote.

I’m sure a lot of Tories reading this will retort that all this is just sour grapes, but what is the point of an election if it doesn’t reflect public opinion? What’s worse, it creates a political vacuum in places through which extremists rush through (Hugh Muir seems to absolve the Lib Dems of this in his article today – he shouldn’t. The English Democrats’ victory in Doncaster yesterday for instance was helped by the local Lib Dems’ decision not to field a candidate).

These results ought to be a wakeup call. Sadly, the media has now switched all its attention back on Labour infighting.


  1. The Doncaster Lib Dems didn’t put up a candidate? FFS, they probably didn’t expect an EngDem win, but if they had the slightest idea they should’ve fought hard.

    From what I can see, Devon vote share held up fairly well, but the marginal nature of most of the seats caused a massive change of seats with minimal changes of votes. But I haven’t seen a good comparison yet, might have to go look for one.

  2. “Clearly something happened in the South West.”

    The ‘something’ is that the Lib Dems are generally loathed by a significant portion of the south west for not doing the job properly. Cornwall Lib Dems have taken a lot of negative press locally and on the grapevine due to the way the unitary council situation has been handled. (unelected administration for a year was on the cards, I assume that did happen, but didn’t keep up on the news)

    Lib Dem’s in the south west need to get their game in order, and that includes in Bristol where they gained control in spite of their share going down.

  3. Local elections aren’t meant to show national public opinion, they’re meant to show local public opinion, which they did.
    The people of Somerset and Devon no longer wanted the LibDems to govern them, that more people in other parts of the country do is surely irrelevant.

  4. I’ve spoken to other Lib Dems who were shocked that we didn’t put up a candidate in Doncaster but knowing something about the politics locally I understand why they did it. The council has been in chaos for years as the Labour council group and the (former) Labour mayor fought and couldn’t agree on anything. As a result Doncaster suffered.

    The Lib Dems wouldn’t have had enough votes to win the mayoralty out right so they stood aside and backed the independent candidate Mick Maye who almost won the election in 2005 against Martin Winter.

    Unfortunately this time the English Democrats seemingly came out of nowhere to win, Mick (Michael) May came within 300 votes and if it hadn’t been for another independent candidate also called Michael he could easily have won by a few thousand votes.

    In exchange for this deal the Lib Dems got Mick’s support in the Euro elections and would presumably have had cabinet positions. In my opinion in this was the best choice for the Lib Dems and for Doncaster and had it succeeded it would have helped bring some stability back to the council. As things are now who knows – the English Democrats seem to be against a lot of things – particularly Europe but the only thing they’re for seems to be an English Parliament (in Doncaster?).

    I can’t see how us standing would have helped prevent them getting the seat since any people that might have mistaken the English Dems for the Lib Dems would be more than outweighed by those who supported the independent candidate.

    Having said all that I broadly agree with the general thrust of your post.

  5. I can’t find a breakdown of the Somerset results, but let’s get a couple of things sorted.

    In 2005, the ‘people of Devon’ decreed that the Conservatives should have had the most councillors – just. They got 38.8% of the popular vote as opposed to the Lib Dems’ 36.1% (see here). Yet the Lib Dems got 53% of the councillors against the Tories’ poor showing of just 37%.

    In 2009, it was the Labour Party that got rejected the most, not the Lib Dems, despite having a mere 4 councillors. Labour’s share of the vote went down by 10.8% – yet retained four councillors. The Tory vote only went up by 3.1% and the Lib Dem vote went down by 6.2% yet the Tory vote leapt by a whopping 29% percentage points.

    In short, the “people of Devon” neither rejected the Lib Dems nor embraced the Tories in significant numbers. The most significant shift in opinion was away from Labour and to the minor parties. The shift from Lib Dem to Tory support was a sideshow in comparison.

    Meanwhile, in Bristol, the Lib Dem share of the vote went down, from 35.8% to 35%. Yet their share of the seats went from 46% to 51%. The “people of Bristol” have no more embraced the Lib Dems than the “people of Devon” have rejected them. Once again, the real story is the drop in Labour support – from 31% to 19%.

    In neither case were Labour in control. Yes, local issues are certainly a significant factor in local elections but if you think that shift is entirely down to the performance of Labour locally, you are living in a fantasy world.

  6. The Sky figures are certainly incorrect however they have trated the new Unitaries which is unclear .
    If they were comparing the number of new Unitary councillors with the number of old County councillors then the LibDems would not have 40 odd fewer councillors in the Sky figures compared to the BBC but rather more councillors .
    If instead Sky were comparing the number of new Unitary councillors with the number of replaced district councillors ( ? plus the replaced county councillors ) then the LibDems would be losing more than 40 odd councillors and also the Conservatives would have lost councillors also .
    The BBC figures are IMHO a pretty clear reflection of a LibDem stalemate in xouncillor terms with poor results in Devon and to a lesser extent Somerset with gains in other areas even from the Conservatives see Eastbourne Lewes and Worthing for example here where I live .

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