Posts Tagged ‘Party politics and elections’

The LibDems’ 2018 performance was underwhelming – but these were not the elections to judge the party on

Despite media headlines to the contrary, the Liberal Democrats’ performance in the recent local elections was pretty underwhelming, explains David Cutts. But it is the 2019 local elections that will tell us more about the long-term viability of the party, since those will concern a larger number of English districts where the LibDems will be seeking to reclaim ground lost to the Conservatives since 2010.

Liberals have a longstanding attachment to the local. Aside from their enduring commitment to community politics, the Liberal Democrats have always relied on winning council seats and running local councils to counter voters’ electoral credibility concerns. The formula has always been a simple one: grassroots politics provided the basis for winning seats and building local core support. Elected councillors would ‘fly the flag’ for the party through their ‘all year round’ activism. With the help of national party strategists, they would become experienced, skilled local campaigners adept at targeting and recruiting activists, and building local party organisations.

Local success boosted the party’s chances in Westminster elections as voters were more likely to support the Liberal Democrats where it had a chance of winning, thereby diluting concerns that voting for the party would be a wasted effort. Although not full-proof, it had a proven record of success. While the strength of the Liberal Democrats’ local base largely endured in opposition, it collapsed during its years in coalition government. Reduced to eight seats at Westminster in 2015 and showing only ‘green shoots’ of a recovery two years later, rebuilding the party’s local infrastructure has become a top priority for the newly-elected leader Vince Cable. With the party struggling to get ‘political air time’ and questions about its long term future seemingly unresolved, the Liberal Democrats were in dire need of an electoral boost and positive headlines.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2018 local elections, that is exactly what it got. After a net gain of 75 council seats and winning control of four additional councils, Cable faced the media to proclaim that the “beginning of the fight back” had begun. But do these results suggest that the ‘cockroaches’ of British politics are about to mount a comeback or is such talk premature? The national picture leans more to the latter.

At 16%, the Liberal Democrats projected national share of the vote was much higher than current nationwide poll ratings and 3 percentage points higher than in 2014. On the downside, it was 2 percentage points lower than in the 2017 local elections. Moreover, in terms of nationwide share of the vote, it was one of the worst local election performances since the party’s formation. The Liberal Democrats currently have just shy of 1900 councillors. To put this into some context, they would have to more than double that number just to return back to their 2010 local council composition (see Figure 1).

Nonetheless there are some discernible trends. The Liberal Democrats did better in areas where they have longstanding prior support or local representation. The party targeted taking control of Kingston upon Thames and neighbouring Richmond in south west London where they have enjoyed recent success both locally and at Westminster. While local pacts with the Greens in Richmond aided their cause, the scale of the Liberal Democrats’ success surpassed expectations and offset local problems in neighbouring Sutton where the party lost seats to the Conservatives but retained overall dominance. Elsewhere there were positive performances in pre-coalition local strongholds – Cambridge, Cheltenham, Portsmouth, St Albans, Watford, and Winchester. Success was not entirely confined to the south of England. Gains in Hull and Sheffield councils, both of which the Liberal Democrats controlled in the late 2000s, also suggested that the party did better where it was previously strong.

Broadly speaking, the Liberal Democrats’ performance is in line with past trends. The party always tend to perform better against the incumbent government than the opposition. The Liberal Democrats did far better in shire councils predominantly against the Conservatives than in Metropolitan areas where they were largely fighting Labour. One notable example is South Cambridgeshire, where the Liberal Democrats took control for the first time. Elsewhere, the party gained ground in parts of Surrey and Hertfordshire largely at the expense of the Conservatives.

By contrast, notwithstanding its success in Sunderland – the best liberal performance since 1984 – and a small resurgence in Liverpool, the Liberal Democrats seem to be going backwards in Metropolitan areas. Across the 34 Metropolitan boroughs up for election, the Liberal Democrats secured 16 fewer seats than at the height of the party’s local collapse four years previously. It currently holds only a third of the seats it did in 2010. The picture is also less rosy than what it seems across the capital. Although the Liberal Democrats won 35 more seats across London than in 2014, nearly three quarters of their councillors are in its strongholds of Kingston, Richmond, and Sutton. Of the 32 London boroughs, only nine contain Liberal Democrat representatives compared to 14 four years ago.

The Liberal Democrats also performed better in places with larger numbers of graduates and those working in education. This suggests a reconnection with traditional liberal supporters and more than likely the successful mobilisation of ‘latent liberals’ turned off during the coalition, but now keen to return to the fold. Despite some circumstantial evidence of the party squeezing Labour support in ward battles with the Conservatives, any re-establishment of pre-2010 tactical alliances still looks a long way off as the party continues to battle with the legacy of coalition.

The Liberal Democrats seemingly face an uphill task fighting the increasingly polarised demographics of Labour and Conservative support. The spectre of Brexit also continues to cast a large shadow on electoral proceedings. And as with other elections since the EU referendum, there is little evidence that the party of ‘Remain’ are persuading ‘Remain’ voters to join the fold. Figure 2 shows no discernible pattern with the line of best fit unduly influenced by strong performances in Richmond and Kingston.

In ‘Strong Leave’ areas, the Liberal Democrats actually made a net gain of 13 seats whereas they lost ground in those local authorities with a ‘Moderate Leave’ vote. By contrast, the party made a net gain of 79 seats in ‘Strong Remain’ areas although 65 gains were in three councils. In 12 of the 22 councils where the ‘Remain’ vote was above 60%, the party failed to make any gains and in two councils it lost seats. The Liberal Democrats also failed to gain any ground in ‘Moderate Remain’ areas.

Despite the favourable media headlines, the Liberal Democrats’ nationwide performance was pretty underwhelming and did little to suggest that a return to the top table of British politics is imminent. These, however, were not the elections to judge the party on. Next year’s local elections are across a larger number of English shire districts including parts of the south west where the Liberal Democrats will be seeking to reclaim ground lost to the Conservatives since 2010. This will provide a far better indication of where the party stands. Given the party’s current low electoral base in these councils, the Liberal Democrats will be looking for at least 200 net gains. Anything above this and talk of a comeback would have some validity, but gains around the mark achieved in this election will represent a failure and would inevitably lead to questions not only about Cable’s leadership but the long-term viability of the party.


About the Author

David Cutts is Professor in Political Science at the University of Birmingham. For a full profile see here.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Richter Frank-Jurgen (CC BY-SA 2.0).



Secretively open: identifying patterns in Theresa May’s approach to secrecy

Theresa May presides over one of the leakiest governments in British history, with claims from ministers often undermined by a leak saying the exact opposite. Ben Worthy reads the runes of May’s approach to secrecy and attempts to find a common pattern from her Home Office years and into her premiership.

Most prime ministers have an awkward relationship with the truth. The murky worlds of intelligence, spin, and politics often meet for them in uncomfortable ways. Some became renowned or infamous for their ability to manipulate reality and facts: think of Tony Blair having to reassure us that he was a ‘pretty straight kind of guy’. Machiavelli captured the difficulty for leaders when he cautioned that those with power must ‘live by integrity and not by deceit’, should surround themselves with advisors who would tell them the truth but should be a ‘dissembler’ when necessary.

Theresa May was supposed to be different. She was the plain speaking Vicar’s daughter who would tell the uncomfortable, unspun truth. She would bring the values of the vicarage to Downing Street. For some, the lingering image of May as the honest clergyman’s daughter lasted even up to the 2017 manifesto when, with a ‘clear ethical – even Christian – tone, this vicar’s daughter took the riskier option: to be unremittingly honest with the public about the great challenges this country faces, to spell out how she intends to confront them and to promise only what she can deliver.’

Almost two years on it seems May, like Trump, is both secretive, but also strangely transparent. Her blend of secrecy, closed decision-making and blame avoidance was honed in the Home Office, and came with her to Downing Street. Her ‘submarine’ strategy of set-piece interventions served her through crisis after crisis in the Home Office. Yet it has proved her undoing as Prime Minister. Her secrecy led her to try (and fail) to carry out Brexit ‘without a running commentary’ and without Parliament. It also meant she consulted too few on her snap election and her manifesto.

May’s secrecy is of an oddly transparent kind, easily caught out and exposed. One commentator observed that May had behaved with Brexit as if no-one else in Europe had the internet. Similarly, in domestic politics she recklessly gives poor answers or excuses as if no-one has access to Hansard or YouTube. Despite her liking for information control, she also presides over one of the leakiest administrations in history. A stream of unauthorised disclosures flow, continually, from her divided and disloyal Cabinet and unhappy officials. Leaks go from the sublime – such as DExEU’s own analysis that every Brexit scenario would leave Britain worse off – to the ridiculous – such as Hammond’s view of female train drivers. The rabbit hole of leaks and failed attempts is summed up by the headline ‘Leak inquiry into leaking of letter warning about leaks’. Time and time again, May’s ‘secretively open’ approach leads to a self-reinforcing pattern of attempted secrecy, exposure, poor justification and worsening crisis.

The Windrush scandal is a case in point. As it unfolded, May’s initial claim was that it was a Data Protection issue (it wasn’t) or that it was Labour that did it (they didn’t). Each claim from Amber Rudd was artfully undermined by a leak saying the exact opposite: there were no targets (yes there were, said a leak) and she was not aware of them (yes she was, according to this letter from Rudd to May). At this point, May’s former (ish) advisor Nick Timothy, with his familiar brand of Powell-esque politics and Kamikaze-esque strategy, decided to defend May’s record. He claimed she was against the famous ‘Go Home’ illegal immigrant vans but that they were implemented ‘while she was on holiday’. Even Blair, through five Iraq war inquiries, didn’t dare try that as an excuse. In fact, another judicious leak showed that May was only against the vans because the language wasn’t tough enough. All these smokescreens of failed excuses hid the truth that the Windrush deportations came directly from May’s own dog whistle rhetoric and bid to create a hostile environment.

May and her government seem unable to comprehend what’s known as the Streisand effect, namely that trying to hide something often draws attention to it. David Davis is a past master. He began his time as minister in 2016 promising not to be ‘Rasputin-like’ in holding back, and admitted that Brexit would be ‘as complex as the Schleswig Holstein affair’ (exactly) and as difficult ‘as the moon landing’. But in 2017, Streisand struck when he bragged of ‘50, nearly 60 sector analyses already done [with] planning work going on 22 other issues which are critical, 127 all told’. This led to a long battle to get hold of them, involving freedom of information requests and obscure parliamentary procedures, which led to Davis, explaining six months later, that ‘already done’ actually meant ‘don’t exist’.

What makes the secrets fall apart so rapidly is that the reasoning or excuses are so poor, easily disprovable or outright odd. In case you had forgotten, May called the General Election in 2017 because, in her own words, the EU, Liberal-Democrats in the Commons (all eight of them) and the House of Lords were trying to swing the election for Corbyn:

Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials. All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election… there are some in Brussels who do not want these talks to succeed, who do not want Britain to prosper.

She added, in another version of the statement, that ‘Britain simply will not get the right Brexit deal if we have the drift and division of a hung parliament’. May now has said hung parliament and the House of Lords, according to various irate Brexiters, doing its level best to stop her Brexit.

Any politician must navigate the tricky grey area between what Chekov called the conventional truth and conventional lies. The problem for May is that her failed attempts take her far into Trumpian territory. Time and time again, her attempts at secrecy reveal the truth and demonstrate a worrying amount of dissonance and denial. Over everything from Windrush to the Irish border, she resembles a leader constantly attempting to persuade the public that 2+2 =5. After a year and a half of May’s attempted secrecy, the revealed truth is that the UK government has no plan and no strategy.

May’s instinctive and poorly-handled secrecy is one part of a movement away from how she claimed her premiership would be. Her premiership has resembled nothing more than an embattled retreat, a rearguard action as she backed away from promises, positions and, seemingly in some senses, from power itself.


About the Author

Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: DonkeyHotey (CC BY 2.0).

The importance of geography, demographics, and identity in analysing the 2018 local elections

John Denham highlights some of the underlying shifts in political behaviour and geography as revealed in the recent local election results. He concludes by offering some thoughts on the challenges facing the political parties in framing their response.

The snap judgements on popular opinion often leave a lasting impression. It is still easy to find people who believe that most Leave voters were working class, former Labour-voting northerners than relatively well-off, middle-class southern Tories. At the same time, media coverage and commentary tends towards the political surprise, rather than the measured reality. Right after the 2016 referendum, Labour’s difficulties with part of its former base were seen as more interesting than the much more widespread rejection of the Conservative PM’s call for a Remain vote.

The headlines from 2018’s local elections have a similar feel. Labour is seen as having failed in London, despite having done rather well. The correspondence between Leave areas and swings to the Conservatives have led many to claim a link, despite the lack of any evidence that this was actually a strong factor in how people decided to vote. So, in this case, the political surprise came in Labour’s failure to deliver its own hype, and the insistence of many commentators to force everything through a Brexit prism.

Rather than offer a profound new analysis of the locals, I instead want to highlight some of the underlying shifts in political behaviour and geography. In each area, our understanding is incomplete and, as far as I know, no one has yet drawn the threads together.

Geography matters

Will Jennings has plotted the relationship between the swings and population density. Labour’s strong performance in London and other major cities was offset by swings to the Conservatives in many towns and smaller cities in the rest of England. Labour certainly had disappointing results in key northern towns. As always, there are exceptions, qualifications, and regional variations. Labour gained seats in Worthing, for example, and within Southampton the pattern of Labour gaining in more middle class and diverse areas and slipping back in working class areas, established in the 2015 and 2017 general elections, was repeated.

Demographics matter

The changing demographic make-up of each locality is significant here. We are not always looking at people switching their vote: communities are not necessarily the same as they were ten years ago. As the Centre for Towns has mapped, many smaller towns have been losing their young people as many more are now able to go university or seek graduate jobs elsewhere. These trends will intensify the electoral impact of older, more working class, less mobile voters. Ian Warren points out that these young people are drawn to London, but not necessarily for ever. Young families are able to often move out into neighbouring regions. These down-from-London individuals may not always be appreciated for their impact on house prices, but they may also bring their (Labour leaning) London voting habits with them when they leave the capital.

Identity also matters

To geography and demographics, we need to add identity. In a previous blog I showed that, while ‘equally English and British’ is the most widely-held national identity, the ‘more English’ outnumbered the ‘more British’ in all but the larger cities, and most strongly in the smallest communities. While few ‘weaponise’ their national identity (‘I’m voting x because I’m English/British’) there is evidence from successive Future of England surveys that the most clearly-held national identities seem to reflect different worldviews, with the English being more critical of the EU, the consequences of devolution, and the lack of devolved government for England. Intriguingly, while the 2017 Future of England survey showed Labour slightly ahead of the Conservatives amongst voters of all identities as ‘best to stand up for the interests of England’, 19% thought that no party stands up for the interests of England. Nearly half of all English voters thought that Brexit was worth jeopardising the peace process in Northern Ireland.

The challenges facing Labour and the Conservatives

It’s a reasonable speculation that these pro-England, union-sceptic and anti-EU voters will be strong English identifiers. At the margins –voters who are very strongly either English’ or ‘British’ – national identities may signify much more than national allegiance; becoming communities of peoples holding quite different assumptions about what sort of country this is or should be. The movements of people to and from the cities and towns are concentrating and mixing these distinct communities in new ways.

The strategic question for the main political parties is whether they can win England without making an effective appeal across these national identities. The recent local elections suggest that they have to, but that both face difficulties. In part, these come from their own members. Tory activists share many of the same instincts as English identifiers, being sceptical of the EU and even of the value of the union itself. The influential Paul Mason recently rejected suggestions that Labour should appeal to the more socially conservative parts of the electorate, saying ‘the actual membership of Labour, and its core vote, is drawn from the educated, salaried, cosmopolitan and pro-global modern workforce of big conurbations’.

Both major parties need to broaden their appeal beyond the instincts of their core members. It’s not clear that they can do so without engaging directly with both the national identities at play in England.

About the Author

John Denham is Professor at the Centre for English Identity and Politics, University of Winchester.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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