Thursday's local elections will offer significant pointers to next month's main event. Paul Krishnamurty expects a great night for the Lib Dems, to catastrophic effect for Labour...
"The aftermath of these local elections hands the Lib Dems a golden opportunity. Minor parties always struggle to be heard but a distinctive message in the campaign can make the world of difference. Positive headlines gained tonight give them a chance tomorrow to press their case with renewed vigour."
If media narrative is the key to political success, Theresa May just took another big step towards a majority of historic size. Thursday's speech outside Downing Street, framing this election as her pluckily defending the nation against Jean Claude Juncker and the Brussels bureaucrats, was exactly what the Tory tabloids wanted to hear. It will tap directly into the worldview of the Brexit voters she needs to re-align UK politics in the Tories' favour.
The timing couldn't be better with voters in England, Scotland and Wales going to the polls today (May 4) for local elections. According to psephologists Rallings and Thrasher, determining the winners and losers will be straightforward. They predict the Tories to gain 115 seats, while Labour lose 75. For the opposition to be losing seats to the governing party, especially at this late stage, is catastrophic.
However all those numbers will do is re-inforce the consensus. Terrible news for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, but when hasn't that been the case? Likewise it is obvious that UKIP are disintegrating, with their supporters transferring to the Tories en masse. The more interesting story - with profound implications for June 8th - concerns the minor parties. 85 projected Lib Dem gains is not far behind the Tories, while UKIP losing 105 is more than Labour.
One reason why virtually nobody predicted a Tory majority in 2015 was that we were all trying to make sense of a unique period in UK political history - in which the old party system was breaking down and voters were in flux like never before. Two years on we are still trying to understand it and winning money on this election necessarily involves predicting the behaviour of these same voters.
Two critical things happened after 2010. In joining the Tories in coalition, the Lib Dems burned their bridges with over half their voters. Throughout the parliament, they were punished repeatedly in local elections and obliterated at the General Election, losing 49 out of 57 seats. On the other side of the spectrum, perhaps as a partial response to the Tories leading a more liberal government, UKIP rose from nowhere.
Between 2010 and 2015, the Lib Dems lost nearly 4.5m votes while UKIP gained over 3.5m. Usually, that vote was not transferring from the former to the latter. These are rarely the same people. Given a very different scenario for both parties this time, we need to watch this group of up to 8M voters very closely.
Labour cannot afford a Lib Dem comeback
One effect of the Lib Dem collapse was to make Labour's dire result look better. In university towns and the cities - where UKIP is much less of a factor - that swing yielded some impressive gains for Ed Miliband. Elsewhere UKIP skewered the Labour vote but the return of leftish Lib Dem types often compensated. If that swing reverses, while Kippers back May's hard Brexit, Labour will be squeezed on both sides.
Take a seat like Bishop Auckland in Durham. Despite Helen Goodman's comfortable 3,508 majority, the numbers were troubling news for Labour. The Tories reduced their deficit by 4% - compared to a roughly flat swing across the country, while UKIP won 18%. Simultaneously, the Lib Dems fell from 22% to 4%. Whilst we cannot accurately breakdown the split in these constituencies, it seems obvious that the latter trend helped, even saved Labour.
This dynamic is embedded in UK politics. For decades, there has been a clear correlation between Labour and Lib Dem poll numbers. When one rises, the other falls. This is why Labour, and anyone hoping to restrict the Tory majority, should be extremely worried by these (probable) local results.
With the coalition damaging their brand, perhaps for decades, Lib Dem results between 2010 and 2015 represented a historic low point. They've been faring very well in council elections for months, for two reasons. First, a natural recovery from that trough. Second, they have become the party and voice of Remain. As a result they are becoming competitive in their small number of targeted seats. Our current line projects they'll win something in the low twenties.
Opposition to Brexit offers the Lib Dems a chance to rebrand
The aftermath of these local elections hands the Lib Dems a golden opportunity. Minor parties always struggle to be heard, especially mid-term, but a distinctive message in the campaign can make the world of difference. The positive headlines gained tonight give them a chance tomorrow to press their case with renewed vigour.
In elections prior to 2015, the Lib Dems typically increased their vote substantially during the campaign. Charles Kennedy benefited from opposing the Iraq war. Nick Clegg famously capitalised on the first TV debates. Brexit, and his clear denunciation of it, gives Tim Farron a similar defining feature, which around half the country agree with. Rather than 'the party that propped up the Tories and betrayed students', they can become best-known for opposing Brexit.
I suspect they'll get a poll bounce over the next few weeks, but to little effect. There are perhaps up to 25 realistic target seats - nowhere near enough to stop a Tory majority unless Labour also hold steady. In fact the greater impact may be in seats where the LDs can't win, but where a mini-comeback hurts Labour.
Returning to Bishop Auckland, Clegg earned 22% there, down 2% from Kennedy's 24% in 2005. However it wasn't as the result of intense Lib Dem focus on a marginal - this was the effect of national swing. If they can just rise from 4% to double-figures, it will make Labour holding the seat that bit harder. The same dynamic applies in dozens of Labour seats that have suddenly become Tory targets.
There is much talk of tactical voting among progressives and Remainers but, in reality, Lab/Lib dynamics are ruinous to progressives. The two parties will never officially sanction a tactical alliance yet apart, they simply don't have the numbers nationally. Whereas progressives are split when they can least afford it, the hard-Brexit supporting Right are unified like never before, and May has the perfect strategy to keep it that way. At least for the next five weeks.