At the 2010 general election the Liberal Democrats won 24% of the popular vote. By the end of that year the party’s share in national polls had fallen by half, and it has since shown no sign of recovering. Whether this collapse in national support means the Lib Dems lose a proportionate number of seats is one of the most important factors that will determine the outcome of the next election.
The Lib Dems are famously tenacious local campaigners. Their strategy has long been to build support at constituency level through by-elections and local government, and once elected their incumbents have proved hard to shift. Last year’s Eastleigh by-election showed the party can still mobilise its council base to hold on to a Westminster seat in spite of wider conditions. If they are able to repeat this feat at a general election, could there be rather more Lib Dem MPs in the new House of Commons than the current national polls imply?
My latest polling in 17 marginal seats closely contested between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives suggests that in some places Nick Clegg’s party may indeed defy the national trend. But according to this snapshot, the party risks losing a dozen or more seats to the Conservatives.
Across the Tory-Lib Dem battleground I found the Conservative vote share down 8 points since 2010 to 33% – but the Lib Dems down by nearly twice that, falling 15 points to 28%. Labour were up 5 points on their general election performance to 14% in these seats, and UKIP up 14 points to 18%.
These figures are based on a variation of the standard voting intention question that simply asks which party the respondent which party they would vote for if there were an election tomorrow. The heavily localised nature of Lib Dem support means a more accurate way of measuring voting intention where the party is in contention is to ask people to think about where they live: “Thinking specifically about your own parliamentary constituency at the next general election and the candidates who are likely to stand for election to Westminster there, which party’s candidate do you think you will vote for in your own constituency?”
Even on this more realistic formulation, the results amount to an effective 3.5% swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories since 2010. This would be enough for the Conservatives to unseat 15 Lib Dem MPs if this were to happen across the board next May.
But one big lesson from this research is not to assume any kind of uniform swing where the Lib Dems are concerned. The swing to the Tories was as high as 9% in Newton Abbot, but in the Lib Dem-held seats of Cheadle, Eastleigh and Sutton & Cheam the swing was in the other direction. There was also no straightforward regional pattern. Though swings were generally less favourable to the Tories in urban and suburban seats, in Cornwall they ranged from 2.5% (St Ives) to 8% (Truro & Falmouth). The swing to the Conservatives in Wells (3%) was less than half than in neighbouring Somerton & Frome (7.5%).
UKIP’s vote share ranged from 11% (Oxford West & Abingdon) to 26% (Camborne & Redruth. Nigel Farage’s party was in second or joint second place in Camborne & Redruth, Newton Abbot, Truro & Falmouth, and St Austell & Newquay. Just over one in six (17%) of 2010 Conservative voters said they would vote UKIP in the battleground as a whole.
But UKIP are not just a problem for the Tories. Those who voted Lib Dem at the last election were as likely to say they would switch to UKIP (13%) as to say they would switch to Labour (13%). A further 11% said they intended to vote Conservative. The party is literally losing votes right, left and centre.
The number of Lib Dem defectors to UKIP is not as surprising as it might seem at first glance. Before 2010, many voters saw the Lib Dems as the left-wing alternative to Labour, but for many others they were England’s premier none-of-the-above party (there were also some principled liberals, most of whom are sticking with Mr Clegg). Now the Lib Dems are very much one-of-the-above, and their presence in the coalition makes them less attractive to anti-Tory voters even in parts of the country where Labour are not a factor. UKIP is the ideal vehicle for such people.
Only one in five voters in the Lib Dem-Con battleground said they would rather see Ed Miliband as Prime Minister than David Cameron. Less than a quarter of Lib Dem voters (23%) and less than a fifth of UKIP voters (19%) said they would prefer to see Miliband in Number Ten, as did only two thirds of Labour voters. Nearly nine out of ten (89%) Conservative defectors to UKIP said they would rather see Cameron as PM than the alternative.
Overall, two thirds were optimistic about the economy over the next year, both for themselves and the country. Nearly nine in ten Tories expected the economy to do well, as did three quarters of Lib Dems and just over half of Labour and UKIP voters.
Asked what they would most like to see as the outcome of the next election, Lib Dem voters on the battleground were more likely to say they wanted another coalition with the Tories (42%) than with Labour (35%).
UKIP voters were much more likely than any other party’s supporters to say they did not know what kind of government they wanted to see (19%). Half wanted to see the Conservatives in government either with an overall majority (35%) or in coalition with the Lib Dems (14%). One in five wanted a Labour government, and 11% chose a Labour-Lib Dem coalition.
Nearly two thirds (65%) of Conservative defectors to UKIP said a Tory government was what they would most like to see. Those switching from the Lib Dems to UKIP were quite evenly divided between preferring a Conservative government (20%), a Labour government (21%), a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition (16%), a Labour-Lib Dem coalition (21%), and not knowing what they wanted (22%).
As I found last month in the Conservative-Labour battleground, the ground campaigns in these seats looks very closely fought. Half of all voters said they had had literature, direct mail, visits or telephone calls from the Lib Dems, while 48% said they had heard from the Tories, 46% from UKIP and 30% from Labour. These levels are high because of the recent local and European elections, but what matters is that they are quite even. We will see in future rounds of research whether this continues to be the case in relative “peacetime”, when the Lib Dems’ incessant leaflet-mongering can make its mark.
I make no apology for my continued repetition of the fact that a poll is a snapshot, not a forecast. As I have found in my national polling, around half of all voters say they may yet change their minds from their current party. In these 17 seats, just over six in ten (61%) Lib Dem switchers to UKIP rule out going back to their old party. Only half of Lib Dem defectors to Labour and one third of those switching to the Tories say they will definitely not return. Some of the constituency results are very tight, and there is plenty of room for movement over the next eleven months.
Despite that, these findings are clearly not good news for the Lib Dems, and as such will no doubt be reported as “adding to the pressure on Clegg”. And no doubt it will cause some discomfort, which may or may not be eased when I publish my research on the Lib Dem-Labour battleground, currently in the field.
But taken together with my previous research on the Lib Dems’ predicament, it is hard to see how replacing Clegg before the election would amount to anything more than a ritual sacrifice.
The Lib Dems are in their current position not because of anything Nick Clegg himself has done or not done, but because his party is in government with the Conservatives – a decision endorsed by the whole party through its exhaustive processes of internal democracy. The centre-right coalition already has a left-wing alternative, led by Ed Miliband. Former Lib Dem voters who switched because they were dismayed that the party entered office with the Tories would only consider coming back if the party promised not to make the same decision in 2015, no matter what the election result. Such a declaration is surely unthinkable, or ought to be for a party that wants to have any influence on the nation’s affairs. It would also look a bit rum to the voters: campaigning as the left-wing alternative to the left-wing alternative after five years in government with David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove would surely be a bit of a stretch.