A full-scale comeback is a way off—but the coalition years are slowly being forgottenby John Curtice / February 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
Unlike the Richmond by-election last year, this week’s parliamentary by-elections in Copeland and Stoke Central are not expected to bring the Liberal Democrats any particular joy. The former is widely regarded as a battle between Labour and the Conservatives, the latter between Labour and UKIP. The party’s ambition is probably limited to saving its deposit in both seats, not something it managed to do in either case at the 2015 general election.
Yet ever since last summer, local government by-elections—of which there is at least one on most Thursdays—have been recording gains by the Liberal Democrats on a regular basis. Since last year’s European Union referendum the party has gained as many as 31 council seats, and lost just three (of which two were to Independents).
Local government by-elections are, of course, notable for low turnouts, while their interpretation can be bedevilled by the intervention of withdrawal of one or more parties, or individual candidates. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat performance has been patchy. Even during the last six weeks the party has seen its vote increase, in some cases quite spectacularly, in six wards, while in four others it has slipped back a little. However, the overall direction of travel is clear. Across all wards last fought in 2015 or 2016, where the party fought both the by-election and the regular poll, its vote has increased by 14 points since September.
On the same day as the 2015 General Election, the Lib Dems unsurprisingly recorded their worst ever local election performance. There was not much improvement on it last year. So the baseline against which the party’s performance in recent by-elections is being measured is a low one. But the average increase is sufficient to suggest that the party—which once enjoyed considerable success in local elections, holding as many as one in five of all local council seats—might now begin to repair the serious damage suffered to its local government base while it was in coalition with the Conservatives. This coming May’s county council elections will be the first significant test of whether that is indeed the case.
What lies behind the Liberal Democrats’ local by-election success, especially given that, until the last two or three months, there has not been any sign of a revival in its standing in the national opinion polls? One possibility is that the party’s stance in favour of a second EU referendum is helping it to win voters over in the local ballot boxes even though those voters may not as yet think of themselves as Liberal Democrat supporters when confronted by pollsters. However, some of the party’s most spectacular advances—such as those last month in Rotherham (+50.4 per cent) and Sunderland (+41.5 per cent)—have in fact come in places where “Leave” won handsomely last June. Conversely the party has yet to record any notable advances in predominantly “Remain” voting London.
A second possibility is that the party is proving able to garner votes once more in places where, until the last few years at least, it consistently performed well in local government elections—even though this may not always have translated into parliamentary success. Now that the Coalition is over, voters with a past local sympathy for the party are now willing to return to the fold. But again there is no consistent evidence to support this suggestion. While some strong advances in, say, Newcastle and Sheffield could be put down to such a development, recent successes in Rotherham and Sunderland certainly cannot.
Rather than a change of fortune amongst a specific group of voters, it looks as though the Liberal Democrats’ recent local by-election successes are a sign of a rather broader development. The party’s past forte used to be as a party of protest, winning over the support of those currently (but often only temporarily) unhappy with the party that they usually support, either locally or nationally. That mantle was, however, inevitably lost when the party went into government with the Conservatives. But now that it is out of office again, perhaps it is beginning to regain it once more, leaving it able to profit from voters’ dissatisfaction when the local circumstances are right. If so, that will not be enough to fuel a Liberal Democrat revival, but it might give Tim Farron reason to believe that voters are beginning to put the Coalition years behind them.