Death by coalition?

The Liberal Democrats have lost almost 4m voters since the 2010 election. Is this the end?
August 22, 2012

A 2010 protest against student fees; if the Lib Dems stay on 10 per cent public support, at the next election they could have 10 MPs, not 57

The question is as tough as it is obvious: can the Liberal Democrats revive their flagging fortunes?

New polling data, gathered by YouGov, explores the nature of the party’s support at the last election, pinpoints the groups that have drifted away, and identifies problems the party must tackle if it is to avoid a near wipe-out at the next election.

The impact of the defection of Lib Dem voters is hard to overstate. The Lib Dems won 57 seats at the last general election, when they won 24 per cent of the vote across Britain. If they remain stuck on 10 per cent, then they would be reduced to just 10 MPs, on the conventional assumption of a uniform swing. Recovery to 15 per cent would lift this to 28 seats, half their present total.

Much of the Lib Dems’ current travails can be traced back to the nature of their vote in 2010. As usual, it contained a much higher proportion of fair-weather friends than Labour or the Conservatives. This is seen when we compare voting behaviour with results to another question that YouGov regularly asks: “Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish National, Plaid Cymru, or don’t you usually think of yourself as any of these?” This tells us not which party people would vote for but which they identify with. These “party ID” figures contain some awkward truths for the Lib Dems.

In 2010, the great majority of Labour and Conservative voters also identified with their party (the figures were 84 per cent and 76 per cent respectively.) With the Lib Dems the figure was much smaller: just 43 per cent. Of the 6.8m people who voted for them, just under 3m identified with the party, while almost 4m did not.

It has been like this for many years. The Lib Dem core vote has always been tiny. They add to their support at general elections and, even more spectacularly, by-elections by attracting the tactical votes of people who identify with other parties, and a large slice of the people who don’t identify with any party.

In 2010, the Lib Dems secured the votes of 1.6m Labour identifiers and 1.8m people with no party ID. The group identifying itself as Labour was more left-wing than Labour voters generally. It comprised a mixture of people who were disillusioned with Labour over such matters as Iraq and student fees, and tactical voters—passionate anti-Tories who feared that Labour couldn’t win locally. The vast majority of these have returned to Labour. Today, just 200,000 Labour identifiers would vote Lib Dem.

As for the 1.8m people with no party identity who voted Lib Dem last time, the Lib Dems have lost more than 1.5m. They have splintered all over the place: around 600,000 to Labour, 200,000 each to the Greens and Tories and smaller numbers to UKIP and the Welsh and Scottish nationalists. Around 400,000 don’t know how they would vote. Some no-party-ID voters are passionate about politics, and are usually inspired by issue rather than party; but most are less interested in politics than the average voter. Their support for the Lib Dems was always easy-come-easy-go. It was the most obvious way to protest against the two main parties. Moreover, in 2010, voting Lib Dem had a certain trendiness, especially after Nick Clegg’s triumph in the first leaders’ debate on television. Today, anyone wishing to follow a trend or protest against government moves is unlikely to vote Lib Dem.

The collapse of these two distinct sources of Lib Dem support explains most of their decline, from 24 per cent of the electorate in 2010 to around 10 per cent today. In contrast, support among Lib Dem identifiers has held up rather better, from 2.9m votes two years ago to 2.3m today. Clearly it would help the party if this 600,000 returned to the fold at the next election; but even if they all did so, this would add only two percentage points to the Lib Dem current vote share. And even that is improbable: a fair number of these lost Lib Dem identifiers are left-wing voters who will find it hard to forgive Clegg for joining forces with David Cameron.

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In practice, their losses might not be quite so bad, if Lib Dem MPs exploit their local personal popularity to minimise the loss of votes in their own constituencies. The figures would have been even worse had the Lib Dems continued to back the new boundaries, reducing the House of Commons from 650 to 600 seats. Clegg has done his party a service by repudiating this part of the coalition agreement. Even so, without a big recovery, his party is likely to end up at least 20 seats down.

What, then, do the Lib Dems need to do to win back as many deserters as possible—the 4m people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 but who say they wouldn’t do so today—and win new converts? YouGov research indicates that there are four related problems that the party must address.

1. Ideology. From time to time YouGov conducts a “spectrum” poll. We ask people where they place themselves, the main parties and the party leaders on a seven-point scale from left to right. We allocate a number to each position on the scale, from minus 100 for “very left-wing” via 0 for “centre” to plus 100 for “very right-wing.” We calculate averages for each group of answers.

At first blush, the Lib Dems should be happy with our findings. On average, Lib Dem voters place themselves at (-1), the party at (-5) and its leader at (-1), all very close to the centre. On their own, these figures would suggest the party occupies the ideal ideological space.

Close examination dispels this happy thought. Most right-of-centre voters place the Lib Dems on the left and most left-of-centre voters place the party on the right. Few voters feel that the party’s ideological location is the same as their own. This is especially marked among voters who have switched from Lib Dem to Labour: they are overwhelmingly on the left themselves, but feel that the Lib Dems no longer are.

The problem the Lib Dems face is the opposite of the benefit they enjoyed at the height of “Cleggmania” two years ago. Then, for a short while, millions of voters projected their own idea of the perfect political party onto the Lib Dems and said they would vote for them. Today, many voters project their idea of the least perfect party onto the Lib Dems and say they will cast their vote elsewhere. Unless the party dispels this mixture of confusion and aversion, it will struggle to revive itself.

2. Policies. Could clear policies solve the problem with ideology? Some Lib Dem policies are undoubtedly popular, especially lifting low-paid workers out of tax (which the coalition government is doing) and imposing an annual “mansion tax” on the most expensive homes (which the Conservatives are resisting). But the public don’t share the Lib Dems’ enthusiasm for the European Union or overseas aid. By an even more decisive margin, most voters want a sharp fall in immigration. Indeed this view is shared by most of those who still say they would vote Lib Dem.

So far, so normal: it’s common for parties to embrace a range of policies, some of which the public like and some they don’t. But here’s the rub. With every policy position we tested, the people who turn out to be the keenest on the Lib Dem stance are those who describe themselves as “very left-wing.” This means that the party is sending out conflicting messages. Judged by its policies it is well to the left; judged by its continuing partnership with the Conservatives, it veers to the right.

Sadly for the party, it seems that right-of-centre voters look at the party through the prism of policies, and don’t like what they see, while left-of-centre voters look at its alliance with the Tories and are equally put off. A lot will ride on what the Lib Dems do in the run-up to the next election, and whether they can rid themselves of these twin millstones. They need policies that help them to convey a new and clear narrative.

3. Brand. The confusion of ideology and policy has crippled the Lib Dem brand. Most people—and a huge majority of Lib Dem deserters—say they don’t know what the party stands for, and think it has broken its promises. Less than one voter in three agrees that “by entering the coalition, the Lib Dems have managed to get real liberal policies put into action.” Most of these are either already Lib Dem supporters or pro-coalition Tory voters.

The one positive “brand” quality that has a resonance beyond coalition supporters is the proposition that “the Lib Dems did the responsible thing by entering government at a time of crisis.” This provides some opening for the party at the next election. It might be able to win back some votes by striking a serious, almost sombre, note about the problems Britain faces, and how its ministers have put country before party to tackle them.

4. Leadership. Elections are not just about the message. They are also, increasingly, about the messenger. Is Clegg the right man to lead his party into the next election? We asked people to say which of six senior ministers they respected most. We offered four Tories (David Cameron, George Osborne, William Hague, Theresa May) and two Lib Dems (Nick Clegg, Vince Cable).

The immediately striking thing is that neither Tory nor Lib Dem voters place their own party leader first. But whereas Hague (40 per cent among Tories) just narrowly beats Cameron (37 per cent), Cable (51 per cent among Lib Dem supporters) trounces Clegg (19 per cent). (The results also confirm Osborne’s unpopularity: only 2 per cent of Tory voters pick him.)

Cable also has some traction among Lib Dem deserters. Four out of ten don’t pick any of the six; among those who do choose one of them, Cable is way out in front, with Hague a distant second and the rest nowhere.

Separate analysis of one of YouGov’s tracker questions confirms Clegg’s poor standing, especially among the 4m Lib Dem deserters. We listed eight positive attributes, such as “honest,” “strong” and “sticks to what he believes in,” and asked people to tick off the ones that apply to each party leader. The figures for Clegg were bad among the general public, and worse among Lib Dem deserters. Fully 71 per cent of the latter think none of the attributes apply. Just 1 per cent think he’s strong, 2 per cent think he’s decisive and 4 per cent reckon he “sticks to what he believes in.” In only two of the attributes does his image rating creep into double figures, and then only just: 12 per cent of deserters think he’s honest, and 12 per cent again say he’s charismatic.

There are, of course, still almost three years to go to the next election (assuming the coalition lasts the distance). Much can change in that time. To some extent, the Lib Dems are victims of the phenomenon from which they have benefited so much in the past: the government’s mid-term blues. However, unless they manage to solve their deep-seated problems over ideology, policy, brand and leadership—either by changing them or selling them far more effectively—the Liberal Democrats face a torrid time at the next election.