The claim
“We have got more gains than the Tories and Labour put together”
Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat Conference, 19 September 2011

The background

It’s a bullish claim for a party with miserable poll rates. But the Lib Dems are insistent: things are on the up.

“At least they flipping well better had be,” says Tim Farron.

Are the Lib Dems beating the competition? FactCheck tots up the stats.

The analysis

By gains, we can safely assume they mean council seats – because as far as MPs go, there have been five by-elections since the general election and four of the seats have been held by Labour, one by Sinn Fein.

Historically, the Lib Dems always do better locally, rather than nationally, according to Michael Thrasher, Professor of Politics at the University of Plymouth.

So while the Lib Dems national poll results have flatlined on around 10 per cent of the vote,  the professor told us that his Rallings/Thrasher model, which is published in The Sunday Times, puts the Lib Dems at around 20 per cent in the by-elections.

Sounds promising. Professor Thrasher however says there isn’t much correlation however between national trends and council by-election trends – because the latter are so idiosyncratic.

Lord Ashdown said the media spends too much time looking at opinion polls and outdated election results, and pointed us to council by-election results in the past three months instead.

But the stats show that in the last three months, while the Lib Dems have done well to gain four seats and hold two, the Tories have held 10 and gained one, and Labour has held five and gained five.

What’s more, Labour is leading in the polls nationally and locally – by far outstripping any other party in local by-election gains.

Labour has gained 37 council seats since the general election, while the Conservative Party has won an extra nine and the Liberal Democrats have clocked up 19 gains.

It is also worth pointing out that six of the Tory party’s gains and nine of Labour’s were Lib Dem seats.

The verdict

The Lib Dems have won four seats in the last three months, but that doesn’t beat the combined total of the gains by Labour and the Tories.

And since the general election the Lib Dems have gained 19 seats, but lost 17 – nine to Labour, six to the Tories, one to the Independents and another to Plaid Cymru.

So that’s an overall net gain of just two seats since the general election.

Plus, they only swiped one seat from Labour – and there’s a curious story behind that one.

The seat – Pheonix Ward – had been held by Lib Dem Andrew Ellwood for four years until last May when he lost it by four votes to Labour councillor Ian Howarth.

Mr Howarth however, resigned after three months to go and live in Mexico – prompting a shock by-election that was a shoo-in for Mr Ellwood.

By Emma Thelwell