Saturday, 10 October 2015

Lib Dem Battlegrounds in 2016

The 2016 elections are particularly important as first major post-Coalition test for the Lib Dems. Many Lib Dems will hope that leaving the Coalition will allow a relatively immediate recovery in Lib Dem fortunes, especially if Tim Farron and the party manage to make some noise over the next 6 months in opposition to government policies. If recovery does not begin in 2016 it means that losing the Coalition will not be enough and Lib Dem recovery will be much more difficult, if possible at all.

There are four separate contests next May: Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, English Locals and the London elections, all last fought in either 2011 and 2012.  It has been said many times but it needs remembering that the Lib Dems took huge losses during the Coalition.  They lost 2000 councillors (about half their total), 11 out of 16 MSPs in Scotland and 1 out of 6 Welsh AMs as well as many MPs and MEPs. All these contests in 2016 pose their own unique challenges.  Basically, the political scene has got a lot more crowded in the last decade. In each of these arenas the Lib Dems face a more complicated problem than just hoping their support drifts back from Labour or the Conservatives.


England

There is the least to say about the London elections.  The Lib Dems are not going to win the Mayoral election short of a major miracle, nor are they likely to win any Assembly constituencies. They haven't won a single one since the Assembly was founded and in 2012 they didn't even come 2nd anywhere. Their best result is likely to be to use the Mayoral and constituency campaigns to motivate and maximise Lib Dem list votes across London to maintain the party's two list AMs or even capture a further one. 

The English locals are possibly the most significant of the 4 contests, given the sheer number of people involved: thousands of councillors. Interestingly, the long-term slide of local Lib Dems does not start in 2011 with the Coalition. Lib Dem losses stretch unbroken back to 2008, which itself was a small rise that failed to replace the losses of 2007. It was as far back as 2006 that the Lib Dems saw their last real sustained peak in councillor numbers. This period from 2002-2006 was also the period of peak Lib Dem MP numbers and by-election results. This reflects a time when both Conservative and Labour parties were weak and the Lib Dems forged a USP for themselves by opposing the Iraq War and Tuition fees. With the Conservative revival that started with David Cameron's election in late 2005 the Lib Dems already began to struggle, as they did in the Commons in the 2010 election well before the meltdown this May.

This poses an opportunity for Lib Dem councillors now. Starting from a low base they are well placed to benefit from an electorate sick of current councils who have been in post for years, and seeking to 'cast the rascals out'. Some evidence for optimism comes as well in the form of council by-elections since May. 34 council by-elections since the general where the Lib Dems put up a candidate before have seen an average increase in vote share of 5%, and over all by-elections since May the Lib Dems have made a net gain of 11 seats. The question is what can be the Lib Dem’s unique selling point for next May? Local pavement (literally) issues? Credible opposition to the 
Tories (unlike Labour’s hard-leftism)? Or something else? 

The big factor that complicates this is the recent rise of UKIP particularly, and also the Greens. UKIP now have over 500 councillors from almost none in 2010, and the Greens have posted much smaller gains. In some places like Solihull multiple Lib Dem councillors have defected to the Greens losing a block of experienced councillors and campaigners. Local elections work on a 4 year cycle e.g. the 2016 elections follow on from 2012. UKIP's success in local elections began in 2013 with a big increase in their support that year, so it's likely it will continue in 2016 (the 4th year of the cycle), risking squeezing out the Lib Dems in more areas. No longer can the Lib Dems rely on being the only opposition to the Tories in rural areas and the only opposition to Labour in the cities. 

The state of the Tory/Labour battle in England is more uncertain. Nobody knows whether something will come along to blow the government off course by next May, nor do we know what effect Jeremy Corbyn's election will have by next year for good or ill. But, the Lib Dems are still easily Britain's 3rd largest party in local government. The party has about three times as many councillors as the Greens and UKIP combined, with a higher profile, more manpower, and seemingly at the moment a fairer wind behind them. The English councils seem the Lib Dems' best chance to see some genuine gains next May, which would be a big morale boost across England, and give real substance to hope of further gains in coming years. 

Scotland

Scotland has been a heartland for the Liberal Democrats dating back to when they were the Whigs before the 1850's. In recent years party has actually been less popular in Scotland than England (19% vs 24% in 2010) but has been much more effective at turning that into seats in both Westminster and Holyrood. Sadly that is no more. Lib Dem MPs and MSPs combined have gone from 27 in 2010 to 6 now. Any recovery will be an uphill battle primarily against the SNP. The sheer scale of SNP wave is incredible, easily topping 50% in polls for 2016 so far and even 60% in some. Certainly at this rate the SNP vote share will be up from 2011. The SNP wave may be topped up even further by people voting SNP in constituencies but voting Green on the Lists, thus effectively manipulating the system into maximising pro-Independence representation even more, making progress harder still.

Even a relatively respectable increase in the number of Lib Dem votes may not be enough to maintain crucial vote share. The Scottish Conservatives in May 2015 actually increased their vote by 22,000 but still suffered a small fall in percentage share. Turnout in the 2011 Holyrood elections was 50%; given what happened at the referendum and the general election it seems pretty likely turnout will rise sharply in 2016, increasing the number of votes needed to even stand still. Vote share in Lib Dem held seats in Scotland actually held up well in May 2015, with some of the lowest falls across Britain, though it did no good in retaining constituencies on the mainland. On one hand this gives a good platform to attempt to maintain votes into 2016, on the other hand it risks being a mirage, as there is no incentive for Unionist tactical votes on the crucial list vote this time round.

It is hard to see what Scottish Lib Dems can do. They're currently polling around their 2011 support and they have the same problem as Labour: voters convinced by Independence have little reason to stay Lib Dem when that issue is so important to them. This is unless they can carve out a distinctive niche on particularly LD issues (like civil rights and the failure of Police Scotland) and make that of comparable importance to some voters. The LDs are now very much Scotland's 4th party in size, whether on councils, Westminster (votes) or in Holyrood, which raises the problem again of gaining a voice in a crowded media environment. They need to carve out a distinct voice that is opposed to both the SNP and Labour.

In 2011 the party elected 2 constituency MSPs in Shetlands and Orkney, and a single list MSP in each of 'Mid Scotland and Fife', 'North East Scotland' and 'South Scotland'. The good news is total annihilation isn't going to happen. Even if Shetlands and/or Orkney constituencies fall continued Lib Dem strength in the Highlands and Islands (the only region the Lib Dems polled a respectable 3rd in 2011) should see List MSPs elected there to compensate.

It is impossible to forecast what will happen to the other 3 list MSPs due to the vagaries of the AMS system. They all polled 5-7% of the vote in 2011 and if they can maintain vote share they have a good chance of hanging on but are severely threatened by the rise of the Scottish Greens competing for those bottom list seats, further increases in the SNP share above them, and even a possible modest Tory revival.

On the other hand gains are possible. If the Lib Dems can focus liberal or unionist anti-SNP votes in particular constituencies, probably most likely in the South of Scotland or Lothian (given the May 2015 results), they have a chance to pick up one or two seats. There is also a significant chance of gaining a Lothian list seat after the sad passing of Margo McDonald, who held it as an Independent.  Realistically though, given current polling, sadly the most likely scenario is a small further loss. I would say the Scottish Lib Dems are most likely to return somewhere from 3-6 MSPs.

Wales

In Wales the Lib Dems face the same problem as in Scotland but with a different face. Labour, weighed down by a Welsh government that performing poorly on the NHS and Education, will probably still top the poll but lose ground, as they did in 2015. UKIP and the Welsh Tories are on the rise though. Particularly, the last Welsh elections pre-date the UKIP surge and they gave a strong performance in Wales in 2015, driving Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems into 4th and 5th place on votes. This surge has yet to show any signs of faltering in opinion polls despite UKIP nationally being in a rut. A poll from late June put them on 14%, very close to their May result and three times what they polled in 2011. If UKIP can maintain support at these levels through to next May they will gain 8-ish seats on the Lists.

This is a huge threat to the Lib Dems due to the effective electoral threshold that operates in a 4 seat region. Welsh Assembly Lib Dems were remarkably unaffected in 2011, losing only 1 seat out of 6. This was due to hanging on to the bottom list seat in each of four Welsh regions. If the Conservatives, Labour and Plaid Cymru broadly maintain their vote share, and UKIP dramatically increase theirs, as suggested by opinion polls, then they may replace the Lib Dems in each region on the bottom seat of those lists. This is what happened to the Lib Dems in the European elections last year. Their vote share halved but they lost 90% of their seats because instead of taking the bottom seat in each region they were squeezed our of almost every region except the very largest. 

Nor is there much better news from the constituencies. Opinion polls put the Lib Dems on about their 2011 vote. Given the 2015 result there seems little chance of reclaiming the constituency in Montgomeryshire, though the closeness of the Cardiff Central result in 2011 does gives some hope there. This somewhat gloomy prognosis is supported by academic models from Cardiff University that are predicting the Lib Dems losing most of their List seats.

The same logic raises worries even about the survival of Kirsty Williams in Brecon. In 2011 after the loss of the Montgomeryshire Westminster seat the Assembly seat was also lost on a big swing to the Tories. The Brecon and Radnorshire Westminster seat was one of the surprise losses in May and the Tories will be fighting hard to take the Assembly seat as well. Kirsty Williams does still have a 10% majority though, even after seeing it halved in 2011, and a relatively high profile as Welsh Lib Dem leader. I believe the odds are good that she will survive but there is certainly a risk.
Unfortunately unless the Lib Dems can retake 4th place from UKIP the most likely result has to be small further losses. Overall in Wales, similarly to Scotland, the most likely result must be to return somewhere between 2-5 AMs.


Credit and Thanks to www.leftfootforward.org  for the Image.

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