The Liberal Democrats are entering the 2015 General Election with 57 seats in the UK parliament’s lower chamber, the House of Commons. As the junior member of our incumbent coalition to the Conservative Party, who are traditionally further to the economic and social right than the Liberal Democrats, there has been much compromise on the part of the Liberal Democrats as compared to their 2010 election manifesto. Most notably the Liberal Democrats lost a vast amount of support in the months following the tuition fees hike to £9000 per annum, against their pledge to scrap them entirely.
Fig. 1: Table showing the historic share and number of seats the Lib Dems held
The Liberal Democrats have fluctuated between 18% and 25% in the last seven elections, with them holding just 20 seats in 1992 and 62 in 2005 when Charles Kennedy was their leader. Their 57 seats secured under the leadership of the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is their second best showing and although their share slipped back when the referendum came round, the Lib Dems were briefly polling as the most popular party in the UK following the live television debates where Nick Clegg was widely perceived to have performed strongly.
Fig. 2: Table showing the addition of forecasts using data from electionforecast.co.uk (28/04/15)
The electionforecast.co.uk prediction has the Lib Dems retaining less than half of their current total, just 27 seats in Westminster, with a vote share of 12.2%. Since only November 2010, or six months into government, the Lib Dem polled vote share has hovered consistently just over 10%.
Fig. 3: Diagram showing the stated 2015 voting intention for 2010 voters of the three major parties from YouGov/SundayTimes survey (11/04/15)
Figure 3 demonstrates how the Liberal Democrats have shed voters since 2010 relative to the Conservatives and Labour. Approximately 78% of 2010 voters for both the Conservatives and Labour intend to vote that way again whilst the figure is just 26% for Nick Clegg’s party. By comparison 31% of Lib Dem voters now intend to vote for Labour. Whilst the emergence of UKIP has clearly tempted away plenty of Conservative voters, Lib Dem voters have been drawn to parties on the left - Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Labour - and right - Conservatives and UKIP – reflecting the dangers of standing in the centre ground.
What is the story behind the numbers?
That the Liberal Democrats have shed vote share is no surprise. But where and how has this occurred? Have traditionally Lib Dem areas remained steady? Has their vote share collapsed in areas where they were not historically as strong? Has being in a Tory-led government cost the Lib Dems in northern regions? To answer these questions we will analyse a broadly representative sample of constituencies, understanding what is happening on the ground by analysing council ward data for local election results. We have observed seats from around Leeds and the South West of England to get a mix, whilst we did not investigate Scottish performance as there has been an almost universal swing towards the SNP from the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. While general elections typically occur every five years, local elections are more frequent. As such local election results may hold the secret to understanding how voting intentions have shifted amongst the electorate in the interim years.
Fig. 4: Diagram showing the Lib Dem local election vote share for a selection of 19 seats, broken down by party of current MP
Clearly we can see the Liberal Democrats do better in local elections in areas where they have an incumbent MP though this is to be expected. However, the data does neither confirm nor disprove a hypothesis that the Liberal Democrat vote is holding up better in areas where they have traditionally been strong. Though this confirms suspicions that the Lib Dem share of vote will fall universally, it has not fallen uniformly. Does looking at how vote has fallen proportionally reveal a different story, since the Lib Dems have more votes to lose in areas where they are traditionally strong, but this may be proportionally less than in other areas?
Fig. 5: Chart showing the proportional change in Lib Dem local election vote share from 2010 to the most recent local election, for a selection of 19 seats, broken down by party of current MP
By observing the changes in vote share in proportional terms the story is revealed. In the areas where the Labour party are strong – those with a sitting Labour MP – the proportional drop in Lib Dem support has been catastrophic. It is 50% or more in every instance, with the Leeds area proving particularly punishing. In Lib Dem constituencies the drop has been less but still large, with an average reduction of 39%, while it has slightly more - 41% - in Tory held areas.
It is clear that the Liberal Democrat vote will fall significantly in today’s election. This is not news. However a picture of where we can expect the vote to weaken most significantly is appearing. A survey of voters showed that the biggest group of 2010 Lib Dem voters plan to vote for Labour in 2015 with the Lib Dem vote only being the second largest group. This conclusion is also reflected in the areas where the Lib Dem vote has dropped the most – in every constituency analysed with a sitting Labour MP the Lib Dem vote share has dropped by 50% or more. The situation in Tory areas and Lib Dem areas the drop is less – perhaps due to the close association of the two parties after five years in coalition government. As such we can expect to see the Liberal Democrats lose out relatively more in the Labour heartlands whilst they may be able to hold on to a good number of seats in the South West of England.