Massive AV defeat ends a disastrous night for Lib Dems

By Ian Dunt

Voters have rejected change to the electoral system by an astonishing majority today, ending a disastrous 24 hours for the Liberal Democrats.

The vote on AV was defeated by around 70% in most areas, as the hopes of electoral reformers seemed dashed for a generation.

Meanwhile, the junior coalition partner was hammered in local elections, with Lib Dem councillors losing control in Sheffield – Nick Clegg’s own city – to Labour.

Major urban areas such as Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester all turned against the party, as Labour capitalised on disaffection with the coalition.

In total, over 600 Lib Dem councillors were lost

Lib Dems suffer northern meltdown

Comment: Time to end the misguided attack on the Lib Dems

Local elections 2011: Five key battlegrounds

The party also haemorrhaged support in Scotland, where disillusioned voters fled to the Scottish National party (SNP).

That tidal wave gave the nationalists a historic majority in Holyrood and prompted the resignation of Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, who will step down in the autumn.

Scottish Labour leader quits following SNP majority

Labour won back over 700 seats in English local elections, gaining councils like Blackpool and North Warwickshire from the Conservatives.

Many northern cities also fell into Labour hands, including Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle and Hull.

The party enjoyed its strongest performance in Wales, although it fell one short of securing an overall majority. Plaid Cymru was left picking up the pieces as it lost its place in the Assembly’s coalition.

Welsh Labour miss out on overall majority

Analysis: Wales and Scotland results

Meanwhile, the Conservatives emerged relatively unscathed, surprising many pundits by the strength of their vote.

Tory vote holds up in England

But ministers were on strict instructions not to be appear jubilant in front of the cameras as the Liberal Democrat leadership was left reeling by the results.

Former leader Paddy Ashdown, a close personal friend of Mr Clegg, issued a startlingly aggressive attack on the prime minister, accusing him of endorsing and funding a ‘no’ campaign which has knowingly used misleading information.

Ashdown launches stinging attack on PM

The promise of AV was a major factor in the coalition negotiations which took place following the last general election and Mr Clegg will struggle to maintain party discipline without the prospect of electoral reform on the horizon.

Instead, senior Liberal Democrats could be seen publically disassociating themselves from their Tory counterparts, as they desperately tried to reassess their tactics in government.

But with relationships so badly damaged by the AV campaign, analysts are increasingly convinced that the contest maybe have permanently damaged the cross-party unity that had characterise its early days.

“It will never again be glad confident morning,” Lord Ashdown said.