On a wet Wednesday in April, spent picking litter and spotting sewage in the River Wandle in Merton, south London, the Lib Dems look beside themselves with enthusiasm.
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, is here to rally his activists with a speech highlighting Tory failures to clean up Britain’s waterways. He arrives in a sharp suit to deliver his party’s local election launch to waiting TV cameras, before gamely changing into wellies for a photo op in the water.
“Soaring energy bills are overwhelming millions of families but this Conservative government does not care or does not get it. Instead of helping, the Conservatives are raising unfair taxes again and again, ”he says. “And Conservative MPs have voted time and time again to pour filthy sewage into our rivers like the Wandle.”
It may seem an odd message to be giving out in Labor-hero Merton – and in fact, a strange place for the party to kickstart its local election effort when it is unmistakably going after Tory rather than Labor voters. This council has never been held by the Lib Dems, unlike nearby Sutton or Kingston. In fact, it has swung from Labor towards the Tories, back to firmly Labor again.
But this set of local elections is about gaining and building on “footholds” where the Lib Dems are strong in nearby areas, says one of the party’s senior electoral strategists.
The party is fairly entrenched in about 27 councils in the UK, with disparate pockets of Lib Dem power in south-west London, Somerset and Cumbria. However, there are few places where the party is poised to take over any councils or even knock the governing parties into no overall control from second place, although they are hoping for a miracle in Labor-held Hull.
The Lib Dem activists have the energy of insurgents, as they hope to replace the Tories as the second biggest party on Merton council. But it is hard to know whether their optimism will translate into hard wins – and the party leadership is not sounding confident about any taking any new councils, despite the scandal-hit position of the Tories nationally.
“It will be tough for us because we won a lot of councils four years ago – Kingston, Richmond and South Cambs. So we are fighting from a high base. There’s a few we can win, but it’s difficult, ”Davey says, setting a low bar for success in gaining councilors on 5 May.