UK Politics

Are Lib Dems facing candidate drain?

Nick Clegg Image copyright PA

Would you rather stuff envelopes through doors to get a councillor elected, or stay at home with a book?

After years of defeats at local elections some Liberal Democrats have been asking themselves that question.

Take Paul Clein, 19 years a Lib Dem councillor in Liverpool, and now not even a party member. He lost his seat in 2011 and does not plan to go back.

"A lot of people like me have left," he says. "We were the ones that were out on the streets every week, delivering leaflets.

"The party, like the Liberal Party in the 1920s, is hollowing out from the inside."

Three times Liberal Democrats have fought local elections as a party of government. Three times they have suffered losses.

'Pet peeves'

They now have 35% fewer councillors than they had in 2010.

Being in national government makes surviving in local government hard, but it appears to have hurt Lib Dems much more than Tories.

The Conservatives have lost only 9% of their councillors in the same period.

The Lib Dems say their membership numbers have been rising since 2012, but only after a steep post-election fall.

Naomi Smith is the co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum - a group on the left of the party often critical of the leadership - and she says the grass roots are unhappy.

"Everybody has their own pet peeve," she says. "For many liberals it's things like secret courts. For others it's things like the NHS. We've had some attrition of the people who would normally go out and convince people to stand."

The figures suggest that challenge - getting people to stand as Lib Dems - has become more difficult.

The Lib Dems have 500 fewer candidates in the coming elections than they had when the seats were last contested in 2010.

The Conservatives have only very slightly fewer.


When it comes to the European elections, senior Lib Dem sources play down expectations of anything other than losses.

The party was - one activist says - "spooked" by Nick Clegg's failure to land many blows on UKIP's leader Nigel Farage in the televised debates.

And yet for all that Lib Dem hope appears to spring eternal.

Image caption The Lib Dems - and the Liberals before them - have long been known for strong local campaigns

Energy Secretary Ed Davey told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "I think we're going to do better in the local elections than people are predicting. I do actually think we are capable as a party of rebuilding.

"We've got to build up for the next general election. I see, actually, if you look at the local election results up and down the country, where we work we are winning."

The optimistic case is this: May 2014 will see the final seats yet to be contested under the coalition government up for election.

However bad it gets, the argument goes, things have to get better from there.

Private worries

Lib Dem backbenchers have displayed a remarkable discipline. Even those with a reputation for dissent seem optimistic about their own prospects in their own constituencies come the general election.

Many in the party genuinely believe that while they have lost councillors and activists, they have concentrated their resources where they can win.

They worry in private about seats where sitting Lib Dem MPs are standing down, but think the fighting power of their incumbents will defy the polls elsewhere.

Will that be enough to ensure that another round of defeats in the coming polls does not lead to fresh questions about Mr Clegg's leadership?

You would not want to put money on it.

But to ex-Lib Dem Paul Clein, none of this much matters.

"I go to football matches," he says. "I go to concerts. I read books again. I have a life again."

All politicians fret about the decisions of voters.

The Lib Dems may also have to worry about former stalwarts who choose life over politics.