One week from today, large parts of England and all of Northern Ireland will vote in local elections. It used to be that local elections saw the governing party get walloped, while the number of seats gained by the official opposition (and where they were gained) were taken apart by psephologists, both professional and armchair, in an attempt to ascertain who was bound to win the next general election.
Since 2010, this hasn’t exactly been the case. The Tories have done very well in local elections for a governing party since coming to power. In fact, if you take the results of every set of local elections since Cameron first became PM, the Tories have a net gainof 130 seats over that period.
What I have not done is count up all of the Lib Dem councillor losses over that same period of time, since the result would be too depressing. Suffice to say, when a similar set of elections to what we’re about to face next week was run in 2011, the Lib Dems lost a whopping 748 seats overall. Granted, this was the first set of elections the party had to face since coming into government, but it is worth noting that the Tories gained 86 seats in the same set of elections.
What this means is that in the 2019 local elections there are hundreds and hundreds of seats up for grabs that were in fairly recent memory held by the Lib Dems. The Tories are going through a bout of unpopularity the likes of which they have not faced for years. People are in several minds about the Corbyn-led Labour Party. Change UK is not running candidates and even if they were, their launch has been mediocre at best.
All this adds up to the most fertile ground imaginable for a Lib Dem revival of sorts. They could – they should – do really well. I would go further: they absolutely need to do very, very well. Otherwise, I really think it is only a matter of time before the party is no more, as in within the next couple of years. I know this sounds melodramatic, but the 2019 local elections represents the last kick of the can for the Liberal Democrats as a viable electoral force.
Imagine for a moment if the Lib Dems did do really well on May 2nd. And I mean, really well: say, gained 500 seats overall. Some will say this is unrealistic, but again, I come back to the 2011 figure of 748 losses – this wouldn’t even represent a reversion to the pre-2010 mean. If this were to happen, there would be huge momentum behind the Lib Dems going into the EU elections. They would make Change UK think again about their approach to the party; you could only conclude by the local election results that there was something left in the brand after all, and add to that the structure and activist base, Change would have to consider melting into the Lib Dems, not the same thing happening in reverse.
The Lib Dems would look like the natural home for Remainers after all. I can imagine a huge momentum gaining for them going into the EU elections – if they then did really well in the those elections, that would seal their comeback. The Lib Dems would be a genuine electoral force to be reckoned with again.
On the flip side, if the Lib Dems do poorly in the locals or even a bit mediocre, I think that seals the electoral coffin for them. A free run, against a Tory party in crisis and a Labour Party trying to do all it can to alienate liberals and Remainers, and it still couldn’t do well? Change UK would get a large boost and start to look like the one surviving life-raft for Remainers. After that, it would just be a matter of time before the Liberal Democrats melted into Change or whatever it calls itself in six months time.
I know some of you think I’m probably overstating the significance of next week to the future of a party that has existed for 30 years – but the more I think about it, the more I’m sure I’m not. For the Lib Dems as a party, everything is riding on next Thursday. Everything.