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Rob Hayward: The Liberal Democrats lost 40% of the council seats they were defending but did much better in places where they had an incumbent MP

Rob Hayward is an elections analyst and former MP for Kingswood Bristol. Rob was heavily involved in preparing the Coalition's legislation to reduce the number of MPs and has also proposed a marked reduction in councils and councillors in London.

Hayward-Rob The shock waves of the recent elections will continue to be felt for a number of months as a disappointed Labour Party, an emboldened Tory Party and a seriously depressed Liberal Democrat Party try to build (or rebuild) following the results. The scale of the successes and failures are set out in an excellent paper which has been prepared by the Commons library with assistance from others and can be accessed through this link*.

The impact of the results is that they were so unexpected.

  • Labour gained, but primarily in their heartlands of England while the heart of Labour in Scotland has been ripped out. Their arteries in the Midlands and the South look distinctly more sclerotic than they should a year in to Opposition. The day after the election Ed Milliband went to Gravesham to celebrate a Labour gain. Even here, though. if you total the top candidate in each ward Labour 'lost' the Parliamentary constituency which happens to be contiguous with the Borough.
  • Tories made an astonishing and totally unpredicted gain of seats.
  • Liberal Democrats are shattered by taking a battering from both Labour and the Tories. They had expected this pincer movement but it is the scale of the battering that astonished them.

Although I don't have the precise figures available Lab gained roughly two seats from the Tories for every three they took off Lib Dems. This ratio of Lab gains is all the more astonishing when you consider that the Tories were defending twice as many seats as the Lib Dems.

The LDs lost 40% of all the seats they were defending on May 5th and are now down to roughly 3,000 councillors across the UK. In other words there are three times as many Conservative councilors.
Wipe out of Liberal Democrats in much of the south

One of the most marked elements of the night was the shattering of the Liberal Democrats in their remaining enclaves in the south. Places like East Riding, Haywards Heath and Horsham saw dramatic reductions in the number of LD councillors returned.

Even more marked are the LD losses in places such as Windsor & Maidenhead, Waverley and Northampton. Only a few years ago (generally 2007) the LDs controlled these authorities and went in to the 2005 General election with the relevant Parliamentary seats as targets. Jeremy Hunt inherited a majority of only 861, Theresa May was to be part of a decapitation strategy and Northampton one of a new wave of urban Lib Dem seats. In those three boroughs the LDs lost 36 seats.  There are now no LDs cllrs on Waverley, just one on Windsor & Maidenhead and four on Northampton.

The Tories gained five councils in supposed LD heartlands of Devon and Somerset but also took a wide range of others including Harrogate and Ryedale in the north, Vale of White Horse and North Norfolk.

One immediate impact for the Tory Party is that in many seats at the 2015 General there should be less need to look over the shoulder for a pincer movement. Leeds and Bradford should receive the extra attention that was given the Harrogate last time and some resources given to Teignbridge might be placed in Exeter instead. Is Labour or Liberal Democrat now the threat to Nicola Blackwood in Oxford West & Abingdon after a stunning fourteen LD losses in the Vale of White Horse?

The Liberal Democrats did better where they had an MP
Nothing in politics is ever perfect nor consistent and the LDs showed remarkable resilience in a number of places probably in the form of incumbency. Where there was a sitting LD MP or Mayor they generally performed much better than elsewhere. The gains in the Vale may have in part reflected the defeat of Evan Harris in 2010 and Harrogate and Teignbridge followed similar lines.
In Eastleigh however the seat is now a Tory free zone, in Bath the LDs went forward and in Watford and Bedford - with LD mayors -the Tory didn't make the progress of elsewhere.
Incumbency is clearly a major factor for LD organisation. Removing the remaining LD MPs in seats which we should hold is not going to be easy. Neither Chris Skidmore nor Jack Lopresti has an LD councillor in their parts of South Glos but almost every ward in Thornbury & Yate is still LD held and in nearby Bristol W, Portsmouth S, Cheadle and Hazel Grove the clock against the LDs barely shifted.
North Norfolk's Tory council gain is illuminating. The Party made eleven gains but there are six wards and eight councillors in N Norfolk wards included within Keith Simpson's Broadland seat. In that area we gained seven seats from the LDs and one from Ind. Well done Keith but that means very few gains at all in Norman Lamb's actual constituency. 
Be under no illusions even in what will probably be the LDs' darkest days they could still defend their bastions very effectively.
There are many other important political messages from both the election results of 2011 and the referendum (of which possibly more on another occasion). In the meantime much of what we watch in the following weeks will be politicians responding to the quite astounding results on May 5th. The parties will then have to start preparing for 2012. Will that produce more of the same?


* Tomorrow Matthew Barrett will be summarising the main findings of this parliamentary research.


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