Within a great deal of the Westminster bubble, the demise of the Liberal Democrats post-2015 is taken as a given. A Labour peer once told me, very matter-of-factly, that Nick Clegg was certain to lose his seat. When I told her that given there has never been a constituency poll that has ever revealed this to be true, and the not incidental fact given who the bearer of this information was, that the only beneficiaries would be the Tories, she remain resolute in her conviction that the DPM would be seatless come May 8, 2015.
Right, so we know some of the ideas floating around about how 2015 will not be our year are pretty erroneous to say the least. But what really will happen? Taking the most cold blooded, objective approach I can do, I will evaluate our prospects. And while it doesn’t look great on some fronts, there is a lot of reason not to be too pessimistic.
1. Vote Share
Since about six weeks post-coalition, the Lib Dems have been stuck pretty much between 13 and 8 percent in the national polls, bar the odd ICM poll that gives a slightly rosier picture. There has been talk about incumbency factor, which I will come onto in a moment, helping us keep more seats than national swing would suggest. But it will still be hard to keep a whole lot of our seats if we poll 8 percent nationally.
I think we’ll get 17 percent, and here’s how I’ve worked that out. Voting patterns change at a glacial pace in the UK, as anyone who has ever studied them in depth could tell you. Parties rarely swing massively up or down from one election to another; this is the chief reason why when one party get a large majority at an election, they usually stay in power for a while. The British public tends to be very fixed in the patterns it votes in. The most a party has ever lost in terms of vote share between elections is 11 percent (The Tories in 1997, unsurprisingly). Even the Foot Labour Party only lost 9 points between 1979 and 1983, and that was with a splitting of the party to contend with. So even if we replicated the worst of the worst, we’d still be on 12 percent.
But I think we’ll do slightly better than that. If you look at when we’ve been able to get positive news coverage we’ve gone up to around 12 or 13 percent in the polls. People’s minds tend to sharpen during a general election campaign. I also think a slice of the people who voted for us last time and have said repeatedly since that they will not do so again, will plump for us in the end, particularly in seats where it’s either us or the Tories. To those who say the days of tactical voting for Lib Dems to keep Tories out died with the Coalition, I only have to point to Eastleigh. In the by-election, I was told more than a few times on the doorstep that although they were annoyed with the government, people who didn’t want a Tory or a UKIP MP realised that voting for us was the only way to help that from occurring.
This factor gets endlessly under and overplayed. Some think we’ll hold all of our seats, or most of them as a result; naysayers proclaim with national swing set to be against us no amount of sandbagging will do the trick. Although some of the holders of the former opinion can be a tad optimistic, they are the more correct of the two, in my opinion. Incumbency is about to get a massive boost this time round, especially if UKIP do even close to as well as the polls predict. And if this latest surge for the Greens picks up speed, then you’ll have the first ever five party general election, in England at least, ever. Under FPTP, this perversely helps those already holding seats.
Incumbency should not be used as an excuse for complacency. But if the Lib Dems fight a good ground war, in the seats we hold plus a few of the close ones we lost last time round, like Oxford West and Abingdon, then we should do okay. Incidentally, I will clarify what “okay” means in my wrap up, so have no fear, I’m not trying to be vague.
3. Melting away of Labour lead
I’ve come to the conclusion that Labour are very unlikely to win the next election, and again I’ve based this idea on psephological precedents. Most people who watch this stuff closely figured the Labour lead would hold up fairly well, at 4 or 5 points at least, until after autumn conference season, after which it would start to tilt towards the Tories. The fact that the Tories and Labour are now running close to neck and neck (Labour leads are rarely above 3 points at present) already would suggest that the poll lead was softer than even the most pessimistic about Labour’s chances in 2015 thought.
So how does that help the Lib Dems? If people start thinking that Labour can’t win, I suspect that people who voted for us last time will be more likely to vote for us again under these circumstances. After all, these folks don’t like the Coalition, but they still tend to think it an improvement, albeit only a slight one in a lot of cases, over a Tory majority. If we’re the only ones standing in the way of that, I think a small slice of former supporters will vote for us again.
4. In conclusion
So what does this all mean? If we get 17 percent nationwide, with an incumbency bonus heightened by the five party system, what will we end up with? My prediction is 45 seats. And actually I think that’s quite pessimistic, but I want to keep this as objective as I can and take as sober an approach as possible. All this rubbish about us going down to 20 seats is just that. We would have to run the worst campaign in history for that to take place.
45 seats would leave us well positioned to be the kingmakers again, which at this stage in our history as a party is all that really matters. I only close on one note of caution: this is all presuming no great catastrophes over the next eleven months. Should some great recession befall the nation between now and then, as one example that comes to mind, then all bets are off.