Local elections 2023: Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are the unknown quantity of the local elections next week.  Their national polling – 10% according to the latest YouGov poll – is not a helpful indicator of their likely performance, as there are parts of the country where they have been building up a solid local government base in recent years.

Though their national polling is unimpressive, the Lib Dems will be bullish about making gains this time. They are fortunate that a lot of the councils up for election this time are rural / suburban councils where the Lib Dems are the main challenger to the Conservatives, and many of those councils have all of their seats up for election this time, allowing for parties to gain or lose a lot of seats in one go. The Lib Dems will also be keen for evidence of growing strength in the ‘Blue Wall’: areas of the country, particularly in southern England, which have had Conservative MPs for decades but where disenchantment with the Tories is believed to be growing, given the overall direction of the party post-Brexit.

Here are some councils – currently run by the Tories – where the Liberal Democrats will be hoping to take control on 4 May:

  • Dacorum (full elections): The Lib Dems are strong in West Hertfordshire – they already control the neighbouring St Albans and Three Rivers districts, and already hold close to 40% of the seats on Dacorum Borough Council.  The borough is also just across the county border from the Chesham and Amersham parliamentary seat, which the Lib Dems sensationally won from the Tories in a 2021 by-election.
  • West Berkshire (full elections): The Lib Dems haven’t held a majority on West Berkshire Council for twenty years, but with nearly 40% of the seats already, the party will fancy their chances in this borough. The Lib Dems won the Newbury parliamentary seat at a famous by-election in 1993, but lost it back to the Tories in 2005, on the same day the Tories won the council majority that they’ve maintained ever since.
  • West Lindsey (full elections): This rural Lincolnshire council is an indication that the Lib Dems’ local support does extend beyond the south of England, even into a county that overwhelmingly backed Brexit. The local Tory Member of Parliament, Sir Edward Leigh, has held his seat for the last forty years.
  • Stratford-on-Avon (full elections): The Lib Dems only hold one-third of the seats on this Warwickshire council at present, but will be hoping to capitalise on the recent troubles of the local Tory MP, Nadhim Zahawi, who was sacked as Chairman of the Conservative Party by Rishi Sunak in January 2023 because of controversy surrounding his tax affairs.
  • Cherwell (one-third elections): The only Tory council left in Oxfordshire, the Liberal Democrats actually hold fewer seats than Labour, but are nonetheless the official opposition due to an alliance with the local Green Party.  While a Liberal Democrat majority is not possible this time, the Lib Dems will be hoping to deprive the Tories of their majority and leapfrog Labour as the leading anti-Tory force in the district.
  • Brentwood (one-third elections): The Lib Dems have not held a majority on this Essex council for twenty years, and with only one-third of the seats up for election this time, a majority on 5 May is unlikely, even though they hold nearly 40% of the seats at present.  However, the party will be hopeful of eliminating the Tory majority for the first time since 2015.
  • Surrey Heath (full elections): One of the few Surrey councils still run by the Conservatives, the Tories nonetheless lost their majority on the council in 2020, for the first time since its creation in 1973.  The Liberal Democrats would need to double their numbers to win a majority on their own, but the party will surely be hoping to dethrone the Tories here, not least because of the identity of the local Member of Parliament – one Michael Gove.
  • East Cambridgeshire (full elections): Much like they have managed to do in Oxfordshire, the Lib Dems will be keen to expand their numbers in the rural districts of Cambridgeshire, in anticipation of potential gains at parliamentary level in this prosperous part of the country.
  • Arun / Chichester / Horsham / Mid Sussex (full elections): West Sussex is one of the few counties in the South East not to have a Lib-Dem led council at present. However, with all districts in the county subject to full-council elections, and with the Conservative administrations there under huge pressures from residents – not least on the vexed issue of housebuilding – the Lib Dems will be hopeful of taking control in at least one of these four districts, if not more.

With this set of local elections, the Liberal Democrats will be eager to demonstrate that they remain the leading anti-Tory force in a large swathe of rural and suburban England – so that when the general election comes, they can more convincingly persuade Labour supporters to ‘lend’ their vote to the Lib Dems to unseat the local Tory MP.  And with the Conservatives still in the polling doldrums, these elections are a huge opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to achieve – again – a much better result than their own national popularity would suggest.

If you are interested to receive some post-election analysis of a particular council, with details and insight on the new political landscape after 4 May, please contact SP Broadway’s James Newhall at james@spbroadway.com.

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