2019 is the fourth in a sequence of very favourable local election maps for the Liberal Democrats: these are elections last held in 2015, when the Liberal Democrats went down to heavy defeat in the general election on the same day, and lost 411 councillors and control of four local authorities on the same night.
That leaves the Liberal Democrats in a position where they have a fairly favourable set of circumstances: they a) have ground to make up in places where the party still has a strong activist base, b) are no longer in office and just as importantly c) the Conservatives have switched a leader who was fairly popular with former Liberal Democrat voters for one who is incredibly unpopular with all voters but particularly with former and current Liberal Democrat voters.
Adding to the joy, these are the same seats that were fought in 2011, when the Liberal Democrats lost 748 councillors, control of nine local authorities and the referendum on the alternative vote on the same night.
The nature of being a minor party is that it takes years of work to gain seats but they can be lost overnight, so we shouldn’t expect the Liberal Democrats to make more than a thousand gains in one night or anything like it. But it underlines the potential for growth that the Liberal Democrats have over the next few years in local government. All things being equal, we’d expect them to be the big “winners” on the night for the next couple of years, partly because, while Vince Cable did take the opportunity presented by these contests last year, and Tim Farron posted some strong performances in 2016, the 2017 local elections were also a disaster for the party.
So that’s the battleground, but what’s a good night for them? Realistically they should be bitterly disappointed with anything below 150 net gains and could take upwards of 400 councillors. They would consolidate in places where they performed well in the general election or where they already hold the parliamentary seat.
But there’s the complicating factor. The other prize on offer is the opportunity for Vince Cable to go into the final month of the European election campaign saying “I’m the leader of the biggest, baddest pro-European party out there and if you want to send a message to the big parties about Brexit, then you should vote for me”, or words to that effect. And the crazy thing about that particular prize is that it is entirely dependent on how Labour does in the local elections.
Labour should be disappointed with anything below 100 net gains, and could if things fall right take in excess of 300 councillors. So we have a slightly bizarre set of incentives where if Labour and the Liberal Democrats gain 300 councillors each or finish very near to one another, they will both be doing better, but the Liberal Democrats will lose the bonus prize of being able to declare themselves the “winner” of these local elections; whereas if the Liberal Democrats could only get 150 gains but Labour only just crept into triple-figures, both parties would be doing at the absolute bottom end of what they ought to expect – yet a result that ought to be a cause for self-examination would be one that triggered great celebration instead.
That said, on an ideal night for the Liberal Democrats they would hit both targets: well into triple figure gains, and comfortably ahead of Labour as far as net gains are concerned, too.