Since the conception of the coalition government the future of the Liberal Democrats has been one of the biggest talking points in British politics. The conventional wisdom was that they would be annihilated in 2015 as a result of broken promises and the tough decisions of government. Yet the party secured a stunning victory in Eastleigh on the back of 8% national poll ratings, abysmal national council elections and several heavily-reported scandals. Despite these difficult circumstances certain political commentators have claimed that the Liberal Democrats should not celebrate Eastleigh, pointing towards the 14% swing against them. But this is precisely the reason for celebration – like in football, the best teams win even when they are playing badly.
Here are ten reasons that the Liberal Democrats will avoid the wipe-out that their opponents so gleefully predicted:
- 31% of people want to see the Liberal Democrats back in government. There has been some polling data collected on the question “Which government would you prefer?” with 39% selecting a Labour majority, 30% a Conservative majority, 18% a Labour/Lib Dem coalition and 13% a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. The Liberal Democrats have the difficult task of convincing both the 18% and the 13% that the easiest way to achieve their desired outcome is by voting for them. While this is a tricky balancing act, it does at least give them a road back to recovery.
- A strong UKIP result benefits the Liberal Democrats. While the rise of UKIP has been used to illustrate the Liberal Democrats demise as Britain’s third party, commentators have largely ignored the electoral realities of the situation. There is no chance of UKIP overtaking the Liberal Democrats in terms of seats and as we witnessed in Eastleigh, UKIP will siphon votes away from the Conservatives in marginal seats.
- It might not be so bleak in the seats competing with Labour either. So far the focus has been on what the Labour voters that the Liberal Democrats rely on in seats where Labour have no chance of winning will do. The reverse however has not been applied to Lib Dem/Labour seats. Will Conservative voters go out and support their coalition partners like they did in Oldham? Additionally the Labour vote could be eaten into by the SNP in Scottish Lib Dem seats.
- As has been frequently pointed out, ICM consistently shows the Liberal Democrats at around 15% well ahead of Yougov and the other pollsters. The reason for this is the different methodology used by the pollster. ICM assume a substantial chunk of former Liberal Democrat voters who are currently unsure will return to the party come election day. Intuitively this seems rather like cheating; however the function of these polls is to predict the electorate’s behaviour not to reflect public opinion and ICM have been the most accurate in recent general elections.
- The Liberal Democrat support normally dips in-between elections. Following the 87, 92, 97, 01 and 05 elections, support dipped as low as 4, 9, 10, 13 and 11% respectively. Furthermore the Liberal Democrats historically receive a surge in support (normally in the region of 5%) when election campaigns begin as result of increased coverage and attention from the national media.
- Being popular has never really done much for the Liberal Democrats anyway. The relative success of the party has always centred on local campaigns and focusing resources extremely well. Paddy Ashdown did this brilliantly achieving an increase of 28 seats in 1997 despite losing 1% nationally. The 2010 election highlighted a failure of the Liberal Democrats to target their resources efficiently and as a consequence they managed to lose 13 incumbents in what was their strongest election showing in 27 years. They will not make the same mistake twice and do not be surprised if a drop in the national polls is not reflected in their seats tally.
- The Liberal Democrats are the only party that substantially benefit from the “Incumbency Factor”. A report from the ‘Electoral Studies’ has revealed that at the last election they had a 6.8% advantage while their Conservatives challengers had 5.1% penalty and Labour challengers had a 1.0% penalty. This may well be different now that they are a party of government but if they received even half of this advantage in 2015 it could save them an additional 10+ seats.
- Finishing 8th in Rotherham tells us nothing. There have been a series of by-elections in extremely safe Labour seats that the Liberal Democrats have had no chance in. There are no real prospects of a party of government defeating an opposition party in a by-election and the Liberal Democrats only perform well when they put the money and effort in. With no incentive whatsoever to waste their limited resources they have naturally finished very poorly in these elections.
- The 2012 council election results weren’t that bad. After the complete onslaught of the 2011 elections, Liberal Democrats were hoping for a more sympathetic electorate a year later. On the surface this didn’t materialise, the national figure at 16% was only one point higher than the previous year and they lost 336 councillors. However in areas where the Liberal Democrats were controlling the council, had a member of parliament or the Conservatives were the main opposition, they polled strong enough to retain almost all the councils they were defending.
- The Labour poll lead is soft. Ed Miliband’s poll lead is far too reliant on former Liberal Democrats, many of whom revealed to ICM that they would instantly return to the party if Vince Cable was elected leader. Similarly Yougov revealed the drop in Labour support in the south that would be caused by a Boris Johnson led Conservative party would be enough to eradicate their national lead. Although leadership changes are unlikely, these polls highlight the dangers that the opposition face in the next 2 years.
The core message that will permeate every aspect of the Liberal Democrats 2015 campaign was hammered in at spring conference – “Building a Stronger Economy in a Fairer Society”. Ultimately the future of the Liberal Democrats will hinge on their ability to mould this national message and their achievements in government around their highly diverse local campaigns. Buoyed by the remarkable win in Eastleigh, there is a genuine belief among the party leadership that they can go on the offensive and actually gain seats from an increasingly fragile Conservative party. With the campaign for 2015 now up and running expect to hear their carefully crafted message over and over again.
* Tom Hancock is a musician and political enthusiast, though rarely at the same time. He is currently studying politics at the University of York.