Local Elections Preview: Lib Dems set to reap rewards of Tory implosion

This piece was first published on 30th April 2019.

The first of two elections with the potential to blow up British politics takes place on Thursday. Unlike the European Elections which everybody expects to happen at the end of the month, winning candidates will definitely serve their local councils.

Tories set for a catastrophic month

Therein lies the significance. Normally, local elections do not change the national political weather or even accurately reflect it. Incumbent governments can expect a kicking from angrier and better motivated opponents. These particular elections, however, could precipitate the collapse of the most successful party in Western Europe.

With the exception of Labour’s relatively new mass membership, political parties are generally hollowed out in the 21st century. The Conservatives have around 100-120K members but a high proportion are inactive. Their ground game is extremely reliant on local councillors and activists.

The polling evidence, whether national or for the Euros, suggests they will suffer a mass defection over the next month, as punishment for failing to deliver Brexit. The scale and nature of that defection or desertion will help frame their imminent leadership contest, the future of the party and perhaps Brexit itself.

The narrative on Friday will almost certainly revolve around Tory meltdown but they are rated near-certain to win the most seats at odds of just 1.03. 8,374 English council seats are up for re-election, of which they already hold 4628 – more than half. Labour start on 2069 and the Lib Dems have 641.

They were last contested on the same day as the 2015 General Election – the only time the Tories won a majority since 1992 so they have a long way to fall. Nationally they were on 37%, compared to sub-30% in recent polls.

Farage’s absence will prevent a wipeout

One saving grace that will prevent a wipeout is that their principal rivals on the right will not be these council ballot papers. Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party aren’t fielding candidates and UKIP are nothing like the threat of 2015. These elections coincided with their winning 4M votes under Farage’s leadership. They’ve since become a <strong>far-right rump</strong>, polling around 5% nationally and contesting fewer than a third of the wards.

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