The party is surging, and the question now is whether voters’ old allegiances are breaking down completelyby Peter Kellner / May 31, 2019 / Leave a comment
Will this time be different? This week, for the fifth time since 1962 the Liberal Democrats, or their predecessor parties, have enjoyed a lead in the opinion polls; on all four previous occasions, euphoria has given way to disappointment.
Following the Liberals’ by-election victory in Orpington in March 1962, an NOP poll put the party in first place nationally—but its support soon subsided. Much the same happened after the Lib Dem victory in the Brent East by-election in September 2003, and after the first TV debate in the 2010 general election campaign, when Nick Clegg trounced Gordon Brown and David Cameron. On all three occasions, the party briefly touched 30 per cent support. The other occasion was slightly different: for some months in 1981/2, the Liberal/SDP Alliance led in the polls. In one Gallup poll it touched 50 per cent. But even though it stayed in first place for some months, it won only 23 seats in the 1983 general election, albeit with 26 per cent of the nationwide vote.
So we should not get too excited by YouGov’s latest poll for the Times. The YouGov poll puts the Lib Dems well below previous peaks; at 24 per cent, their share is much the same as in the 2005 and 2010 elections. History suggests that there is a fair chance that they will fairly soon dip back below 20 per cent and stay there.
However, how reliable a guide is history to the future? In the past, the brief surges in support for the Lib Dems etc in by-election upsets and polling blips could be regarded as traditional Labour and/or Conservative voters having a one-night stand on occasions when they were feeling grumpy with their normal party partner. When it mattered—that is, choosing a government at a general election—most of them returned home. Their long-term relationship may have frayed, but it did not completely break down.
We cannot rule out the possibility that what we are witnessing—not just with the Lib Dems but also with the Brexit Party and, in Scotland, the SNP—is mounting evidence that voters are increasingly thinking not just of one-night stands, but of divorce. Far fewer voters identify strongly with Labour or the Conservatives than a generation ago; social class, which used to provide the glue by which voters stuck to their parties, works far less reliably than it used to as a predictor; disenchantment with politics and politicians in general has climbed alarmingly and further weakened the loyalties of voters to parties.
To change the metaphor, I recall being instructed in science lessons at school that steel was hard to magnetise but, once magnetised tended to remain so, while iron was easy to magnetise but quick to lose its magnetism. Are we moving from the politics of steel—hard won loyalties, long retained, at least at general elections—to the easy-come, easy-go politics of iron, in which support for parties is apt to flare up and just as quickly die down?
The Brexit saga may have tilted Britain’s electorate away from the stability of steel (or the gravitational pull of marriage) to the oscillations of iron (or the wish for divorce). It has disrupted many voters’ views of their normal parties, as last week’s European Parliament results demonstrated so starkly. Labour and Conservative candidates at the next general election may not be able to rely on long-term loyalties reasserting themselves. (And that is to say nothing of the prospect of the Lib Dems having a charismatic new leader.)
If Britain elected its MPs by proportional representation, I have no doubt that support for the centre left and centre right would be tumbling down, just as it has in recent years in France and Germany. But first-past-the-post offers large incumbent parties the built-in advantage that it deters possible supporters for insurgent parties with the argument that theirs might be a wasted vote. Only when an insurgent party climbs well above 30 per cent—as the SNP did in Scotland in 2015—do the fortresses of the traditional parties collapse.
The big question, then, is not whether the Lib Dems will still be top next month; probably not, though with YouGov reporting four parties all within a five-point range, 19-24 per cent, anything is possible. The real question is whether the voters have changed their views of parties in ways that are fundamental and lasting. If they have, then the next general election is even more unpredictable than it was ten days ago. As of now, my guess is that the Lib Dems will end up with more than their current 11 MPs, but probably fewer than 200.