Editor’s blog: Just what has happened to the Lib Dem vote in Reading?

Ever since I moved to Reading 18 years ago, Reading has been fairly Red. My first summer was the General Election of 1997: Katrina and the Waves were riding high at Eurovision and Tony Blair swept aside 18 years of Conservative rule with New Labour.

That election night (watched on a tiny black and white telly with more snow than Jon Snow) was a watershed moment in British politics, one that will only happen once every generation or so.

Seats that had been traditionally blue for decades suddenly turned red.

Reading East (what was once Reading South) and Reading West (what was once Reading North) had been Conservative since 1974. You could argue that Reading North had been Conservative since the 1950s – the point is, the Reading seats were always Tory safe seats until 1997.

Jane Griffiths and Martin Salter both stormed to victories for New Labour, changing the bigger picture, despite the council being mostly red.

That all changed when, in 2005 Jane Griffiths was deselected and Labour lost the General Election to Rob Wilson; five years later Reading West also returned to the Tory fold with Alok Sharma.

The pair increased their majorities last time round, making the seats look very safe for the Tories once again. Will that ever change? Perhaps – but that’s the subject for another blog.

Some clues come from the local picture – the grassroots, if you like.

Looking back at the picture painted by the last 12 years, you can see how the five parties in Reading have fared. We are looking here at the collective share of the vote for Council Elections, not individual wards where the picture varies (for more on that, see my blog on Park Ward).

Labour remain the dominant force, with the Tories in a steady second (sometimes over taking Labour) – but in 12 years the Liberal Democrats have gone from being a close third to a distant fifth. That’s quite a decline. 

Even at the height of Labour’s unpopularity with the wider electorate, it have never polled below 30% over the past 12 years. Indeed, while the rest of the country was grumbling over the recession and Labour’s role in it (blame/innocent depending on your view), Reading decided to get behind the local Labour party and its support soared again to 45% of the vote in 2012.

Its vote in 2014 has dipped a little, but it’s still far and away the biggest party in town.

The Conservative vote has varied – rising above Labour in 2006 and staying on top for four years, but it’s been in decline since 2008; this election has been its worst for some time.

Back in 2002, the Liberal Democrats were on a wave and were virtually neck and neck with the Conservatives. Aside from a blip of popularity in 2010, probably due to the ‘I agree with Nick’ sentiments doing the rounds, their share of the vote has been collapsing, a process accelerated by the 2010 Coalition: somehow the Conservative vote seems generally unaffected but the Lib Dems have haemorrhaged voters like there’s no tomorrow. In 2011, they just stayed in front of the Greens, but in 2012, they became Reading’s fourth party. This year, Ukip rose above them to leave them trailing in fifth place. They have lost all but two Council seats, and now the Greens are above them in the Council chamber’s pecking order.

Just what has happened to the Lib Dem support in Reading? It’s quite extraordinary and the decline should give warning bells to HQ about what will happen elsewhere in the country. 

Elsewhere, the Green’s rise in Reading is quite the success story. Without a single councillor until 2010, the party was trudging along in the polls and the votes. But away from the polls, Rob White, Green councillor for Park ward, had been chipping away for years to get a foot in the door. In just four years, Park has turned into a Green fortress – but the problem with a fortress is that you can’t get out. Park remains the only place where you can find a Green vote strong enough to elect councillors. So while it has 16% share of the vote, it’s still a long way short of winning elsewhere in Reading; its powerbase is its Achilles’ heel.

For years, Ukip’s share of the vote has flatlined. This year, that’s changed and it’s come from nowhere to gain 8% share … but well below the national average.

Ukip suffers similar problems to the Greens and Lib Dems: its supporter base is small which makes winning seats almost impossible. The closest it got was Tilehurst, but even then it was so far away from the winning post that victory remains a pipe dream for the Kippers.

So there’s no earthquake in Reading, and with such a strong position on the Council, there’s little chance of Reading Labour losing control in the foreseeable future. But … all it takes is one dodgy policy, such as a one-way IDR, to see power start to slip away.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had a crack at a Coalition in 2010, although it only lasted for a year as Labour become a minority administration in the 2011 elections.

What will happen next year? With it being a General Election, turnout will be higher. When Ukip reveal their domestic policies, will it cause a surge or a slump in support? Will the Lib Dems stand up and fight for their political lives? Can the Conservatives overtake Labour again? And will the Greens make inroads elsewhere?

It’s hard to know, but it’s going to be an exciting 12 months.