Coalition partners: sink or swim together?

The idea that Liberal Democrat and Conservative political fortunes are tied together comes in two forms. The basic – that with both being in government, the public’s overall view of the government (and in particular its economic record) will heavily determine its view of both parties come the next election. Sink or swim together then. Then there is version which adds an asymmetric twist. Namely that if the public views the coalition as a failure both parties will sink together, but if the public rates the coalition as a success, being the smaller of the two parties means the Liberal Democrats won’t necessarily get their share of the credit.

What does the polling data show?

I’ve put together three simple plots, using the data from my opinion poll database. Taking the 700+ national voting intention opinion polls since the general election, I’ve plotted three graphs, showing how the level of Liberal Democrat support (on the y-axis) varies compared to the level of Conservative, Labour or Other support in turn (the x-axis).

Taking the Lib Dem versus Conservative one first, the data shows a weak link between the level of Lib Dem and  Conservative support. The two parties are sinking or swimming together somewhat, but with enough variation to push the analogy into breakdown by talking about how the two parties are like neighbouring swimmers, with one able to be on top of a wave just as another is in a trough but both experiencing the same overall sea conditions.

There is a much clearer picture when Liberal Democrat and Labour support is compared:

Finally, here is how Liberal Democrat support varies with that for ‘Others’, showing more similarity with the Labour than the Conservative picture if you work out the trend lines and correlations:

In other words, this poll data – as far as it can answer that question – shows a modest degree of sink or swim together. Lib Dem fortunes are at odds with those of Labour and Other parties but do, to a degree, move up and down with that of their coalition partner. However, there is more than enough variation around the averages to attempt to finesse or buck the underlying trends. Whether politicians manage to do such things by luck or  by judgement is another story…

* Mark Pack is Party President and Co-leader of the party. He is editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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22 Comments

  • Richard Dean 22nd May '12 - 2:31pm

    Very intersting, than you.

    The Labour vs LibDem graph arguably clusters around a downwards-sloping 45-degree line, running from about (50,0) backwads and upwards to about (25,25). That seems to suggest that people are switching between Labour and LibDem, so that any increase in one creates a matching decrease in the other.

    The Labour vs Conservative one arguably clusters around an upwards/rightwards slope from about (30,0) to about (45,25), suggesting that our support changes in sync with the Conservatives. This one is more of a blob though, and could also correlate with a fixed Conservatve support of about 35% or 45%.

    Taken together, and given the likely unpopularity of the Conservatives after austerity kicks in and they fail to mitigate the effects coming up to 2015, the data seem to suggest we need to be ready to ditch the Conservatives and go head to head against Labour in 2015. Which I suggest is a very healthy outcome for us.

    But statitistics can be used to argue anything, and three years is a millenium in politics …

  • Interesting, but I’m not so sure that the Lib Dems fortunes rests with the fortunes of the coalition. If I’m honest, I think the outcome is, at least in the short term ,, the return of two party politics because the social effects of the policies are polarizing and the degree of tribalism of the electorate is still high. The economic record of the government will play a big part, but unless a recovery actually puts money in peoples pockets I’m not so certain it will be viewed as a recovery. And the old and disabled tend to be less apathetic about voting. An aging population means more of both and they may just think these people are making me work longer. Stuff like that.

  • Richard Dean 22nd May '12 - 2:46pm

    e and k are missing from my first line, if I may say so without fear of ridicule. 🙂

  • Peter Watson 22nd May '12 - 7:31pm

    “the data seem to suggest we need to be ready to ditch the Conservatives and go head to head against Labour in 2015”
    But “How?” is the $64,000 question. We will be campaigning on our 5 year record in partnership with the tories, whether that is good, bad or indifferent.
    My gut-feeling is that we need to campaign then (from now until then, in fact) as being neither Conservative nor Labour, but we are independent Liberal Democrats who are prepared to work in the national interest with whichever party has the most support. Unfortunately I fear it is too late and our leaders have been too closely associated with the policies of our coalition partners. Even policies which we victoriously trumpet as being uniquely Lib Dem are nothing of the sort (the pupil premium and the green investment bank were in the labour and conservative manifestos for 2010 – the latter is not in ours!!). If I’m feeling charitable, then maybe this is all done in good faith in order to present a unified government, but rather than being an independent voice in government we are seen as a tory-lite party and have been villified by the left and the right of the political spectrum.
    I believe that either we fight the next election under the current leadership on a platform of continuing with the conservatives (maybe with an electoral pact), or we fight it under new leadership as an independent party. From a pragmatic point of view, if the economy, NHS and education are booming then the former makes sense; if things are stagnant (or worse) then the latter.

  • Tony Dawson 22nd May '12 - 8:18pm

    @Peter Watson :
    “We will be campaigning on our 5 year record in partnership with the tories, whether that is good, bad or indifferent.”

    In the immortal words of John McEnroe: “You can not be SERIOUS!”

    What kind of person would try to use our ‘joint record’ in a constituency campaign which will be mainly against the Conservative candidate, the situation in 3 out of 4, if not more, contests where the Lib Dem will be hoping to win?

  • Alex Macfie 22nd May '12 - 8:42pm

    I believe that either we fight the next election under the current leadership on a platform of continuing with the conservatives (maybe with an electoral pact),

    NO, NO, NO, NEVER. This is not acceptable under ANY circumstances. It can lead only to one thing, and that is eventual merger with the Conservatives. The ONLY way is to fight ALL elections as an independent party. We can campaign on OUR contribution to the Coalition, but it must be by saying that we have reined them in, and without us they would be governing as raving right-wing lunatics, just look at their MEPs and the company they keep in Brussels.

  • Peter Watson 22nd May '12 - 10:43pm

    @Tony Dawson
    “What kind of person would try to use our ‘joint record’ in a constituency campaign which will be mainly against the Conservative candidate”
    Our joint record will be there whether we like it or not.

    @Alex Macfie
    “The ONLY way is to fight ALL elections as an independent party. We can campaign on OUR contribution to the Coalition, but it must be by saying that we have reined them in”
    We can only do this if we can demonstrate that we have reined them in. With deals struck in secret behind closed doors in cabinet, all that voters see is what is presented to them. That is Vince Cable’s department proposing an increase in student fees. It is Nick Clegg signing off and recommending the original version of the NHS reforms. Even Vince’s latest “victory” in protecting employee rights is somewhat hollow: it was not tory policy just a suggestion in a tory-supporter’s report so the conservatives can simply dismiss it as blue sky thinking if that’s the spin that suits them.
    I’m not saying that I like either of the two options that I suggested: rock and a hard place, devil and the deep blue sea, etc.
    If the economy, the NHS and the education system are obviously better in 2015, then I will have to accept that I was wrong, that Clegg & co. did the right thing, and that we should probably campaign on our record in an electoral pact with the tories rather than split the coalition vote. I would much rather be wrong than live in a country in which my party and votes have helped the conservatives mess everything up. Sadly though, I fear that is exactly what our MPs have done.

  • I would leave the party if it entered into an electoral pact . There is no “coalition vote”, there can never be a “coalition vote”, simple as that. Even if it means our MPs fitting into a taxi after the next election, we still have to fight the next election as an independent party. I would rather have that as the floor from which we could build up again, than a ceiling of ~40 seats fought in an electoral pact.

  • I might as well add that the question of an electoral pact is moot, because it would breach the party constitution (which requires the party to contest all parliamentary seats)

  • It’s quite obvious from the polls that the Lib Dems have flat-lined for the last year and a half. Most of those voter’s voting intentions have switched to Labour. The Tories haven’t collapsed to the same extent, but most of their lost voters have gone to UKIP. Polarisation.

    The big problem for the Lib Dems is that there is no trend in their share of voting intention (other than it being completely flat) and that the Lib Dems always perform worse in general elections than local elections, where Labour are better at getting their vote out. You’re doomed, barring some major event. Unfortunately, you have Nick Clegg in charge, which means that any game-changing event is not going to be taken advantage of.

  • tony dawson 23rd May '12 - 8:18am

    @Peter Watson:

    “Our joint record will be there whether we like it or not.”

    And the sun will rise every morning and there will be doggy doos on the floor. What will any of that have to do with what WE Liberal Democrats will be concentrating on in campaigning directly against our ‘coalition partners’ who share that ‘joint record’?

  • Tony Dawson22nd May ’12 – 8:18pm………………In the immortal words of John McEnroe: “You can not be SERIOUS!”………..

    Failing the miracle of a massive economic recovery, the attacks on the NHS, the disabled,, education, etc. will define our time in coalitio. Campaigning that, “it was those nasty Tories” won’t wash when Clegg and Alexander have been seen as supporters of these same attacks.
    Quoting anti-LibDem articles in the “Mail” and “Telegraph”, as examples of our differences, won’t help us get back our ‘left’ vote; the “Mail”/”Telegraph” are seen as the voice of the “Tory Right’ and the best we can hope, from such articles, is “Tory Light’ .

    Under our current leadership I can’t see any improvement in our fortunes. Sadly, in the immortal words of Private James Frazer “We’re doomed!”

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd May '12 - 12:33pm

    Peter Watson

    But “How?” is the $64,000 question. We will be campaigning on our 5 year record in partnership with the tories, whether that is good, bad or indifferent.

    That would be a very silly thing to do. This is a predominantly Conservative government, not a predominantly LibDem one. So it can hardly be expected to be doing anything like what a pure LibDem government would be doing. We need to get that message across, though unfortunately much of what is coming out from party HQ seems to be designed to have the opposite effect. We should be following the Liam Fox line – this is a government which is five-sixths Tory and one-sixth LibDem, and what it is doing is what one might expect from that mix. “Campaigning on our record” in a way that suggests the current government is as much LibDem as Tory simply serves to support the line that is dragging our party down – that we have moved massively to the right. Issuing propaganda that suggests at a glance that this government is three-quarters LibDem in policy (I know the “75% of our manifesto implemented” line doesn’t really mean that, but that is how it comes across) is even more daft.

  • Peter Watson 23rd May '12 - 3:19pm

    @tony dawson
    “What will any of that have to do with what WE Liberal Democrats will be concentrating on in campaigning directly against our ‘coalition partners’ who share that ‘joint record’?”
    We may not want to campaign on our joint record, but I don’t think we will have a choice. In the past we have always been able to campaign on the basis of what we would like to do, but in 2015 for the first time we also have to defend what we have actually done. Our opponents (whether labour, conservative, SNP, Save the NHS, etc.) will certainly be hitting us with it at every opportunity: “Which promise is 2015’s student fees pledge?”.

  • Peter Watson 23rd May '12 - 3:27pm

    At the next general election, only two parties will credibly be campaigning with the intention of forming a majority government: the conservatives and labour.
    As always, we can only campaign with the expectation of being in coalition or in opposition. The latter is not much of a selling point to voters, so we have to portray ourselves as a party that can be successful in coalition.
    Unfortunately, my personal belief is that regardless of whether forming a coalition with the conservatives was right or wrong, we have done it badly so far, and for that I blame our leaders. I like some of the noises I am hearing at the moment but fear that it is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

  • Tony Dawson 23rd May '12 - 6:24pm

    @Peter Watson :

    “Our opponents (whether labour, conservative, SNP, Save the NHS, etc.) will certainly be hitting us with it (joint record) at every opportunity”.

    Er… Peter, how do you think a Tory opponent will be attacking a Lib Dem MP or candidate on a ‘joint record’ which is the same as that of the Tory candidate him/herself?

    I do not think you have any modicum of understanding of how successful Lib Dems campaign. The issue of prospects of being in government or coalition is absolutely nowhere in the hierarchy of issues of a successful Lib Dem campaign in a winnable seat. People vote for you if they trust you and identify with you. They do not care much whether you are going to win the national election because they know full well that that depends on things happening in other constituencies over which their vote has no influence at all. NB In Northern Ireland, none of the candidates has any chance of ever being in government or coalition and people still vote for them in their hundreds of thousands. There is a similar situation in many other parliamentary seats.

  • The only strategy with any chance of success for the Lib Dems is to leave the coalition prior to the next election, and let the Conservatives fight the election by themselves in a minority government. I don’t mean that they should quit the coalition right now, but perhaps about 3-6 months prior to the election. Only in that way can the Liberal Democrats draw a line between them and the Conservatives. Whatever may be the case among continental governments, in the British model the smaller partner in a coalition always suffers disastrous defeat. Only by campaigning independently, outside and against the government, can the Lib Dems avoid this fate.

  • David23rd May ’12 – 7:38pm……….Leaving! For what reason?

    Staying until a few months before the election will be an even bigger disaster than now. Labour will accuse us, rightly, as being ashamed of our record and make mileage on that; the Tories will, rightly, accuse us of opportunism and make mileage on that.
    If we do get out it must be very, very soon and on a major difference. Our main hope, at the moment, is that the ‘Beecroft proposals’ enable us to create a valid excuse to say ‘That’s a bridge to far’ and give Cameron an ultimatum he can’t fudge.

    Will it happen with our current leader, I doubt it. However, if Cable can pose a real threat to Clegg’s position ‘maybe, just maybe’.

  • That doesn’t matter. The Tories and Labour will attack the Liberal Democrats for everything under the sun regardless of whether they’re in government or out. But leaving the coalition sometime during the election year will at least give the Lib Dems the chance to pivot and say “this is what we would do if we were running the government” without people necessarily asking “well, why aren’t you doing it, then?” It’s not a panacea, of course. Nothing could be, at this point. But it could give the Lib Dems a chance at 15% instead of 10%.

  • Peter Watson 23rd May '12 - 11:29pm

    @Tony Dawson
    “Er… Peter, how do you think a Tory opponent will be attacking a Lib Dem MP or candidate on a ‘joint record’ which is the same as that of the Tory candidate him/herself? ”
    Simples. If business hasn’t recovered then they can blame us for preventing Beecroft’s proposals. If the NHS is a mess they can blame us for messing up their original proposals. If things are going well they will say imagine how much better it would be without the LDs holding us back. And if all that weren’t enough, anything we promise or state as a policy aim will invite the question, “Is that like student fees then?”.
    I think the way that Lib Dems have campaigned in winnable seats in the past is irrelevant now: the party has a track record in government which it must defend, justify or reject. It can no longer be on the basis of being not-Tory for labour supporters and not-Labour for tory voters. Turning your question around, how would you campaign against our tory partners in a winnable seat? How would you now campaign against a labour party that can point to our broken promises? We lost the AV referendum because people lost trust in the Lib Dem as a party and coalition as a concept, so winning seats by making the voters trust and identify with us will be a greater challenge than ever before. Oldham and Saddleworth was a winnable seat and it looks like former LD voters disappeared and were replaced by droves of tory tactical voters, and this new development was early in the life of this government. At the next general election our most prominent figures could face new challenges from independent candidates (what if labour chose to give a clear run to a “Save the NHS” candidate in Sheffield Hallam?), and in every seat untarnished minor parties will try to replace us as a third party. While this is happening we could be splitting the vote between two competing coalition parties.
    During the campaign Lib Dems will be asked what they will do after 2015 if we find ourselves in coalition with Labour. Will we dismantle our NHS reforms with the same enthusiasm with which we introduced them?
    2015 will need a new approach to campaigning, and it will have to address our behaviour and performance in 5 years of government.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th May '12 - 12:35pm

    Peter Watson

    We may not want to campaign on our joint record, but I don’t think we will have a choice. In the past we have always been able to campaign on the basis of what we would like to do, but in 2015 for the first time we also have to defend what we have actually done. Our opponents (whether labour, conservative, SNP, Save the NHS, etc.) will certainly be hitting us with it at every opportunity: “Which promise is 2015′s student fees pledge?”

    Indeed. The issue with the “we will vote against student fees” pledge was that it was NOT a manifesto line, i.e. part of a plan we intended to implement if we were in complete control of the government. It would seem to me to be an explicit promise to vote against it in all circumstances, whether in opposition or government. So far as I recall it was the only “we will vote against …” promise, and therefore should have been singled out as the one thing that we could not compromise on in the event of us being involved in a coalition.

    The 2010 general election showed very plainly what commentators had tended to ignore before – that what happens in the event of a coalition is not just down to us. So instead of just us being asked “What party would you ‘jump into bed’ with?”, the other parties should be asked “Under what conditions would you form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats?”.

    I think we should make a point of jumping very hard on any commentator who uses the “jump into bed” phrase or similar. It is not a good analogy. I seem to recall it was first used in the 1970s or early 1980s when the Jeremy Thorpe trial was in people’s heads, and Liberal support for gay right was something the rougher type of Labour person liked to mock us for – I think the intention was to draw on homophobia. This is another one of those things which has been written out of history – up until the Bermondsey by-election if a group of Liberal canvassers or deliverers met a group of Labour canvassers of deliverers coming in the opposite direction, chances are someone from the Labour group would shout out “backs against the walls, here come the Liberals”.

    Forming a coalition is part of what democracy is about – it means instead of fighting wars or whatever for the strongest to impose his views on everyone else, we elect a representative assembly and the assembly members meet and find the most widely accepted compromise. Inevitably doing this means people must give up their ideal positions if they find few others share those ideals. Using language of “treachery” and “betrayal” over such things is anti-democratic.

    The belief fostered by the commentators that a coalition inevitably involves the Liberal Democrats choosing between Labour and the Conservatives has damaged us because it leads to the belief that we are in coalition with the Conservatives now because we has a choice about the matter and could equally well have gone with Labour. The 2010 general election showed it does not work like that. What sort of coalition is formed depends on circumstances, some of which won’t be known until after the election has happened. If there really was a choice it would depend on the willingness of the other parties to accept it, so an acceptable answer to the question put to us “Which would you form a coalition with?” is “Why don’t you ask the other parties whether they would be willing to form a coalition with us?”. Similarly with particular policy issues – if we are asked “Which promise is 2015′s student fees pledge?”, the answer should be “Go and ask the other parties – which of our policies would they force us to drop if they joined us in a coalition”.

    The point is that the public do need some education in what democracy is about, and they aren’t going to get it from the commentariat with its fixation on politics as being about the personalities in the Westminster bubble, its lack of interest in the power of the ballot in the hands of ordinary people, and the continuing poisonous influence of he Leninist view of political party. We are “Liberal Democrats”, so it is up to us to do more to promote the true meaning of the second word in our name.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th May '12 - 12:48pm

    Peter Watson

    As always, we can only campaign with the expectation of being in coalition or in opposition. The latter is not much of a selling point to voters, so we have to portray ourselves as a party that can be successful in coalition.

    If we end up suggesting coalition must mean the smaller coalition party inevitably gets swallowed up by the bigger one and loses its independence for ever, we most certainly will NOT have portrayed ourselves as a party that can be successful in coalition.

    I agree with you that our leaders have played this appallingly badly. From Day 1 of the coalition they should have made it absolutely clear that this is a temporary arrangement, not a merger or a permanent coming-together. From Day 1 they should have made it absolutely clear it came about only because of the balance in Parliament given to us by the way the people voted and the way the first-past-the-post electoral system distorted that vote. A slightly different balance would have made a Labour-LibDem coalition the only viable government. From Day 1 we should have made it clear that under those circumstances we would have worked with Labour as best as Labour let us, but that would no more mean we were entering in to a permament arrangement and eventual merger with Labour than the current situation means we are entering in to a permament arrangement and eventual merger with the Conservatives.

    Making sure this was understood should have meant a very angry slapping down of all those commentators who have blithely written about some sort of electoral pact between us and the Conservatives at the general election, as if someone like myself who has fought against the Tories all his adult life but lives in a Labour-Tory marginal would just go out and start delivering Tory literature and canvassing for the Tories because Mr Clegg told me to do so. The Westminster bubble commentariat really do seem to think it works like that, but it doesn’t help when they are allowed to get away with making comments on those lines and our Leader does not take the lead in saying “No”, that’s not going to happen.

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