There have been two ward by-elections in the City of Manchester since last May's combined general and local elections, and the results of them cannot make pleasant reading for the City's official Opposition Party, the Liberal Democrats.
In November's Hulme by-election, the Lib Dems absolutely flooded the ward with leaflet after leaflet claiming 'It's neck and neck!' 'It's Lib Dems or Labour!' 'Greens and Tories can't win here!'; the barcharts – which started with the legitimate fact that the Lib Dems held second place in the May election, if only slightly - stretched reality further and further with each leaflet. Hulme is of course a ward where the Greens have won in the past 10 years, unlike the Lib Dems.
Come polling day and it transpired that 'neck and neck' meant Labour outpolling the Lib Dems by a factor of 7 to 1 (over 1000 votes compared to 151); if the Lib Dem campaign had any effect on the result it was probably to bolster Labour, at the expense of the Greens, to make absolutely certain that the Tories' allies didn't win. Full result and Green comment can be seen here
Perhaps chastened by this result the Liberal Democrats appear to have gone for a more low key approach at the second Manchester by-election in Baguley (part of Wythenshawe). The consequent result of Thursday's poll (20th January) was even worse for them:
Labour 996 70.5% (+23.4%)
Conservatives 160 11.3% (-4.9%)
UKIP 77 5.5% (-1.3%)
BNP 52 3.68% (N/A did not stand in May)
Liberal-Democrats 52 3.68% (-20.8%)
Green Party 51 3.61% (+0.8%)
Donnelly (Independant) 19 1.3% (N/A, did not stand in May)
So the Liberal Democrat vote share dropped a staggering 20.8 percentage points from 24% to less than 4%. The Green Party campaign did not spend resources in what is a part of the city where we have no history of election campaigning. It's a pity because even the smallest increase in campaign activity would have seen us outpoll not only the BNP, but also the Liberal Democrats. I've been looking at election results in Manchester for a long time now, and I can't remember that low a vote share for the Lib Dems in a ward election anywhere. And with a turnout at the sort of level which would be achieved by people wandering into polling stations by accident, it will certainly be their lowest vote aggregate by some margin.
Manchester is not an exception in this respect; there have been shockingly bad results for the Lib Dems in other northern urban seats, including in Sheffield, Nick Clegg's backyard. This doesn't bode well for Clegg's Party in the coming May elections. With the deep feeling of betrayal many people have for that Party, it's tempting to cheer that prospect. There are reasons to regret it though as well. Many Lib Dem councillors have worked hard and well in their wards, and are likely to lose their seats through no fault of their own. There is also the prospect of Manchester becoming even more of a one Party (Labour) state than it is now.
If the voting trends continue - and as Manchester City Council have just announced 2,000 job losses as they face cuts imposed by the 'ConDem' Government this is likely - someone else will have to rise to the occasion as an alternative to Labour dominance. It should be the Green Party, and after all we were the third Party in the City in the last European Elections. That was under a PR system however, and first past the post is tough to crack. Hopefully a Yes victory in the AV campaign (which itself will be a tall order if the campaign gets associated too much with the Lib Dems), will open the door to a fairer voting system for local council elections (which I've also blogged on in the past).
Whatever happens we should have our work cut out in the coming months and years.
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