The beginnings of the #LibDemFightback?

Vince Cable's party achieved its largest number of seat gains ever. But is a Remainer backlash really the cause?

May 03, 2019
Photo: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire/PA Images

For years, rival politicians and political analysts have mocked the idea of a “#LibDemFightback”—particularly after the party’s poor showing in the 2017 general election.

After this week’s local elections, however, some of them will be reconsidering.

Most of the results are in from the votes across provincial England, with only a handful of councils yet to declare.

In terms of seats, the Conservatives have lost over 1,000 of them, very much at the weak end of expectations, due in a large part to the success of the Liberal Democrats. Labour has not made the gains it was expected to and is set to finish with a net loss.

The Lib Dems, as well as independent candidates, are the big winners in terms of seats—as were the Greens in terms of vote share.

But these changes from last time aren’t independent of when that was—these wards were last contested in 2015, on the Day of the Conservatives’ best general election result in a generation, and the Lib Dems’ worst ever.

It’s therefore helpful to think in terms of the national vote shares each party would have polled if elections had been held everywhere.

The BBC’s projected national shares put the two main parties on similar levels of support at about 28 per cent, with the Lib Dems on 19 per cent—their best result since 2010.

This is a bad result for both main parties. It is arguably worse for Labour, since opposition parties—even those that go on to lose the next general election—normally win clearly on this measure.

But nor is it good for the Conservatives—this sort of vote share is poor even for a governing party. It should also be noted that the Brexit Party, responsible for the bulk of the Conservatives’ losses in polling for Westminster elections, and especially for the European elections expected in three weeks’ time, did not contest these elections.

Indeed the overall theme seems to be one of “a plague on both your houses.” Both are losing ground in traditional areas of strength—this has manifested itself in a reversal of the traditional north-south divide, but the same trend is in evidence even down to ward level.

Given the broader political context, what do these results tell us about the electoral impact of Brexit? Firstly, despite the talk of widespread disillusionment, turnout appears close to the usual 35 per cent seen in standalone local elections. It seems voters have chosen to express their frustration by voting differently, rather than by staying home.

Conservative support has in fact held up best in Leave-voting areas. This may be due to a lack of alternatives, with no Ukip in over 80 per cent of wards and no Brexit Party anywhere, but in any case there is little sign here of a “betrayal” backlash.

But nor is there much evidence of a Remain backlash. Neither fence-sitting Labour nor the Europhile Lib Dems performed much differently in strongly “Remain” or “Leave” areas. For Labour, this has been taken by some as an instruction to get off the fence over Brexit, but since it appears to be coming from both sides, it is far from a clear instruction on which way the party should jump.

The Lib Dem recovery—with Vince Cable’s party having achieved its largest number of seat gains ever—hasn’t just come in Remain areas. Of course, Leave areas still contain many Remainers, but if this were a Brexit story, we would expect to see a stronger geographic pattern. Instead it looks as though the return of the third party "protest vote" phenomenon is at least part of the picture.

This underlines a point I’ve made previously—the supposed post-coalition toxicity of the Lib Dems is overstated. In 2015, the party lost voters to the Tories too, including many in the sorts of areas where they are now making gains.

The bigger problem has been one of invisibility, and if that changes, it may have big implications for the party’s relationship with Change UK, and for politics more broadly.