With support for the Liberal Democrats barely a third of what it was in May 2010, many are predicting massive losses for Nick Clegg’s party in the upcoming election. But a closer look behind the headline opinion poll ratings tells a very different story.
At the 2010 General Election, the Liberal Democrats won an unprecedented 24% of the popular vote—only 6 % below that of Labour. This surge in popularity was supposed to kick-start the beginning of “three-party-politics”. But it was not to be. Just months later, after entering into a coalition with the Conservatives and backtracking on tuition fees, support for the Lib Dems in the opinion polls collapsed to little more than 10%.
With the current Parliament coming to an end, things are now looking even worse. In terms of voting intentions, at least, they have been convincingly been overtaken by UKIP as the third most popular party. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Greens have picked up many traditional would-be Lib Dem supporters: the young and educated. Opinion polls now put Nick Clegg’s party on around 7%.
With popular support so low, many are predicting that the Lib Dems will lose more than half of their seats, if not more. After all, their share in the vote has fallen by two-thirds, so it seems natural to conclude that the number of MPs they will return to Westminster will fall by a similar amount. This is nonsense. Elections in the UK cannot be predicted by blanket opinion polls, not least now there are five parties seriously involved (six if you include the SNP).
The key lies in the marginal constituencies. Polling by Lord Ashcroft (a Conservative member of the House of Lords) in around a hundred marginal constituencies suggests that, where Liberal Democrats already have an MP, they still enjoy strong levels of support. Based on these polls, the Lib Dems will (only) lose 20-25 seats in May. This will take their number of MPs down from 57 to somewhere in the mid-30s.
One key trend is that while most voters dislike the Liberal Democrats overall, a significant number like their local Lib Dem MP. The advantage of incumbency therefore seems to be having a significant positive effect in Lib Dem constituencies. As Lord Ashcroft observes: “my own research in the marginals has consistently found a higher Lib Dem vote share when respondents are asked to think about their own constituency and the candidates who are likely to stand.”
By contrast, in constituencies where they currently have no MP, the party barely registers on the scale, securing only 2-3% of the vote. This explains why the Lib Dem’s overall opinion poll rating is so low. But this does not, by itself, matter. Unlike last time, Liberal Democrats’ votes now seem to be distributed far more efficiently. This could work in their favour.
What this all means is that, come May, the Liberal Democrats could still be a significant force in British Parliamentary politics. Especially given that, based on these polls, Labour are on course to win just over 300 MPs, leaving them 25 short of a majority. This is a gap even a severely depleted Lib Dem contingent could fill. Of course, this gap could also be filled by the SNP. Or Ed Miliband may not even get the chance to form a coalition if the Conservatives win more seats. But should this happen, it would put the Liberal Democrats in an even better position, since they would be the Conservatives’ only viable coalition partner.
With so many variables—and so many of them unknown—it is difficult to know what we can be sure of about the General Election. But one thing we can be sure of is that the Liberal Democrats will still be there afterwards.
By Alex Wylde, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.