Liberal Democrats and Greens surge to victory as Conservatives suffer landslide defeat

For Labour, the results are disappointing but the Tory plight gives cause for optimism. 

NS

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The Liberal Democrats have won the local elections – and how! They won in high turnout races, in low turnout races, they won in seats where they were the only alternative to the Conservatives or Labour, they won in seats where a full roster of established parties were over.

More importantly, they have now done so well that their victories no longer require the caveat that these were seats last fought during their time in coalition. In 2015 the Liberal Democrats lost 411 seats – they have now won 692 seats. They won not only in areas of traditional Liberal Democrat strength but broke into new ground.

Also breaking new ground, and in stunning fashion, are the Greens. There honestly aren’t enough superlatives to adequately describe these local elections from a Green perspective. At the start of these elections, we’d have said a fantastic result for them would be to consolidate in battles where they had gained ground against a Ed Miliband led Labour party now they are facing one led by Jeremy Corbyn, and to nick one or two seats in big cities where Labour are hegemonic, while making the odd gain in a friendly ward in Conservative territory here and there.

Instead they won seats everywhere against everyone, gaining 192 seats across the country in a result which could well go down as the night that they arrived as a genuine force. In our system, the first aim of the Green party is to act as the political equivalent of the carbon tax, forcing the big two parties to pay an electoral price if they continue to put forward inadequate solutions to the climate crisis. This is the first result in which we can genuinely say they look able to do that, and not merely act as a irritant on Labour’s left flank in a handful of urban areas.

For the Conservatives, the results are an open-and-shut disaster: their worst since 1995 and well beyond even the comically-inflated benchmarks they attempted to set for what would be a bad night. They surpass any of the horror shows for New Labour during the end of its time in government by a comfortable margin. Taken in isolation, these are the type of local election results that are usually the prelude to landslide rejection at the next election, not re-election.

The modicum of comfort they can take is that the instrument of their destruction isn’t Labour, but the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. There’s a plausible narrative available to optimistic Conservatives that what these results show is that while voters are clearly very, very, very discontented with the Tory party, they aren’t yet willing to turn to the one lever that can reliably remove them from power at Westminster. Labour’s continued inability to make decisive inroads into the small towns that kept them out of office last time is also another source of consolation. These crumbs of Tory comfort might turn out to be illusory but they aren’t a bad Plan B for electoral success – it should worry them, however, that it looks to be Plan A.

As for Labour, it’s difficult to assess how they should feel about elections in which they could have reasonably expected to play a starring part but instead featured in the role of “big name actor killed off early to show that the director isn’t kidding around”. These results are disappointing and it’s hard to sustain the argument that the problem was that their electoral coalition is more inclined to give second order elections a miss. It’s a plausible explanation compared to the Conservatives, but why should the Green party’s coalition of young people, social liberals, graduates and the big city working class be more likely to turnout in local elections than Labour’s coalition of young people, social liberals, graduates and the big city working class?

There is an optimistic and plausible account of Labour failure: this is that at general elections, when they can say they are the only party who can displace the Conservatives, they can “borrow” voters who at local elections, when there is no risk that backing the Greens will end up with a Tory government in Westminster, prefer to vote Green. In addition, ultimately, while both parties are down, the pattern of losses is to parties which it easier to see sustaining a Labour minority government than a Conservative one. These arguments at least deserves intellectual houseroom, and represent a reasonable case for Labour to take these results less bitterly than they otherwise might. 

An argument that no longer requires intellectual houseroom is that the taint of coalition means that the Liberal Democrats are a finished force. Although Brexit was part of the story for the Liberal Democrats, the more heartening part for them in the long term is that they were able to make gains in places where they were primarily benefiting from local dysfunctionality – Sunderland, which declares early, is the most immediate example but there were other races across the country where the LibDem story was half national advance, half local opportunism. The ability to eke out gains due to local issues is a vital part of their past and future growth, regardless of how the Brexit deadlock is resolved.

The thesis that their participation in coalition had forever weakened them wasn’t a stupid idea, but is now a dead one.  This morning I said there were 245 holes in it – there are now 692.

That has huge implications for Change UK, the new party that didn’t contest these local elections because they had neither the time nor the institutional capacity to do so. Their private argument has been that the Liberal Democrats are irretrievably tainted and had to be finished as a national force to allow their new party to replace them, or at least to conduct merger talks from a position of strength.

They must now adjust, and fast, to a difficult new situation where the reality is one of Liberal Democrat strength and viability, and, as it stands, where any merger talks will be conducted where the Liberal Democrats have the whip hand over the new boys in town.

Change now have a new target for the European elections – the reality is that if any party can now pivot to being the natural choice for Remainers who want to send a message at the European elections on 23 May, it is going to be the Liberal Democrats. What they need to do is show that they bring something to the table in any alliance with Vince Cable’s party – an ability to win parts of the country with no Liberal Democrat tradition, or in heavily Labour areas, perhaps.

As for Cable himself, the scene is set for a glorious exit from the role of Liberal Democrat leader whatever happens at the European elections. It also ensures that the race to choose his successor this summer may now get one of the most precious of third-party commodities: a degree of attention from the media.  

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.