At 3.24am this morning the number of Liberal Democrat councillors dipped below 3000 for the first time since the party was formed.
If you were being pedantic you’d query that statement.
What really happened was that at 3.24am (when sensible people were fast asleep), I noticed that according to the BBC’s figures, the Lib Dems had lost more than the magic 111 figure. After the 2011 election the Liberal Democrats had ended up with 3111 councillors; subtract the 111 – et voila! But who knows how many defeated Lib Dem candidates the BBC hadn’t totted up at that point (or, indeed, how many seats the party had gained or lost in by-elections in the year since the 2011 elections)? More to the point, who cares? Because by the time all the votes are counted at the end of today, the Lib Dems will certainly be below the 3000 mark, and for the first time since the party was formed in 1988, and no one will care what time in the morning it happened.
In one sense, it’s not surprising. Being in national government can seriously harm your local council base. In the 18 years of the Thatcher and Major governments, the Conservatives lost almost two-thirds of their councillors they had in 1979. Labour ended its 13 years in power having managed to lose more than half of the councillors it started with. So it’s not surprise that something similar is happening to the Lib Dems.
What is surprising – and for the Lib Dems, worrying – is the speed at which it is happening. At the time of writing, the Lib Dems have lost (net) some 129 seats in the 2012 elections, with more defeats to come. Add those to the seats lost in 2011, and you get close to a quarter of the councillors they had when they entered government in 2010. .
For any party this would be a worry.
Councillors are the electoral infrastructure of British political parties. But that is especially true for the Liberal Democrats, with its tradition, inherited from the Liberals, of building support through grassroots activity at the local level.
I was once told (and by someone who should have known) that one in eight Liberal Democrat members were, or had been, a councillor. If true, an increasing number of those are now in the ex- category.