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Lib Dems could back Labour for electoral reform

Sir Vince Cable
May 10, 2023

The 2023 council election results were seriously bad news for the Conservatives. They lost even more seats than their most pessimistic prediction of 1000 made in advance in order to manage expectations. They also lost control of 48 councils in both the ‘Red Wall’ of the North and Midlands and the 'Blue Wall’ in the South.

For the opposition parties there was qualified success with the Labour Party becoming, in terms of councillors, the leading party of local government for the first time in almost 20 years and with symbolically important wins in Stoke, Swindon and in the Medway towns.

I will focus on the Liberal Democrats who made net gains of over 400 seats and gained control of 12 councils including several that were beyond expectations: Stratford-on-Avon, three councils in Devon, Surrey Heath and Chichester as well as Dacorum and Windsor & Maidenhead.

The Lib Dem results were more impressive than the numbers suggest. They built on exceptionally good results in 2019 when the seats were last contested and a record 700 seats were gained. 

The aggregate vote share of 20% was even higher than the 19% in 2019. There were also strong results in some areas where Labour was the opposition, notably in Hull where the incumbent Lib Dem council held off a strong Labour challenge and even made gains.

The Greens also advanced – a net gain of just under 250 as well as a new council, Mid Suffolk (but they lost control in Brighton). Much of this success was in areas where the Lib Dems were not competitive or didn’t field candidates. There were several successful, unofficial, local pacts designed to defeat Conservatives. 

My wife Rachel who lives in ‘deepest blue’ Brockenhurst in New Forest District has been campaigning for 40 years to overturn a solid Tory majority but, this time, supported a Green, who won after the Lib Dems stood aside (the pact produced net gains of 7 for the two parties).

The bigger question is what all of this means for a General Election which is now likely to be in a year’s time. The local results cannot simply be read across, since the turn-out is much lower than in a General Election and exclusively local issues loom larger. 

Moreover, we do not yet know the electoral significance of the crisis in the SNP (there were no elections in Scotland – and Wales). But if the aggregate vote shares in English local elections can be transposed nationally, they suggest that the Labour lead of around 9% (Labour 35% to Conservative 26%) is just short of what is necessary for an overall majority.

Inevitably, therefore, the performance of the smaller parties will loom large in the coming General Election. The Lib Dems are looking at a wide range of possibilities from the national tracker poll estimate of vote share 9% to Thursday’s 20%. 

The outcome in terms of both votes and parliamentary seats will depend on the scale of tactical voting within the ‘first-past-the-post’ system’. Lib Dems are currently targeting a dozen or so new seats but may be tempted to raise their sights.

They will rely on Labour (and Green) tactical voting in these target seats which will be maximised if a pact is agreed with the Greens, as in 2019, to stand aside candidates and if there is tacit cooperation with Labour as in 1997. 

The pollster Michael Thrasher concludes from the local results that the Lib Dems could win 39 seats but even 25-30 would be considered a good outcome by the party (with perhaps another one or two Greens).

These numbers would be crucial to the formation of a stable, Labour-led government. The SNP have mischievously volunteered support; but Labour and the Lib Dems won’t touch them with a bargepole.

Ed Davey is right not to rule out a coalition with Labour but it is highly unlikely that the Lib Dems would go into such an arrangement this side of electoral reform being delivered.

A looser ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement is much more plausible, depending on how the numbers look after an election and subject to agreement on reform of the voting system.

Ed Davey is right not to rule out a coalition with Labour Quote

You can be sure that serious, but deniable, conversations will be taking place over the next year.

Vince Cable profile

Sir Vince Cable is a former Secretary of State for Business, and led the Liberal Democrats from 2017-19.

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