Lib Dems seek to consolidate position as second party

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The Independent Online
The Liberal Democrats enter Thursday's local elections confident of consolidating their place as the second party in local government and with a reputation generally of being greener and more consultative than their rivals.

They have more councillors than the Conservatives and control many more councils - five - to the Tory's 14 and around 200 that are run by labour.

In addition, up and down the country they work with both the Conservatives and Labour to run hung authorities ranging from counties such as Gloucestershire, Surrey and Cheshire where the alliance is with the Conservatives to the East Anglian sweep of Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire where the partnership is with Labour. There are similar alliances at district level in a ratio of about three to one with Labour rather than the Tories, although at all levels formal pacts are rare, a loose agreement often producing decisions on an issue-by-issue basis.

In others, for example Bournemouth, the party has minority control, agreeing, for example the sale of the local airport with the Conservatives, an environmental; package with Labour and putting this year's budget through with help from the town's remaining independent councillors.

Despite Paddy Ashdown's move away from equidistant to closer relations with Labour, "The only policy we have on who to work with locally is to tell people to use their local judgement," Alan Leaman the party's director of strategy, says. And there is some evidence that while coalition politics is still viewed with suspicion nationally, it has some popularity locally.

Where Liberal Democrats are in outright control the party can cite evidence that its claim to be greener stands up on the ground. Recent Audit Commission figures showed seven of the top ten councils for recycling were run by the Liberal Democrats. The party has also made a virtue of devolution and local consultation, running opinion polls on spending priorities in some places and in others handing power to neighbourhood councils - occasionally, as in the case of Kingston, to opposition councillors.Nationally, the local government grant and finance regime, with most councils now spending up to their cap, allows little sensible to be said this year about whether Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservatives are the highest or lowest spenders. But on 10 performance indicators which the Audit Commission highlighted recently, the Liberal Democrats could claim they did as well or better than average on nine of them.

The party's rapid rise in local government - it has quadrupled the number of councils it controls in the past five years - has sometimes brought problems of inexperience as first-time councillors have suddenly found themselves running the local authority.

Less noticed than the rise of the Liberal Democrats in district and county councils has been the party's advance in some metropolitan authorities where they have become the challenger to Labour.

The party's results on Thursday will depend partly on the electorate's perception of their growing track record in local government, partly on continued disillusion with the Conservates, and partly on whether the Blair effect hardens the Labour vote in the South - a change that in some councils could benefit the Tories rather than the Liberal Democrats.