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4 May 2021updated 05 May 2021 5:11pm

What would be a good night for the Liberal Democrats in the 2021 local elections?

Although the battlefield is ideal, the circumstances are not. 

By Stephen Bush

The long-term theory of political success for the Liberal Democrats is a three-step process. First, they take a ward. Then they take the council. Then they win the parliamentary constituency.

There are quite a lot of places being contested in this election where the magic has never quite come off. Three Rivers and Watford are as close as the party gets to local election-level safe seats, yet it has never held the parliamentary seats and doesn’t look likely to do so any time soon. Mole Valley has a recent history of Liberal Democrat council gains, but they have not become a force at a parliamentary level. And there are some places – Cornwall being the most obvious – where the party’s continued viability in local government has not stopped the electoral gains of the Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy leaderships being completely eroded in parliamentary elections. And then there’s St Albans, where the local Liberal Democrats have had some local success but have done even better at a parliamentary level.

[see also: How do things stand as we enter the final straight of the local elections?]

This election also features the location of some of their near-misses in the 2019 general election, where the party came out of nowhere to a series of close second-places in areas it had no local government base to speak of. The party would, in normal times, seek to make gains in those areas. The absolute must-wins are the handful that were both 2019 near-misses and places they have made gains in local government: particularly the various Cambridgeshire county councils.

As an electoral test, the 2021 battleground could not be better set up for leader Ed Davey. These are councils last fought in 2012 and 2016, 2013 and 2017. With the exception of 2016’s partial and limited recovery, these were disastrous elections for the Liberal Democrats (and given that the party lost 336 councillors in 2012 and gained just 45 in 2016, a disaster they have barely recovered from). The party lost 166 councillors across the 2013 and 2017 local elections. Although in some places they were totally wiped out, in the areas where they maintain a reduced presence it is easier to come back from “not very much” to “quite a lot’ very quickly, as their 2018 recoveries in the likes of Haringey, Richmond, Stockport, and innumerable county councils shows.

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But while the battlefield is ideal, the political circumstances are near-disastrous. The blunt truth is that most Liberal Democrat gains in local elections are not the result of a particular affection for liberalism in those areas, but due to local discontent with the incumbent council. (You can make a sophisticated and I think broadly correct argument that objecting to concentrations of power, poorly wielded, is a core liberal value: but that this results in electoral success for the Liberal Democrats is coincidental. It doesn’t mean that the presence of a bad Conservative or Labour administration in an area where the other major party is weak makes people “more liberal” overall.)

Once Liberal Democrats are elected, they hold power based on a combination of the party’s national popularity and their own local records. It has been next to impossible for England’s third party to get a hearing given that the coronavirus pandemic has dominated everything, and even harder for local campaigners to do so given that people have been stuck inside for most of the past 18 months.

I therefore think that a “good night” for the Liberal Democrats would be one in which they hold what they have overall rather than making further losses, consolidate in seats they won for the first time in 2019, and make further gains in the likes of St Albans.

Frequently asked questions

You say that you think independents, and therefore the Liberal Democrats will struggle. This is deeply disrespectful to the Liberal Democrats, a proud national party.

OK! My basis for this belief is that the Liberal Democrats in local government do frequently campaign and make gains essentially as a localist force. This is nothing to be ashamed of in my view, and that some Liberal Democrat members think it is is not my problem.

You say that you think independents will struggle. My independent campaign in Somesuchshire is going brilliantly.

OK! I may well be comically wrong and the local elections will not be a disaster for independents. If that is the case, then I will have to revisit my benchmarks. However, I am yet to see any evidence that this is not going to be an utterly catastrophic election for independents.

Your benchmarks for the Greens and Labour do not take account of the political circumstances around the vaccines, but your benchmarks for the Liberal Democrats do. Is this because you hate the Greens/Labour/the Liberal Democrats?

Yes. Every day I hate everybody in politics a little bit more.

But no, seriously, I have done this for two reasons: the first is that, in the case of the Greens, I think that while they are hamstrung a bit by the inability to campaign on local issues, which they are doing with growing effectiveness, they are equally helped by the fact that the issue on which they are trusted more than any other party – climate change – continues to be of national significance, and it may even help them a little bit that the usual “So and so can’t win here!” effect won’t cut into their vote share as much as it usually does at election time.

The second is that for different reasons, while the political circumstances make life more difficult for Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Greens’ objectives don’t really change as a result. Solihull is still the Greens’ best hope of winning a second parliamentary seat while the Conservatives remain in office, so it is still a must-win council this time around. Labour are still the major opposition and its political health therefore has to be assessed on its ability to gain seats at the next general election. Yes, there are distinct circumstances that may not apply then that do apply now: but in the present day, we can and should use “what should this party be doing in order to form a government?” as the appropriate yardstick.