Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The strange second death of Liberal Britain?

The Lib Dems have lost a lot of support in the polls from the last election. This has led to many supporters of the Labour party and the Conservative party to speculate with some glee about an annihilation of the Lib Dems at the next election. But just how bad are things for the yellow peril? Let’s have a look at some hard facts.

In an ideal world, we would look at the seats that the next election will be fought under. But we don’t have their boundaries and we don’t know for sure that the old boundaries are going. So let’s start by looking at the existing boundaries, which are the most reliable thing we have to go on right now.

The Lib Dems have 57 MPs at present. For the sake of argument, I don’t propose to look at seats that they might win. Holding their current 57 MPs will be hard enough. Here are those seats arranged in order of percentage majority (the colour coding indicates which party finished second, seats with more than one serious challenger have asterisks after the swing figure):

The first thing that you immediately notice is that the Lib Dems are fighting three entirely separate battles – one against nationalist parties, one against Labour and one against the Conservatives. Of these three battles, the battle against the Conservatives is by far the most significant. Let’s look at those three battles separately:

First, the Conservatives:

There are 42 seats where the Tories are either second or are in contention on an imaginable swing. On the most recent ICM poll, the Tories are polling 39% and the Lib Dems 15% - a 6% swing to the Tories from the Lib Dems. Only 18 of these 42 seats would survive a 6% swing to the Tories.

Next, Labour:

There are 22 seats where Labour are either second or are in contention on an imaginable swing. On the same ICM poll, Labour polled 36% - a 7.5% swing to Labour from the Lib Dems. Only 8 of these seats would survive such a swing.

Lastly, the nationalist parties:

Here for a change is some good news for the Lib Dems. There are only 7 Lib Dem held seats where Plaid Cymru and the SNP are conceivably in contention (as you will see, I have taken a very generous view of what “conceivably in contention” means in the context of the SNP), and the nationalists are second in only two of these. Both of these look vulnerable on current polling, but of the rest, either they would already have fallen to Labour or the Conservatives on the swings given above, or they would require heroic swings from third or fourth place to the SNP.

On these assumptions, the Lib Dems would keep just 20 seats. And this, bear in mind, is using a poll that is unusually favourable to the Lib Dems at present. Ouch baby.

Is the outlook that bleak? There are 6 reasons to suspect that things might be a bit better for the Lib Dems, even without assuming any improvement in their support.

1. The Lib Dems won’t fight a national general election

The Lib Dems, unlike the Conservatives and Labour, will not seriously be trying to win a general election. They will be trying to hold their current seats (or if polling improves, get a few extra). They’re going to be fighting seriously in 100 or so seats. On current polling, that number may halve. Seats which get disproportionate effort are going to get disproportionate results.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Lord Ashcroft has done polling on marginals:

Lord Ashcroft’s own summary shows Lib Dem activity:

“On the ground, the campaigning battle appears to voters to be intense but, in Labour targets, quite closely fought. Nearly half said they had had literature from Labour or the Conservatives over the last few months, and a fifth said they had had a personally addressed letter. In Lib Dem targets the numbers saying they have heard from the Tories were similar, but the Lib Dems' incessant leaflet-mongering (which we should take our hats off to, however annoying we may find it) apparently continues: 54% said they had had Lib Dem literature, a quarter said they had a letter, and a fifth said the party had knocked on their door in the last few months.”

2. Much of the Lib Dems vote in 2010 was wasted in seats where they did not win – this looks to be their softest vote

In 2010, the Lib Dems improved their polling, but lost seats. Why? Because they piled up votes in constituencies that they didn’t win, following the TV debates. I looked at this phenomenon in 2010:

As I noted then, on the list of Labour's top 150 targets, 125 of those seats are Conservative-held. The Lib Dems polled more than 10% in each and every one of those seats. It increased its vote share in 92 of these seats.

The Lib Dems will not be chasing these voters particularly (see point 1 above). So if the Lib Dems perform in line with current polling, we can expect to see these voters melt away first. This will not harm the Lib Dems in seat count, and probably gives their coalition partners more of a headache than them.

Again, Lord Ashcroft’s commentary on his own polling bears that view out: “it is clear that things in marginal Conservative seats where Labour are close challengers, things look slightly more uncomfortable for the Tories than in the country as a whole.”

3. In most Conservative/Lib Dem marginals, Labour supporters have got nowhere else to go

As I have already noted, the great majority of Lib Dem seats have Conservative challengers. To date, the Lib Dems have been very effective at borrowing Labour voters for their cause. As I noted in the 2010 blogpost mentioned above, in the 20 English Lib Dem seats in the top 100 Conservative targets, Labour polled under 10% in all bar three: Norwich South and Bradford East (in both of which Labour finished second) and Berwick-upon-Tweed. By contrast, in only one of these seats on either the Labour or Lib Dem target list is the Tory tally below 10%: Dunfermline and West Fife.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of such voters feeling let down by the Lib Dems. But what will they do in a general election? Some may now vote Labour. Some may abstain. But given a choice between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, I expect that a substantial number of such voters in such seats will continue to vote for the Lib Dems. Such voters are already attuned to the idea of a wasted vote after years of being told “it’s a two horse race”.

This will help mitigate the swing against the Lib Dems in such seats.

4. In Labour/Lib Dem marginals, Conservative supporters are going to be much more open to voting for the Lib Dems

Much of the post-election discussion has focussed on how erstwhile Lib Dem voters of a left-leaning persuasion regard their alliance with the Conservatives. There has been practically no discussion of how Conservative supporters in Labour/Lib Dem marginals might act in future.
To date, the Lib Dems have had nothing like the same success in persuading Conservatives to lend them their votes. But with a proven track record of being able to work – more or less – with the Conservatives in government, they may now do rather better. And there are rich pickings to be had in Labour/Lib Dem marginals if they can.

How, for example, will the 6,278 Conservatives in Danny Alexander’s constituency decide to vote next time? Last time the Conservatives placed fourth – might they be recruited to his cause? Each such recruit would make the 9.3% swing that Labour require and the 11% swing that the SNP would require an even more Herculean task.

5. In three and four way marginals, even where the Lib Dems are no longer popular, the opposition may not coalesce around a single candidate

I have looked so far at swings in isolation. But this is a three and four body problem in some constituencies. Take Argyll & Bute or Edinburgh West. In both of these constituencies, four different parties will fancy their chances. Who are voters to decide is best placed to defeat the Lib Dems? This will make required swings harder to achieve.

6. Lib Dem MPs put localism into action, making them unusually strong incumbents

In many ways, this is a function of the other five points noted above. But Lib Dem MPs have shown greater incumbency resilience in past elections and there is no reason to assume that it will be different this time around.

The net of all this is that I expect that the swing against the Lib Dems will be roughly 2% less than might otherwise be supposed in both Lib Dem/Conservative marginals and Lib Dem/Labour marginals. (This is not particularly scientific and you are welcome to disagree on the scale, but I do stand by my conclusions that there will be a noticeable effect.) On the figures noted above, this would mean that the Lib Dems would suffer an effective adverse swing of 4% in Lib Dem/Conservative marginals and 5.5% in Lib Dem/Labour marginals. This would leave them with 32 seats. Still ouch, but not quite so bad. If the pro-incumbent effect is 3%, that’s another 6 seats saved on top of that. And that’s without assuming any swingback at all.

Of course, this is all on the assumption that the old boundaries apply, and ignores the effect of retirements, any particularly Scottish anti-Lib Dem venom and the impact in university towns. But taken as a whole, I suggest that while the Lib Dems are in for a rough time, the likely extent of their seat losses is much overstated.



Morris Dancer said...

Very interesting analysis, Mr. Antifrank.

I've also subscribed to the view that, whilst the Lib Dems may well suffer come 2015, they'll do a lot, lot better at seat retention than the calculators suggest. I think 40-50 eminently possible.

Of course, we saw in 2011 just how unpredictable events can be, so by 2015 the Lib Dems could be flying high or dead as a dodo.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece of work.

One thing of note is that in those seats where the Tory is the challenger to the LibDem, the Labour vote is generally tiny. The Labour vote has been bled dry. Now OK, that is often a reflection of the seat being a very poor hunting ground for Labour to start with. But it also means many "lent" votes. It will require an extraordinary degree of nose-holding for many of those votes not to go back to Labour next time out.

But another lesser acknowledged issue is the "lent" Tory votes. These are naturally Tory seats, sometimes won in by-elections with massive swings. Won by stealing Tory voters in bigger numbers than from Labour. The LibDems bigger worry is perhaps that "normal service is resumed" at the next election - and faced with PM Miliband, these voters give up on the LibDems. Too much at stake.

Marquee Mark

Anonymous said...


Very interesting article, many thanks.

Come the next GE, my personal dilemma with the LibDems is the shock & revulsion with which so many of their supporters responded to a coalition with the Conservatives.

IMHO the LibDems did the right thing following the 2010 GE, and indeed did exactly what they had promised. Kudos.

But for the party to come apart at the seams over the reality of coalition when they have been in favour of the principle for yonks, is something I find very hard to get over.

Obviously the disgruntled supporters assumed it would only ever be a Lab/LibDem coalition, but that's to say their assumption of coalition was eternal rule by the left-leaning. That doesn't seem very liberal, and I don't consider it very satisfactory.