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.