UK 2010 – Lib Dems surge

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The UK held its first ever general election debate between party leaders on Thursday evening, and instant reaction polls showed a clear majority agreeing that Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, came out as the winner. Voting intention polls since Friday have indicated that the Liberal Democrats have experienced a remarkable increase in support, effectively making the race a three-way tie.

Four polls have been released today, showing that the vote between CON/LAB/LD is as follows:

  • YouGov/Times: 33/30/29
  • ComRes/Independent: 31/27/29
  • ICM/Telegraph: 34/29/27
  • BPIX/Mail: 31/28/32

While the order varies in all three polls, it is clear that the Liberal Democrats have jumped into contention with the other major parties. Every poll for the week before Thursday’s debate saw the Lib Dems in the 18-23% range.

It is not yet clear what effect this poll surge will have come election day. Clegg was clearly the unknown figure in the debate, and his strong performance and outsider positioning has been largely responsible for the increase in the Lib Dem vote. The two other parties have largely ignored Clegg for most of the campaign, but that has already begun to change. Will the enthusiasm from a single debate performance fade, or can the Lib Dems maintain their support by positioning themselves as a force capable of winning the election?

The Lib Dem surge isn’t solely due to a strong performance on a debate. It is rather the harnessing of years of disillusionment with the political system that reached a crescendo with the 2009 expenses crisis. Both major parties are held in very low esteem and Clegg’s message of change would have appealed to a great number of them. The Lib Dems have consistently polled in the high teens or low 20s for most of the last decade, and that strong third party force was well-placed to take advantage of such a crisis. They have the strength to be credible without being too tainted by the scandals and disillusionment.

In the past, the Liberal Democrats have performed well where voters believe that a vote for the Lib Dems is not a wasted vote. They have regularly achieved large swings in by-elections, and have been effective at using bar graphs and statistics to convince voters of their capacity to win. I am fascinated by the prospect that the storm of polls and news reporting the Lib Dems level-pegging with the major parties in national polls could convince voters that the Lib Dems could win all over the country. I would expect to see many more “we can win here” bar-graph leaflets appearing in long-shot Lib Dem target seats across the UK over the next fortnight.

The Liberal Democrat advance could still be stopped by the UK’s biased first-past-the-post electoral system. Even if the Lib Dems are on similar vote levels to the major parties, they still would win less than half the seats of either other party, and any of the above-mentioned polls would put Labour in the lead in a hung parliament, even those putting Labour in third place. If the Lib Dems were to outpoll Labour, or even outpoll both major parties, and win the smallest number of seats (even if it was double their current numbers, as would be plausible on the BPIX figures), it would raise a massive constitutional crisis. How could the Lib Dems support a major party as a minor partner in government after winning more votes than that party? Could it be the catalyst for radical constitutional and electoral reform?

The Liberal Democrats’ predecessors, the SDP-Liberal Alliance, came close to outpolling Labour at the 1983 election, polling 25% and winning 23 seats. Since then, the Lib Dems have become much smarter at targeting resources and benefiting from tactical voting by Labour and Lib Dem voters. They managed to win 62 seats in 2005 with only 22% of the vote. It is very hard to predict how their targeting strategy could work if they poll closer to 30%.

One thing is clear from the events of the last few days: Clegg has blunted David Cameron’s lead. While Cameron was not generally achieving the 10-point leads he would need to comfortably secure a majority, he has been consistently well ahead of Labour and headed for a position of largest party in a hung parliament, if not a Conservative majority. As it currently stands, it seems very unlikely either major party could win a majority, and it raises the prospect of Labour winning the largest number of seats despite being outpolled by the Conservatives and possibly the Lib Dems.

Even if Clegg’s star fades over the next eighteen days, his boost in support should be enough to insulate sitting Lib Dem MPs against the Tory assault. Clegg’s task in this election was to protect Lib Dem seats in the South from Conservative assault while making inroads into Labour territory in the big cities of the North and London. It seems quite unlikely now that the Lib Dems will suffer a net loss of seats across the country, and with their largest delegation of MPs in almost 90 years they would be a formidable presence in a new Parliament.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Good luck to them. It will be really interesting if the Lib Dems gain more seats than Labour (which I highly doubt) and put Labour in the role of kingmaker in a hung parliament.

  2. I wonder if the Lib Dems will also be aided now by the fact that it’s now becoming clear that there will be a hung parliament, so voters may feel ‘safer’ about voting for a third party since there’s going to be a hung parliament anyway.

    The Lib Dems have got to this point by taking a long-term strategic approach – targeting resources at specific seats, including different preselection processes for targeted seats to ensure candidates are vetted more thoroughly. More importantly, they’ve worked from the ground-up, with a strong focus on building strength at local government level. Their ‘community politics’ approach, subsequently copied by other parties, has been seen as instrumental, and wasn’t simply a campaign tactic, but a broad philosophy, interestingly developed in large part not by senior party figures, but by a group of Young Liberals in the late 1960s. (I’m waiting for the day when a group of people aged in their mid-20s develops something that revolutionises Australian politics)

    Importantly, despite criticism that the alliance and merger with the SDP would see a watering down of their ideological base, the party does seem to have done a reasonable job at staying true to their ideological roots. If you want to see an eloquently written philosophical statement, check out the preamble to their constitution.

  3. If there was a result like that, with Labour coming third in the popular vote, but gaining the most seats, they couldn’t possibly legitimately form government. Something will have to happen, but what? Could Labour and the Lib Dems do some sort of deal to hold a fresh election in 6-12 months under a PR system?

    I’m basically giving up my seat prediction project until these polls settle down. Looks like Clegg has momentum now – anything could happen.

  4. “If there was a result like that, with Labour coming third in the popular vote, but gaining the most seats, they couldn’t possibly legitimately form government.”

    You can be sure that Gordon Brown would argue that they could. Stranger things have happened.

  5. It should be noted that that poll is an outlier and most polls have the Tories leading Labor then the Lib Dems. Though Clegg does have the momentum as Nick notes.

  6. The issue of seats depends on where the LibDems are gaining. You’d think that with Labour on the nose the LDs would be primarily gaining Labour seats not from the Tories (who have already been at their low ebb 1997-2005).

    Also does the seat predictor factor in Tory gains due to LD splitting the Labour vote?

  7. I think those swingometers would do that since I believe they simply project the uniform swing for each party across each seat, so if it’s a Labour-Tory marginal and the swing from Labour to Lib Dems leaves the Tories in front, that should be showing up in those numbers.

  8. One fly in the ointment. If the Icelandic volcano keeps erupting and spewing ash over Europe, the European economy will be hurt. Interestingly, I noted that the countries that might benefit from all this are all the fringe economic basket cases (Portugal, Spain, Turkey & Greece) as they are where air transport hubs are still operating, but the major European economies countries will suffer economically. This may begin to bite before polling day – in which case voters may look for a “saviour” party or a party that addresses their jobs/economic fears. So will that help or hinder any of the parties?

  9. I doubt it. Even the fickle voting public would struggle to blame the by-product of ‘acts of God’ on politicians. Broader economic issues, yes, clouds of volcanic ash, unlikely (in any case I understand they are aiming to resume flight by Wednesday.)

  10. Hamish – I’m not so sure re the voting public blaming politicans – and anyway, it would be more about rescuing their jobs/economy in the short term than acting directly on ‘acts of God’. The issue with the volcano ash is that it adds another thing to the list of complaints – and you don’t want voters feeling even less happy when they go to the polling booth than they did when they were only going to give you a (relatively nasty) kicking. Sure, they wont blame you per-se – but if they were feeling better about the world instead of worried they might give you the benefit of the doubt. And the volcan may erupt more violently again…or the winds shift back…and so on. The collapse of a couple of airlines would hit economies (and travellers!), slowing post-GFC recovery in a country where the job market and economic outlook is worse than here. And when you’re sending in the Navy (like sending the Ark Royal to Spain to pick up passengers) it means you making sure you are seen to be doing something. I’ll be interested in the people’s reactions when they get off the boats – will they be happy for being brought back or annoyed that the Govt didn’t act sooner?

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