How the left/right balance of Liberal Democrat voters has changed

It is common to use two political spectrums to sort out where people or parties sit ideologically: the left-right spectrum and the authoritarian-libertarian spectrum. The latter is important in explaining the politics of the coalition’s formation, as it was a defence of civil liberties against New Labour’s post-9/11 authoritarian streak that both saw senior figures in the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives often co-operating in Parliament and also carved out a large area of policy agreement between them.

Since the coalition’s formation, its importance has rapidly dropped. Some of the reasons are straightforwardly good ones – such as delivering on several of the major civil liberties promises, including scrapping ID cards. However, it is also the case that due to the dominance of the economy as an issue, civil liberties have slipped back down the political agenda. That leaves the left-right spectrum more important once again.

It is also the spectrum that was asked about in the YouGov polling into former and current Liberal Democrat voters, about which my Co-Editor Stephen Tall blogged last week and which includes a large number of people who said at the time that they were voting Lib Dem in May 2010 and have been polled again late last year, allowing comparisons to be made over time about this group.

People were asked to place themselves on a spectrum from 0 (left) to 10 (right) and for the following I have grouped people into left (0-3), centre (4-6) and right (7-10). What they show amongst Liberal Democrat voters is a shift to the centre:

Lib Dem voters in May 2010: 26% left, 47% centre, 7% right
Lib Dem voters in  Nov 2011: 16% left, 66% centre, 6% right

That drop in self-identifying left-wing voters is primarily explained by the loss of tactical voters. Of the people who said their prime reason for voting for the party in May 2010 was tactical voting, only 10% have remained Liberal Democrat supporters. Amongst those tactical voters, 34% put themselves on the left (and only 8% on the right, which matches up with the failure to squeeze further the Conservative vote in a range of key seats in the last general election).

As I talked about in my email newsletter write-up of the poll findings, a key group for the party to appeal to is the large number of people who have switched from being Liberal Democrat to ‘don’t know’. (The existence of this sizeable group also explains the systermatic differences in results from different pollsters, because the way in which such don’t knows are treated is one of the major differences in their methodologies. YouGov’s methodology treats these don’t knows more harshly than ICM’s from a Lib Dem perspective, for example.)

This group, unlike the ex-tactical voters, is predominantly of the centre:

People who voted Lib Dem tactically in 2010: 34% left, 42% centre, 8% right
Ex-Lib Dems, who are now ‘don’t know’: 8% left, 48% centre, 2% right (and a huge 42% also said ‘don’t know’ to their place on left/right spectrum)

That makes for two different groups the party needs to appeal to: those who see themselves in the political centre (or don’t know where they are on the political spectrum), have been Lib Dem in the past but now don’t know who to support, and those on the centre and left who were not won over by policy promises or by Nick Clegg, but rather by bar charts and the like.

The size of this group shows why a skillful use of the tactical voting message has been so important to the party in the past (and yes, skillful means rather more than simply sticking a badly designed bar chart on a few leaflets and thinking that’s it). Even the most skilful of tactical voting campaigns is unlikely on its own to be sufficient to appeal to these people. A more sophisticated approach that marries up tactical voting with national policy achievements is needed – because the way to appeal to such tactical voters at the moment is to persuade them that a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition is better than a pure Conservative government.

* For full details of the polling dates, sample size and so on, see here and you can sign up to my monthly email newsletter about the Liberal Democrats here.


* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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  • After 30-odd years of neoliberal, pro-corporate governance I’d say that the true centre of British politics is significantly to the left of all the major parties. And that most voters just dont realise it, which makes the centrist self-characterisation of party voters somewhat off target.

  • LondonLiberal 11th Jan '12 - 12:05pm

    mike, given that we have had 30 years of what you call neoliberal pro-corporate governece under Governing parties elected with, if not majorities, at least the largest minorities of the popular vote, and that people, while generally fairly stupid, are not THAT stupid in such large numbers over such a long time, i would say that the centre of gravity is sadly fairly right wing (after all, the sun and mail are the biggest selling papers).

    Mark, your article is basically a very long way of saying that the party in coalition has lost a lot of left-leaning voters. This is hardly news. But i would caution against thinking that those voters were simply labour voters temporarily parkign themselves in the party post Iraq. While there undoubtedly were (are?) some of those, I left the party last year after 18 years of membership, campaigning, standing as a candidate and working for MPs. I know others who have left and who have had similarly records of service, loyalty and dedication to the party. Indeed, LDV has printed artilces from them explaining why they left. The risk is that those few brave/foolish/centre-right (?) souls left in the dwindling ranks think that those who left weren’t really liberal anyway, and that only the ‘pure’ remain. This is a surefire route to oblivion or, at best, a german FDP status for the libdems, something i didn’t campaign for and don’t want to see.

    I used to believe that a con/lib coalition was better than a pure tory government. but seeing what we’ve enabled the tories to do, i have come to believe that we are essentially enabling an alcoholic to be destructive to his society and environment, and i would rather we stopped handing him drinks in the form of political cover and let him make his own mistakes and, in a true tory way, take responsibility for them in due course.

  • LondonLiberal 11th Jan '12 - 12:32pm

    @Andy – where can i find the pre-2010 figures? they don’t seem to be in Mark’s newsletter, unless i’m missing something, which i probably am!

  • Simon Titley 11th Jan '12 - 12:57pm

    @Andy Mayer – The majority of Liberal Democrat members (and before the merger, Liberal Party members) has held social liberal views ever since the rise of ‘new liberalism’ more than a hundred years ago. The evidence is in the values and policies the party has adopted over the past century. The Social Liberal Forum therefore has a very good claim to represent the mainstream of the party membership. The right-wing libertarians in Liberal Vision, on the other hand, simply weren’t around until the end of the 1990s and have always been a fringe element.

  • Simon Bamonte 11th Jan '12 - 1:05pm

    I am one of those who always saw myself on the “left” of the party. I voted SDP/Alliance/LD since 1983, delivered Focus many times and helped canvass during elections. But I now won’t be voting LD at the next election. I did support the Coalition at the start and I thought we would genuinely temper the worst aspects of Toryism. But that hasn’t been the case: during the first year of the coalition I was appalled at our party’s strategy of “owning” all policy, even the Tory ones. To see someone like Danny Alexander come on TV supporting policy he had been campaigning quite strongly against only months before was not to my liking. But then came the NHS reform we were promised wasn’t on the cards, a 180 on the deficit reduction policy, mass unemployment, workfare, attacks on the most vulnerable (sick/disabled people), tuition fees, and now HS2 is another slap in the face when actual people are hurting, struggling to make ends meet at this moment.

    What really pushed me out of the party, though, when I was wavering was some LDs themselves. I was accused of not being a “real” Liberal and called, on several occasions, a Labour Troll because I didn’t like what our MPs and ministers were doing. We claim to be a non-tribal party but the way I and several others have been treated by those who support the coalition fully was the last straw, really.

    I’ve been accused of living in an ivory tower and not wanting to “sully my hands with power”. If that’s what some people think, fine. They may call it that, I call it having principles. I can’t, in good conscience, be a member of and vote for a party that is acting not only against what I believe in, but against the interests of my friends and family and the community I live in.

  • mike cobley 11th Jan '12 - 1:12pm

    @Simon Titley – and social democrats? What views do you think they held, before and since? As a party member I count myself a social democrat and thus am not viscerally opposed to the deployment of state power to make the lives of ordinary people better by tackling the problems of avoidable suffering. Sadly, you could hardly say the same of the current leadership. In fact, that same leadership and their supporters seem to have gone out of their way to expunge so much as the merest mention of social democrats or social democracy from the party and its announcements and publications. Instead, we have every party figure of note banging on about Liberal visions, solutions, moments, and assorted sub-aspirational nouns while Coalition policies bear down cruelly upon the powerless and the defenceless, resulting in the growing toxicity of the actual word Liberal.

    Once, social democrats were seen as the right wing of the Labour movement; now it seems that we are to the left of almost the entire mainstream of UK politics. No wonder Nick Clegg sees us as an embarassment.

  • LondonLiberal 11th Jan '12 - 1:16pm

    @ Mark,

    You make a fair point, but looking at the spreadsheet you link to in your email, of those voters that the party has lost, 65% of them identify with the numbers 0-5 (ie left to centre) and only 14% with 6-10 (ie centre to right ), with no one putitng themselves at 9 or 10 (ie right wing). sure, 22% say they don’t know where they sit on the spectrum, but appealing to them is pretty hard because we, er, don’t know where they sit on the poltiical spectrum!. plus, we might assume that they would split all around the poltiical spectrum but would probably be closer to the left than the right given that they voted for a centre-left-leaning party in 2011 and now don’t want to vote for us.

  • paul barker 11th Jan '12 - 2:08pm

    My problem with all this is that it assumes that peole answer Pollsters questions truthfully & that they think the way The Pollsters think they do .

    To give a concrete example, the last Leadership Poll gave Clegg 33% support but The Libdems usually poll between 10 & 14%.
    Do we really believe that between 19 & 23% of Voters think Clegg is fine but cant stand his Party ?
    A more likely explanation is “The spiral of Silence” where supporters of disliked Parties keep quiet. There will be more “quiet Libdems” on The Left because they are more likely to have Left Wing friends.

    Overall, its extremely hard to work out what many Voters really feel as their answers to different sorts of Polling suggest very different things. We should put far more weight on actual results like The Locals in May.

  • david thorpe 11th Jan '12 - 3:16pm

    I thought the SDP were set up because they wanted to take politics away from the triablism of left vs right?

    The reality is that Tony Blair was was a conservative, he wrote so in his own memoirs.

    The reality is that there is not politial leader as right wing as thatcher, nor as left wing as Micheal Foot.

    Cameron is closer to the One Nation Tradition than the Thatcherite Tradition.

    Milliband is a technocrat who is clodser to thwe Classical Liberal Tradition than to any previous Labour leader. In reality Milliband and Nick Clegg should be in the same party, but thats the Liberal Party, bot the Laboru Party, if the Labour party aspires to Socialism, then Ed Milliband is in the wrong place, but then Blair was in the wrong place as well, with him being a conservative.

    There are still a great many Lib Dems Mps way to the left of Milliband, indeed the party deputy leader probably is.

    All of this tells us that, the extremes are dying out, the parties are moving to the centre.
    In that situation if you are the centrist party, as thwe Lib Dems sought tio be, you are in danger of losing relevance, whetever else the coalition will cost us, we will stay relevant, as a party of government, even as we lose cachet as the party of protest and the party of the centre.

  • david thorpe 11th Jan '12 - 3:20pm

    @ paul

    people were asked that qwuestion about all three leaders.
    They were asked were they effective at their jobs, not whether they like them.
    And since they would be asked about all three, they are answering about two they dont like1
    In the past Lib Dem leaders have usually figured in those polls under the no opinion option, because people didnt care or didnt know what a Lib Dem leader was supposed to do, and so couldnt judge it.
    I am not a supporter of the SDNP, but Alex Salmond is doing an amazing job, I hate the Tories but Cameron is a brilliant political leader id his party,

  • Tony Dawson 11th Jan '12 - 9:59pm

    @Mark Pack:

    “the way to appeal to such tactical voters at the moment is to persuade them that a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition is better than a pure Conservative government.”

    Not quite so.

    Many tactical voters determine their behaviour by how it will affect their constituency MP, not the government. So the task in this case is to demonstrate that their Lib Dem candidate is not a Tory stoolpigeon. How many can demonstrate this?

  • Paul Griffiths 11th Jan '12 - 10:01pm

    @Simon Bamonte

    Interesting. What pushed me, if not out of the party, then at least away from LDV for many months, was people telling coalition supporters like me that we were at best blindly loyal and at worst a closet Tories. So I guess neither of us felt at home.

  • to Mike Cobley: it’s not new that liberals view social democrats as an embarraassment – we felt that about the SDP back in the 80s too. This idea that social democracy is ofthe left,or even progressive, is quite new and equally nonsensical. The ‘social liberal forum’ doesn’t speak for me btw!

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Jan '12 - 11:44am

    Can those who are suggesting the Social Liberal Forum does not represent what used to be the mainstream Liberal Party position please answer this question: “How long have you been a member of the party?”.

    I’m not putting this in a way that is meant to suggest some sort of superiority attached to lengthy membership, but my own memory tells me that people who equate “liberalism” with extreme free market economic policies simply did not exist in the Liberal Party, at least not in significant numbers, when I first joined it and for many years after, certainly well into the merger. We did not use the term “social liberalism” then because it was not needed – what is now labelled as “social liberalism” was then called just “liberalism”. What is now labelled as “economic liberalism” was then called “Thatcherism”. The argument between the Liberal Party and the SDP then was not “economic v. social” liberalism. It was an argument between those who believed the party should essentially be a support group for its national leaders, and those who believed the national organisation should be support for a network of local campaigners. Most of the SDP and about half the Liberal Party fell on the first side, those in the Liberal Party who fell on the second side were those most attached to the idea that “liberalism” and “social democracy” were distinct things and they weren’t social democrats. This is a simplification, and from it flowed various policy differences, but it does indicate a big part of the difference then was about how to do politics rather than policy. The economic policy of those who fell on the not-social-democrat side was, to be honest, somewhat inchoate, but if anything it was more hostile than the other side towards the movement of establishment opinion in the direction of adulation of free market theories which was then just starting.

    I now feel I am living in some sort of Orwellian nightmare when I find what I remember vividly from my own experiences back then, when I was a regular at party assembly and had some contact with what was happening nationally through being on the national executive of the Young Liberals, now denied. So often now I read people – who were not around at that time – writing about the Liberal Democrats having an economic v social liberal division springing from the merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP as if that was the difference between the two parties when it was NOT. I call this “Orwellian” because Orwell wrote about people in power changing the very thought patterns of the population by changing language, and that is just what is happening here. What has happened is that there is a group of influential people – who once would have had a home very firmly as a stream within the Conservative Party – quite deliberately trying to take over the word “liberal” and get it to mean them.

    Those trying to hijack the word “liberal” in this way are helped by the fact that it was almost a banned word in national party leadership circles for several years after the merger. This was part of the disastrous strategy in which it was attempted to launch the party resulting from the merger as something entirely new with no connections of the past. The idea seemed to have been to repeat the success with which the display of top-down imagery and brand newness worked when the SDP was set up. Also, despite the fact that it was Liberal Party activists doing much of the work and winning most of the seats in the Alliance, there was a feel, directed by the national press and the national leadership of both the merged parties, that there was something embarrassing about the Liberal Party, often summed up with jibes about “beards and sandals”, and so the more that could be done to excise it from people’s memory the better it would be. This could be seen, for example, in those who were trying to shorten the name of the party to just “Democrats”. At that time, even to use the word “liberal” led to one being accused of being factional, of not showing loyalty to the merged party, of being backwards and not wanting to progress.

    Given that those now trying to hijack the word “liberal” and get it to mean what we now call “economic liberalism” are most definitely NOT of the “beards and sandals” type, it indicates the success of those who wanted that word and it connotations forgotten. It is forgotten enough that this completely different group has been able to pick it up and attempt, with some success, to apply it to themselves. Yet it seems to me they are doing this not entirely because the word dropped out of use for something else. Rather, it is in attempt to give themselves a stronger grounding by claiming deeper historical roots than they really have. It is really an entirely new ideology, which springs from various sources – historical liberalism being a fairly minor part of it, other parts being the writings of various people who were avowedly anti-liberal such as Ayn Rand, Thatcherism-Reaganism (or rather something taken and retrofitted to those two, whose politics was actually pragmatic and lacked much in the way of deep thought), computer technology obsessives, USA traditionalist cargo cults, Calvinist Christianity. And most of all the “masters of the universe” who have seized control of the global economy through the big financial institutions.

    While I think most members of the Liberal Democrats have nothing to do with this ideology, it does seem to me quite common that new recruits come to us supposing that “liberalism” seems to mean this thing. As I have said before, if there was the great pent-up demand for this sort of politics that was often claimed by those who support it in the days when the Liberal Democrats were an opposition party, we’d by rising up the opinion polls right now. The formation of the coalition, which was really just a necessity caused by the balance in the Commons after the 2010 election, was seized upon by that sort, and made out to be an ideological coming to agreement. The image was put about that we agreed with Conservative economic policy, and our role was to stamp out the social illiberalism of that party (which was also a big part of Thatcherism-Reaganism, and so why it is not entirely fair to say the modern ideology I have been writing about is just what we called “Thatcherism” back then).

    One reason I’m particularly aware of how things have changed is that I deliberately dropped out of paying much attention to what was happening in the party nationally and to discussion forums and the like when I was elected a councillor in 1994. To some extent I’d dropped out of party activity after the merger, not liking what happened then, but 1994 saw me asked at quite short notice to defend a Liberal Democrat held council seat. All my party political attention was on this, until I decided not to restand in 2006. I only started paying serious attention to party discussion forums, such as this one, when we had the last leadership election, and I wanted to find out why so many people were in favour of the person who won when I just did not understand what it was that so many found so attractive in him (I still don’t).

    So I felt particularly strongly the way things have changed, having had that big gap in paying much attention to them. I don’t think my own political views have changed. In the days when I was first a member of the Liberal Party, while I was to the left, I felt pretty much mainstream. Now it seems to me that I’m on the far left, struggling against people who assume they are the mainstream whose politics is very far from mine. It’s contributing to Liberal Democrat Voice, and some of the responses I’ve had, and the right-wig stuff that tends to be written here by younger members, which more than anything else has led me to question whether I’m in the right party.

  • david thorpe 12th Jan '12 - 4:23pm

    evidence that the SLF rae not the mainstream?
    The last leadership election when two people not of the SLF contested it.

    ‘New Liberalism’ was a repsonse to the emerging labour movement, it was crucial in shaping the party and was of its time, the problem with the SLF, is that they are creating ‘sacred cows’ and becoming quite small-c conservative, in not wn\ating to ask radical questions about how welfare,e ductaion wetc should be delivered, ‘new liberalism’ is the otthrodoxy, not merely in the Lib Dems, but across the three parties, but the SLF’s conservative way of achieicving the agreed goals of ‘new liberalism’ is not the aminstream of anything, and certainly isnt liberal, as liberalism is about radical solutions and asking radical questions, not building scared cows in a traibal weay, indeed the SDP was founded by people whow anted ot move politics away from such tribal;ist sacred cows, ther SLF are a threat to the SDP legacy both in the party and the country

  • david thorpe 12th Jan '12 - 4:26pm

    thiose who talk abotu extreme free market views, as a contrast to the Slf are constructing straw men, libretariasm is a minority, but its not the case that one is either a libretarian or an SLF advoacte, most of us, as the survey in the opening post of this article indicates are in the middle, as are people like Clegg Huhne and Laws.
    They can claim to be in the middle and the aminstream much more than can say the SLF, as they are classically Libera.l on social questions, whereas many SLF advocates are deeply conservative on social questions, and thats not the aminstream view in the party

  • Ruth Bright 12th Jan '12 - 5:41pm

    David – I’m not a member of SLF but I’m genuinely interested in what you consider to be SLF’s sacred cows – universal child benefit, health care free at the point of delivery? How are SLF’s “sacred cows” different from the rest of the party?

  • david thorpe 12th Jan '12 - 7:05pm

    Lib Dems ere created to take politics beyiond left and right and formed by people who found the Labour of the 1980’s to be too left wing….

    iof tribalism motivates you, and if you dont identify as a Liberal, then with the greatest of respect you chose the wrong party, people expect tory party members to be conservbtaive and authoritarian in their outlook, labour members expect their members to be big state high spending, and Liberal democrats are entiteld to expect their members to be Liberal in their oputlook, being Liberal is not inimical to beeing socil democati, they are just different pathways to the same goasl, being triabl is however inimical to being a Liberal, and I wish some more people would understand that

  • Richard Swales 12th Jan '12 - 11:46pm

    I disagree with one of the two groups identified to target. Previous “Left” tactical voters have gone and they are not coming back until after 2015 if at all. What those figures show though is how credible the “Vote Clegg get Brown” thing was and how hard it was to squeeze “Right” (presumably Tory) voters. This should get a lot easier in the future.
    I know people who wanted to vote for us last time but voted Tory because it was the clearest “Not Gordon Brown” vote out there.
    From the position we are in now, we simply aren’t going to pick up votes from people who don’t support the coalition, balanced budgets etc.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Jan '12 - 5:03pm

    david thorpe

    evidence that the SLF rae not the mainstream?
    The last leadership election when two people not of the SLF contested it

    Not helped by the way the press constantly pumps up the right-wingers in our party, while doing down those more to the left. The right-wing press seemed to think being “clever” was equivalent to “having right-wing views on economics”, so mediocre figures who have such views get put forward as “obviously the next leader” and can build up a momentum on that. Meanwhile, the press hardly ever gives fair coverage (or in fact, any coverage) to those who are more to the left in the party, making it much harder for them to emerge as potential candidates for the leadership.

    Lib Dems were created to take politics beyiond left and right and formed by people who found the Labour of the 1980′s to be too left wing….

    A not uncommon comment amongst Liberals at the time, particularly opponent of the merger, was “we’re merging with the wrong wing of the Labour Party”.

    Anyway, I had forgotten to mention what I had first meant to mention – the main consequence of the shifts mentioned in the original article will be more Tory rule. We have already seen this in local government – the consequence of the “I’d never vote LibDem again” people shifting back to Labour are big Tory gains at the expense of the Liberal Democrats and so more Tory-run councils.We will see the same in national governemnt – this sort of person WILL hand the country to majority Tory governm ent at the next general election. The only reason we didn’t have it in 2010 was the Liberal Democrats. The great majority of LibDem held constituencies are constituencies that would have been Tory had it not been for LibDem hard work, and will go back to Tory if the LibDem vote falls.

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