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…