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Local Elections Are Liberal Democrats' Time To Shine

Ed Davey celebrates local election wins (Alamy)

5 min read

Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey hailed his party’s “ground breaking” night after delivering a “hammer blow” to the Conservatives in the local elections, polls which in recent years have delivered a significant windfall of seats for the party.

The party, led by Ed Davey, has just 14 MPs in parliament, a steady decline from their 2005 peak of 62, but in the same period have consistently won a healthy number of seats on councils across the country at local elections. 

In a “disappointing” night for the Conservatives, who have lost more than 500 seats so far, the Lib Dems have already gained more than 200 seats. They have also taken control of the council in Tory heartlands Windsor and Maidenhead – former prime minister Theresa May’s constituency – after its 22-year-old candidate George Blundell beat Tory incumbent Andrew Johnson, and in Stratford where scandal-marred Nadhim Zahawi is the MP. 

The staunchly anti-Brexit party, which promised to revoke Article 50 and keep the UK in the European Union in the 2019 general election, also made gains in Leave-voting wards such as Eastleigh, Portsmouth, North Norfolk, Lincoln and Hull. 

Speaking to the Today Programme, Davey said today's results show the Lib Dems have the “foundations” to increase its size in Westminster come the general election next year. 

“The message from voters is clear: they are sick to the back teeth of Rishi Sunak and his out-of-touch Conservative Government. At this election, it is the Liberal Democrats who are defeating the Conservatives and delivering the fair deal people deserve,” Davey said in a separate statement.

A source close to the Liberal Democrats said a combination of factors drove their vote share up, including increasing anti-government sentiment and local issues such as sewage, housing and NHS waiting times. 

“The NHS was overwhelmingly a big issue, it usually came top. Many voters cannot get a GP appointment. The NHS has currently replaced the Brexit factor, as well as housing and sewage in rivers,” they told PoliticsHome.

“What we are doing as a party is what happened in the 1990s, where we have massively increased the number of activists on the ground. And once you win local councils, we have traditionally won MP seats in those areas. That’s why it is so encouraging we are picking up council seats in the Blue Wall.”

University of Liverpool professor Jon Tonge agreed that local council and by-elections consistently deliver a bumper crop of seats for Lib Dems. 

“It is worth remembering that not long ago, the Lib Dems used to be the largest party of local government. It was a huge fall from grace during the coalition years. This year marks the fifth local election the party has made gains,” he told PoliticsHome.

“This now could be a more permanent revival. You could even make a case they are doing better than Labour relatively, probably coming 16/17 per cent vote share.”

Last year, the party won control of Somerset council which had historically always been Tory. During those elections the party took control of Woking in Surrey and Wokingham in Berkshire, and won enough seats in other areas like West Oxfordshire, where the former constituency of ex-Tory prime minister David Cameron is located, to take them out of Conservative hands. 

The party also gained four seats on Elmbridge Council in Surrey, which is where you find the marginal Esher and Walton constituency of Conservative MP and former cabinet minister Dominic Raab, who will head into the next general election with a thin majority of less than 3,000.

In the same year the Liberal Democrats overturned the Conservative’s 24,000-strong majority in the “True Blue” seat of Tiverton and Honiton in a major by-election blow for the government.

In 2021, the Lib Dems’ Sarah Green won an 8,000 majority against the Conservative candidate in Chesham and Amersham, after a huge backlash against amending planning laws and HS2.

In the 2019 local elections, when then-prime minister Theresa May was at her lowest ebb as leader, the Lib Dems gained 706 councillors and more than doubled the number of councils under their control from eight to 18. 

Experts such as Professor Tim Bale think the Lib Dems’ success over the past few years bodes well for their future and could be used by the party as a springboard to increase its presence in Westminster.

“As the memories of the coalition years begin to fade, you will begin to see the historical pattern repeat itself. Build from local election success. There are 15/2- seats which could flip to the Lib Dems. There is a handful of those Lab/Lib, they are going to focus on the winnable seats,” he told PoliticsHome

Researchers from Opinium believe such victories are encouraging for the party. A spokesperson told PoliticsHome the anti-Tory vote has held up and its re-emergence is likely to block whichever party is likely to beat the Conservatives in any area. 

The majority of its upcoming target seats are based in the ‘Blue Wall’ - also known as prosperous seats in the south of England. Cheadle, Dunbartonshire East and Sheffield Hallam are the only seats in the North that the party is a few hundred votes away from taking the seat. 

High profile Westminster seats on the list include Esher and Walton held by former cabinet minister Dominic Raab and Cheltenham where the incumbent is his replacement as Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk. 

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