Liberal Democrats have much to be optimistic about

The numbers show that Farron’s party will likely increase its vote share at the next election

March 28, 2017
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron during his keynote speech where he accused Theresa May of pursuing the same "aggressive nationalistic" agenda as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, during the Liberal Democrat spring conference at the Barbican Ce
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron during his keynote speech where he accused Theresa May of pursuing the same "aggressive nationalistic" agenda as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, during the Liberal Democrat spring conference at the Barbican Ce
Read an interview with Vince Cable here

Since their near annihilation in 2015, the Liberal Democrats have been closely watched for signs of recovery. While Brexit opened up a fresh political space for the party and by-elections have demonstrated progress, support in national opinion polls has increased only slightly from the eight per cent that they polled at the last general election. However, this doesn’t tell us the whole story. Get stuck into the detail and a positive picture emerges.

Relative mid-term weakness for the Lib Dems is not a new phenomenon. From the merger of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties in 1988 until the start of the coalition government in 2010, the party has on average performed five points better in general elections than in polling across the whole of each parliament.

That is not due to polling inaccuracy; polls have historically reflected the improvement in Lib Dem fortunes as the next election approaches. The likely explanation for this phenomenon is that when a party is neither in opposition nor government, it simply escapes the public consciousness. That could also explain why, as part of the governing coalition, there was no such recovery at the 2015 election.

What is harder to explain is the apparent mismatch between opinion polls and the party's substantial vote share gains in local government by-elections. For example, it came from nowhere to take half the vote at Dunster and Timberscombe on West Somerset Council last week. While Westminster by-elections, including the Lib Dem gain at Richmond Park, are known to be poor predictors of general election voting intention, their local equivalents have long been regarded as a better gauge of the swing in public opinion.

This raises three possible scenarios. The worst case scenario from the Lib Dems' perspective is that local by-elections have become unreliable predictors of how people would vote in scheduled local elections. This would mean that local by-elections now tell us very little about likely local election results in the future, which in turn would mean that they are not a reliable guide to general election prospects. If this were the case, the Lib Dems would have limited cause for celebration on either the local or parliamentary front. It is possible that these contests have become akin to Westminster by-elections, with active campaigning and sometimes even national media attention, giving voters in normally safe seats the opportunity to “send a message” to Westminster.

There has certainly been movement in this direction, with activists delighting in sharing results on social media, and politicians on all sides using them to spin. It's less clear whether this trend has been sufficient to affect the reliability of local by-elections as a barometer, though as I've written previously, it is possible that we’re witnessing an electoral manifestation of Goodhart’s law. If local by-elections are indeed showing unrepresentative changes in vote share, such an anomaly could then be amplified by the very low turnouts that are commonplace at these elections.

The intermediate scenario, so to speak, is that the local by-elections continue to be a good measure of local election voting intention, but that local and national voting patterns have diverged. There wasn’t much in evidence of that in the local elections last May, when the national equivalent vote share for the Lib Dems was 5 to 6 points higher than in the polls; that's roughly the sort of differential seen in local elections while the party was in government, other than when local and national elections were held concurrently. That may, of course, have changed subsequently.

The best case scenario for the Lib Dems is that opinion polls are wrong and are understating support for them. Polls have traditionally measured support for the party and its predecessors quite accurately, but given the number of recent polling mishaps, including errors on the proportions of people switching both to and from other parties, this possibility should not be dismissed. One particular risk to polling accuracy is if poll samples are still atypically partisan, in which case they could be understating the flow of voters between parties. However there is not, at this stage, any evidence that this is the case.

Whichever of these it is, given the traditional late-term recovery, Tim Farron's party can reasonably expect to return to somewhere well into double figures in the popular vote.

In terms of seats, Lib Dems start in second place in 63 of the 632 constituencies in Great Britain, and around a quarter of those have single-digit percentage majorities. And while many of them voted “Leave” in the EU referendum, many others did not. In fact, these 63 seats as a whole narrowly voted “Remain.” Furthermore, given that no party besides the Lib Dems or Conservatives has made progress since 2015, their ability to accumulate tactical votes will very likely be strengthened.

In the meantime there will be further opportunities in parliamentary by-elections, including the upcoming poll in Gorton, historically a Lib-Lab contest. While Labour are favourites, the Lib Dems should not totally be ruled out in the Manchester constituency.

Recovering from the worst Liberal general election result in 45 years was never likely to be quick or easy. Nevertheless, while the recovery will require a good deal of patience, there's much for the Lib Dems to be optimistic about.