Today’s humiliating result for the Liberal Democrats -coming sixth with just 8.25 per cent of the vote in Barnsley,Central is a harbinger of a deeper change facing British politics.
Anybody keeping abreast of local council election results in Labour strongholds will not have been at all surprised to see this collapse of a party that has broken many of its election promises and got in bed with Labour’s traditional enemy -the Tories.
All that has happened is the Parliamentary lobby has caught up with a dramatic collapse of Liberal Democrats in working class towns and urban areas.
Less than a month ago a Liberal Democrat decided to stand in Worksop for Bassetlaw council and came bottom of the poll with 28 votes. Labour gained the seat from the Tories with 1174 votes. Other pathetic Liberal Democrat showings in the last six months include 67 votes in Bromsgrove, 45 votes in Wednesbury,98 votes in Swindon and an incredible 10 votes in Rossendale in Lancashire.
Labour should be pleased because in some of these pathetic showings it is enabling them to take seats from the Conservatives including coming back in Camborne, Cornwall. In other places like Warrington and Liverpool where they are taking seats directly off the Lib Dems they are being returned with thumping majorities.
But before everybody gets carried away with the total destruction of the Lib Dems there is another story going on in many (not all) Conservative rural areas. Here slowly but surely the Lib Dems are making GAINS against incumbent Tories in their heartland seats.
Examples this year include two gains from the Tories -in rural Shropshire and Conwy in Wales. While at the end of last year the Lib Dems took a seat on Fareham council from the Tories with a swing of nearly 30 per cent since the May general election.
Another surprising gain was in rural Newdigate in Surrey where the Lib Dems took a seat from the Conservatives in their Mole Valley heartland. And they beat the Tories to gain a seat on Bodmin Town Council when an independent stood down.
Of course not every result fits in this pattern, the Tories did gain a seat in South Lakeland from the Lib Dems (where Labour got a pathetic 32 votes) and the Lib Dems did take one seat from Labour in Truro in the same period.
But there does seem to be a bit of a pattern from these scattering of results which will be really tested in May. The scenario appears to be that the Lib Dems will be massacred in major cities by Labour and their collapse in other urban areas will probably cost the Tories control.
But in rural areas it looks like the Lib Dems could hold their own and even, if well organised, make gains from the Tories.
Nick Clegg’s and David Law’s realignment of the Liberal Democrats as a right of centre libertarian party appears to be giving confidence to Tory voters to trust them in their traditional heartlands while making Labour the only left of centre show in town. That could make a seismic shift in British politics.