By Stephen Tall
A year ago, May 5th 2011, was the grimmest of days for the Liberal Democrats. The party lost some 700 councillors, and, more cruelly still, a once-in-a-generation chance of electoral reform at Westminster with the rejection of the AV referendum. The question hovering over Thursday's set of elections is: is 2011 as bad as it gets for the party?
The last time most of the seats up for grabs on Thursday were contested was four years ago, in 2008, the high-water mark for Tory support, and a low point of Labour's fortunes. The nationally projected share of the vote was estimated at 43% for the Conservatives, with the Lib Dems narrowly out-polling Labour 24% to 23%. If the current opinion polls are to be believed Lib Dem support has roughly halved since then, so the party is fully braced for another wedge of big losses – some 300 or more Lib Dem councillors are likely to be defeated this year.
Much of the media attention will be focused on London, where the same line-up of big names – Boris, Ken and Brian – are contesting the mayoralty as they did four years ago. Brian Paddick has enjoyed a good campaign for the Lib Dems, easily holding his own at the televised hustings. Compared with four years ago, he appears much more comfortable as a candidate, and has carefully promoted the whole London Lib Dem team who are hoping to retain the party's three GLA seats. His liberal messages on crime and transport have been backed up by a surprisingly well-funded campaign and some spiky billboard advertising. In 2008, Brian's mayoral vote was lower than the London-wide Lib Dems' – the positions may well be reversed this year.
There are another two mayoral elections taking place this year: in Liverpool, where Richard Kemp, a former Lib Dem council leader, is standing; and in Salford, where Norman Owen – who ran Hazel Blears a good second at the last general election – is flying the Lib Dem flag. The party isn't expecting either to repeat the successes of Lib Dem directly-elected mayors Dave Hodgson (Bedford) or Dorothy Thornhill (Watford).
With the Lib Dems' national poll ratings flat-lining at around 10-12%, the party faces the uncomfortable prospect of a classic pincer-movement: losing to Labour our hard-won gains in the urban north, and losing to the Tories the no-less-hard-won gains in the suburban south. How the party fares against Labour in Sheffield, Manchester and Cambridge – where there are sitting Lib Dem MPs, including Nick Clegg – and against the Tories in Eastleigh, Three Rivers and Cheltenham will be a crucial test for whether the party will be able to dig in for the 2015 general election. Though Lib Dem representation on local councils is important in its own right, a critical mass of active councillors is crucial for any Lib Dem MP hoping to retain their seat in 2015.
As it is the total number of Lib Dem councillors across the UK looks set to fall to below 3,000, its lowest level in two decades. That figure is half Labour's total, and one-third of the Tories'. For a party that prides itself on community politics, of embodying the very best of local government in action, this is a major setback.
A second successive drubbing at the polls will almost certainly trigger one or two calls from activists for Nick Clegg to be replaced as Lib Dem leader. Such a move would be navel-gazing folly, in my view. The party is not unpopular at the moment because of Nick Clegg: indeed, he out-polls Ed Miliband in many surveys.
No, the Lib Dems are unpopular because, with the economy struggling to keep its head above water, the coalition government is unpopular. In many voters' eyes, the Lib Dems are now tainted by their association with a Conservative party that appears to have reverted to type by cosying-up to the rich and powerful Murdochs of this world, and to be governing in their interests by cutting the 50% top-rate of tax.
If there's one thing that might cheer Lib Dem supporters on Friday morning it's that the Tories (Boris aside) are also likely to suffer a bad night. There will appear to be some justice in the fact that both coalition parties are sharing in this government's mid-term blues, not just the junior partner.
Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.