There has been an awakening, have you felt it? Well maybe not awakening, but a spark at least.

Since the 2017 general election, the Liberal Democrats have somewhat faded from the national consciousness. The newspapers are instead dominated by scandals within the two main parties – Conservative infighting and Labour’s internal battles between Momentum and the party’s ‘moderate’ wing. On the national stage at least, the Lib Dems have been all but forgotten. Drill down to a local level, however, and is a different story being told?

Using data from PolitiStats UK we can see that, since the general election last year, the Lib Dems have made steady inroads at a local level. To date there have been 207 council by-elections since the general election, with 66 seats changing hands. Of these contests, the Liberal Democrats have won 31 seats. As well as holding on to 11 seats they were defending, Vince Cable’s party has snatched 13 wards from the Conservatives, four from Labour and – somewhat surprisingly – two from UKIP. Stranger still are the areas where the strongly pro-EU Lib Dems are gaining seats, with 17 of their 20 gains coming from Leave voting areas.

By-elections since the 2017 general election:

Graph recreated from PolitiStats UK: https://twitter.com/PolitiStatsUK

 

By-elections since the start of 2018:

Graph recreated from PolitiStats UK: https://twitter.com/PolitiStatsUK

So how have these recent wins come about? First things first, the Liberal Democrats have traditionally excelled at a local level. Their successes in the 90s and 2000s were partially built on a wide spread network of local councillors up and down the country. After their coalition misadventure, however, this network was shattered and the party haemorrhaged 1,369 seats between 2010 and 2014. A lacklustre showing at the 2017 general election means that the road back to relevance for the Lib Dems is a long one; however recent local by-election wins indicates that the party are at least moving in the right direction. As one of the only pro-remain parties, they have also been able to pick up a host of new members, surpassing the 100,000 mark in April 2017.

One of the stranger elements of this rise is where the votes have come from. Evidently, the Liberal Democrats are winning council seats from the Conservatives across the country, which could be down to their pro-EU stance winning over Tory remainers. However, as the table below highlights, the Lib Dems are gaining the most votes in seats once held by UKIP. As the two most diametrically opposed parties in the country, this seems like a strange occurrence, even as UKIP’s support plummets nationally. It could be that many people are simply turned-off by what the two main parties are offering, particularly at a time when neither Labour nor the Conservatives offer a wholly viable plan for Brexit. Are the Lib Dems capitalising on this and regaining their former status as the home of the protest voter?

Another worry is the recent polling in London, the most remain-leaning region in England. This has indicated that the Liberal Democrats are at 11 per cent, almost identical to their vote share in 2014. This persistent struggle to bolster their support may be symptomatic of a wider challenge for the Lib Dems as they struggle to achieve any sort of cut-through with the general public. However, it should be noted that Lib Dems could receive a potential boost this May, as EU nationals living in Britain can vote in the local elections.

 

Graph recreated from PolitiStats UK: https://twitter.com/PolitiStatsUK

*accurate as of 25th February 2018

 

While local elections are all well and good, the main target for the Lib Dems is transferring these recent gains onto the national stage and returning Liberal Democrat MPs to Parliament. However, the Lib Dems have struggled to boost their polling figures back into the double digits and they currently poll around 8 per cent nationally. The contrast, however, is staggering. If the swing to the Lib Dems seen in council by-elections since last June were repeated in a new general election, the party would take an additional 15 seats. That would bring their total up to 27, with the ability to wield much greater influence. However national polling estimates currently sees them gaining just two extra seats, which would take them to the heady heights of 14 MPs overall.

Of course, stronger local performances might not mean more seats for the Lib Dems, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have an impact at a general election. While there are many changes yet to come, one thing is clear is that the two main parties are currently at a stalemate in terms of public support, with both parties hovering around 40 per cent. Even a moderate increase in support for the Lib Dems could end up tipping the balance between Labour and Tory candidates in marginal seats across the country.

It remains to be seen what will happen at local elections in May, however if this breakthrough is achieved, then our thoughts turn to the general election in 2022. A strong outing at the May local elections and the Liberal Democrats may start to glimpse the light at the end of a long tunnel. However, failure to achieve this breakthrough and the party will be left fumbling about in the dark; facing electoral oblivion at the next election, with many of its key MPs having small majorities.