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.
William Barter says
One real problem for pollsters at the moment is that about 30% of the public currently recall voting for us in 2010. This creates issues – about a quarter of these people had in fact voted labour. This group are now largely responding to pollsters as labour voters, but because of their false recall of 2010 they will show up to most pollsters as a massive lib->lab swing. Pollsters who use past vote weighting are particularly susceptible to this.
In addition, there is now the phenomenon of the “shy lib dem” – people who support our role in government, but who feel unable to speak out given the villification we have seen of the Lib Dems by the left.
So how can we calculate what we should expect? We could look at the vote we get in local elections. We seem to have got about 14-16% in recent years. Given that turnout from govt supporters is supressed in local elections, and given how our support tends to go up in a GE campaign, we could/should do better in 2015. In addition, there were no elections in London in recent years, where our vote share has the potential to be higher. That said, the council scores do not include Scotland, where we are suffering, so, maybe 14-16% is a reasonable base level to take. (This will probably not be accurate for Euro elections, where people tend to leave the party briefly.)
I would argue that we could expect to then go up by 3-4% in the polls, given that we always tend to go up with increased media coverage, and increased attention, and that we will also benefit from people moving away from the mid-term punishment vote.
In other words, I think a range of 17-20% is highly likely. I would put Lab at around 31%, and Tories at 33%, with UKIP at 10%. Most predictions based on these numbers give a hung parliament, with the possibility of us getting to choose who to annoint.
Am I overly optimistic? Probably.
Tig Outlaw says
A fair assessment of the situation. What will be interesting to see is if Lib Dems are king makers again and Tories end up the largest party which I believe is a strong possibility, will LDs agree to coalition with Euro referendum on 2017?
Pretty much agree with this, especially with 45 being at the lowend. There are some seats where incumbency won’t help, several MPs standing down and a few in difficult circumstances, but a fair few more where it’ll be a godsend and a few where we can retake, especially int he Westcountry where some of our losses last time were inexplicable.
Peter Black says
I think you have to factor Scotland into these calculations where I think we will do worse than in England. On that basis 45 looks a tad optimistic.
I have to say I rather wish the LDs don’t end up kingmakers again, as I think this will be held against us and treated with suspicion by many, and also I personally don’t have huge hopes of the outcome of a future coalition with the Tories.
I am very interested in how low a proportion of the national vote will be held by the traditional ‘big 2’ of Labour and Conservative. Based on recent polling, I can see it arguably being in the range or 65% to 55%, with the remaining 45% being split between LibDem, SNP, UKIP, Greens, Plaid, and the other (including Northern Irish) parties.
Here we go……. Lib Dems mid teens % wise 40-45 seats,,,,,,, ukip wild card could save most Tory/Lib Dem contests – Lib Dem /Lab contests – near wipe out. As its been said before its not how many votes you get nationally – its where you get them (this will be very good for Lib Dems – bad for Ukip ) hooray for First Past the Post ( I don’t believe I just said that!!). Balanced again – but labour takes enough Tory seats for a Lib/Lab Government – with the offer of AV Plus voting reform. Labour would get away with this by saying it instead like the AV offer a few years back, as the ‘Plus’ part would help it be more proportional ……and fairer to the other parties like Ukip & the Greens ( also helping to keep a Tory majority less likely – especially if Scotland votes Yes,,,,,,
Get down to the Bookies……you heard it hear first!!
I’m sure I remember people in 1997 saying ‘there’s no way the Tories can lose enough of their vote for there to be a landslide’. The problem with the ‘no party has ever lost x% of the vote so it won’t happen this time’ as a basis for a prediction is that rules like that only hold until they’re broken. As someone who’s currently studying voting behaviour in Britain, my understanding of the academic consensus is that voting patterns used to change ‘at a glacial place’ but electoral volatility has increased dramatically since the 1970s. Assuming that voters will come back to some sort of natural electoral home misunderstands the way voting patterns and political identities have changed.
Phil Beesley says
Scotland has transformed from a place where conservatism and Conservative voting were the norms, and we need not go into the triggers for that change. Although we might question why similar triggers had little impact elsewhere. Far left parties briefly had minor but notable success, and they had to fight internally to an extraordinary degree* in order to destroy their electoral credibility; we can make a good guess that the SNP were the main beneficiary. Scotland is a distinct nation in the UK, so the only lesson that we can learn is that people *do* significantly change voting practice.
For the Greens in Brighton or Lib Dems in parts of the Home Counties, change in voting patterns in conjunction with change in demographics altered the flavour of local politics. It is the combination of the two which is pertinent. Some studies suggest that people change voting habit when moving from an area dominated by party A to an area dominated by party B or C. So Green and Lib Dem success might be expected in places to which large numbers of educated, adventurous people move (geographical relocation itself being a factor).
I believe that voting patterns change more quickly than in the past, and that a critical mass of small L liberal electorate and activists is required to convert positive effects into longer term electoral success for Lib Dems. Sometimes, changes in voting pattern and demographics will be against Lib Dems; some seats will be lost by excellent candidates and only an earthquake will improve future prospects.
Lib Dems need to reflect on places of failure, towns and cities where they elected loads of councillors and now have a handful. Some places were wiped out post 2010 general election and are fighting back, but in others voters simply faded away over 20 years. Some of them might be ripe again for winning.
*Extraordinary for far left parties.
Robert Wootton says
A landslide win in the EU elections by UKIP would be a disaster for Britain. Why? Because UKIP MEPs tend to boycott or at least not take part in debates that affect Britain and do not fight for British interests. Britain could be hammered by the EU in terms of our social and economic interests. Whether the electorate likes it or not we are at present members of the EU. The only strategy I can deduce from UKIP seeking to elect more MEPs is to use their salaries to fund a campaign to get a majority of MPs in the House of Commons. Possibly with a manifesto commitment to withhold EU contributions and get expelled from the EU; but perhaps not.
As a citizen of the planet and a part of the human family, I am an internationalist. My political philosophy is an anarcho-capitalist with a social conscience. So I am pro EU and also a Liberal Democrat.
I believe that the MEPs of the European parliament have it in their power to introduce a new economic system that makes poverty history and that ends the oscillations of boom and busts that inhere in the current system. I think they are able to do this because MEPs are constrained only by the establishments of their own country and hardly constrained at all by the establishments of the other member states.
So radical, game changing, paradigm shifting action is possible; if the LibDems increase the number of their MEPs in the EP. Otherwise Britain will have to rely on the European Pirates group of MEPs to look after our interests in the EU.
Robert Wootton says
Sorry. My comment above has nothing to do with your post.
However, any party that has as its manifesto commitment to legislate into existence a cybernetically based economic system architecture that does make poverty history and simultaneously promotes the health, wealth, education and the personal and social well being of its citizens is likelt to win a landslide victory.
I just hope it will be Liberal Democrat party that does this. However,any of the other parties could do this.
Foregone Conclusion says
To play Devil’s Advocate:
1) We’ve always gained in the polls before in General Election campaigns because of the extra publicity which the Equal Time principle has given us in the month leading up to Polling Day. But that doesn’t apply this time round – we currently have substantial media attention. Could you give examples of these blips up to the 12-13% range created by ‘good news’?
2) Incumbency is a very valuable factor in many seats, one which is often ignored. But incumbency needs to be exploited through an efficient campaign organisation doing grassroots campaigning – and frankly, some of our seats, particularly ones which are Labour-facing, simply don’t have the capacity (or the will) required to do the hard work. I’m thinking of one held seat which has 75 members, or another where the councillors refuse to canvass. Furthermore, a large number of our seats which are vulnerable were won on national issues, and they are places where pavement politics counts for less or is more difficult – particularly of student areas, but really any seat with a younger and more transient population is especially vulnerable. In the words of one activist in a seat with a substantial majority in 2010, ‘we won by national swing, and we’ll lose by national swing’.
3) Like Nick Barlow above, I’m sceptical of the idea of precedent determining what happens in 2015. We’re in a multi-party world now, with considerably greater instability in voting intention. I just don’t know how exactly we’ll persuade half of the voters who’ve left us since 2010 to come back, especially since, as you intimated, many of them just got pissed off with the idea of us in Coalition.
That said, I do think you’re right that we’ll gain somewhat during the campaign, that a lot of Undecideds and some Soft Labs will come home, and that our tactical vote will, by and large, hold up. My guess would be 14% and 35 MPs.
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