Lewis Baston on the polls and ‘How the Lib Dems will actually do’

I wrote last October about election expert Lewis Baston’s forecast for the next election, based on his analysis not only of the polls, but also of the trends in the ‘swing seats’, the battlegrounds which, in a first-past-the-post voting system, actually matter. His forecast for May 2015 was that Labour would edge the Tories by 36% to 34%, with the Lib Dems on 16%, and relatively few seats changing hands.

Over at Progress Online, Lewis has returned to the fray, and asked the question, ‘How will the Lib Dems actually do?’. Here’s his conclusion:

It is always troublesome to translate Liberal Democrat votes into seats. The party can have elections where it gains seats despite losing votes (as in 1997) and vice versa (as in 2010). But, even if the party struggles back up to 15-17 per cent, there is no way it will not result in a loss of seats. Local election results suggest that it will be near-impossible for the party to hold a number of metropolitan seats against Labour (Manchester Withington being the most drastic example).

Scotland is also a huge problem. Although their polling support is down by the same 12 points or so there as in England, they were already at rock bottom in half of Scotland in 2010 (losing 12 points would give them negative votes in 30 Scottish seats). The drop must be concentrated in the seats where they polled reasonably well in 2010. They are in serious danger of losing up to 10 of their 11 Scottish seats.

The crucial thing for the Liberal Democrats is whether differentiating themselves from the Conservatives, the visceral anti-Toryism of progressive voters, and Ukip, can save the suburban and south-western seats they hold against the Tories. Last year I ventured that the Liberal Democrats would get 35-40 seats. That still feels about right, but a bit of a closer look at the history and at Scotland makes me think that 35 is more likely than 40.

My own instinct – and Lewis is kind enough to reference me as a “reality-based” Lib Dem – is that the current range is a little higher, say 35-45 seats – not least because I think some of our Scottish MPs could well hold on in spite of the undoubtedly tough time the party there is enduring.

And, of course, as Nick Clegg’s top strategy adviser Ryan Coetzee always reminds us:

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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This entry was posted in Polls.


  • While support for the Tories and Labour has fluctuated across this parliament, that for the lib dems has remained pretty constant since 2011. This suggests that while Labour and the Tories can influence public opinion one way or the other nothing the lib dems do affects their popularity.

    What policies do you think the Lib Dems should introduce that will increase their support between now and the election?

  • “The trick in politics is to change the future, not predict it. Let’s focus on that.”

    Well, presumably the party has been trying as hard as it can to “change the future” all along, and its poll ratings have remained almost entirely static at around 10% for nearly three and a half years now. What is going to change in the next 15 months (apart from UKIP moving to centre stage as we approach the European elections)?

  • This article seems relatively optimistic. Have a look at the Electoral Calculus website, it puts us on around 23 seats.

    I had been worrying that they are under-estimating UKIP. Does anybody here understand the algorithm on the Electoral Calculus website? The polls for UKIP are consistently below what they are actually achieving in elections, and that points to something being wrong with the algorithm calculation.

    If I correct for that apparent bias in the polls, and tap in the figures Con 30% Lab 30% LibDem 10% UKIP 25% into the Electoral Calculus website, we end up with 28 seats and UKIP only 4.


    If I re-run the calculation and put UKIP at 15%, with Con and Lab both on 35%, keeping LibDem on 10%, the results are that we have 17 seats and UKIP none.

    So it looks as though the better UKIP do, the better we do (compared to how badly we do otherwise). This seems a bit counter intuitive, but think about it: UKIP are now taking votes from Labour as well as the Conservatives. I notice that they are picking up votes even in safe northern areas, and taking votes from the Conservatives mainly in southern areas. The lower the percentage of votes for Lab and Con, the higher our 10% of votes is in comparison.

    If this is true, then we should try not to antagonise UKIP voters too much, in other words we should only highlight the economic benefits of EU membership to our trade and economy, and play down concerns that drive voters to UKIP, such as immigration.

  • Joe, I would suggest, the difference in the ElectoralCalculus is more to do with changes brought about by the effect on Lib Dem vote by having Tories and Labour both on 30% rather than both on 35%. I think you will find that if you either raise UKIP to 30% , and share the pain with Tories and Labour at 27.5%, or you use the same UKIP figure with Tories or Labour on 40%, the other on 30%, the Lib Dem numbers will go down, in the first example greatly in favour of UKIP, in the second in favour, mainly, of the Tories.

  • Joe

    Uniform swing calculations won’t be any use for predicting the number of seats UKIP would win, Because UKIP polled only a few per cent in 2010, uniform swing would by definition give them an almost uniform vote across the whole country. So even if UKIP polled 25% nationally, uniform swing would give them around 25% in every seat – not enough to win in a four-party contest. In reality, their support would be more in some seats and less in others, so they probably would win some seats at that level.

    A strong performance by UKIP could be the wild card that might benefit the Lib Dems, but if you’re suggesting the Lib Dems should try to boost UKIP for that reason, I think that would be very unwise.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Feb '14 - 12:38pm

    Cortzee is right: so how do we change the future ? Change the economic policy … change the leader.

    Prof Curtice is right too, you can’t lead an election with, as your USP ‘trust’ , and then break your word.

    Also, you can’t change economic policy (or distance ytourself from the Tories on the issue that matters, when this leadership refuses to bring Cable into the centre of its economic thinking and communication.

    It is a pity Cortzee doesn;t engage here. And it is a pity that the Leadership never explains its economic policy here.

  • Mark Thompson 1st Feb '14 - 12:43pm

    The more you love the EU the less popular you become. Take the hint.

  • Tony Dawson 1st Feb '14 - 1:20pm

    What evidence is there that anyone at all in ‘the bubble’ is seriously trying to change the future? Most of them seem obsessed with spinning the past against the overwhelming volume of evidence.

  • Tony Dawson 1st Feb '14 - 1:22pm

    @Joe King :

    “Does anybody here understand the algorithm on the Electoral Calculus website? ”

    Joe, it is not worth trying to understand. It is a useless tool.

  • Martin Lowe 1st Feb '14 - 1:58pm

    @mark Thompson

    The more you love the EU the less popular you become.

    That’s a ludicrously simplistic analysis. Because at the same time, history shows that the more the Conservative party hates the EU the less popular they become.

  • Tony: ‘Joe, it is not worth trying to understand. It is a useless tool.’

    Is there an alternative tool that is available in the public domain which is less useless?

    Preferably one that is open source, so the assumptions made are visible.

  • “Joe, it is not worth trying to understand. It is a useless tool.”

    I realise the party line is that uniform swing projections are meaningless because incumbent Lib Dem MPs will retain their vote much better than other candidates, but it’s worth tempering this optimism by recalling that in 2010 the uniform swing calculation for the number of Lib Dem seats was almost spot on – an error of only 2 or 3.

  • @ Martin Lowe
    “history shows that the more the Conservative party hates the EU the less popular they become.”
    There are of course many Tory backbenchers who hate the EU, but Cameron is a pretender. Cameron pretends to hate the EU, but obfuscates about a referendum and about negotiating a better deal with the EU, when everyone plus the office cat, knows that under his leadership, that is not going to happen.
    Mark Thompson is correct. But further than that, I see a Liberal Democrat party not just in love with the EU but naively (and dangerously), besotted by the siren song that beckons the UK onto the rocks.
    If the Tory party truly did hate the EU, their popularity would rocket, and Ukip would wither on the vine. And the Conservatives might have a good shot at a majority, in 2015, without a need for a coalition. Makes you think?

  • When Lewis Baston says that we are in serious danger of losing 10 of our 11 Scottish seats, he overlooks the fact that two of our seats are held by Alistair Carmichael and Charles Kennedy, neither of whom are in danger of losing their seat in any possible scenario. That reduces our potential loss to 9. It is also difficult to credit that Michael Moore , who has won plaudits from across the political spectrum for his work as Scottish Secretary, and whose only serious challenger in his constituency is a Tory whose party is not much more popular in Scotland than ours is, is likely to go down to defeat.
    Beyond that, there is good reason to suppose that John Thurso, who has been a highly visible and respected spokesman for his constituency for over a decade and must be known by virtually every elector in Caithness and Sutherland, will be re-elected whatever the overall level of the party’s Scottish support.
    There are also specific reasons why Danny Alexander (high political profile, successful ministerial track record), Mike Crockart (active in constituency, safeish seat held by the party since 1997), and Jo Swinson (able female politician with good record on social issues and now a minister) might be able to defend their seats successfully. Alan Reid, although low profile in the House of Commons, might well survive in Argyll and Bute partly on account of his assiduous constituency service and partly because the non Lib Dem vote in his constituency is split between the three other parties and it is not at all clear which would be the main challenger. And Sir Robert Smith, like Michael Moore, has the advantage that he is only likely to lose his seat to a Tory, and Tories are not currently popular north of the Border.
    So let us not be despondent about our chances in Scotland at the next election, especially as it is perfectly conceivable that a new candidate will successfully defend Ming Campbell’s Fifeshire North-East seat (a successful defence of Malcom Bruce’s Gordon seat may be a taller order).

  • paul barker 1st Feb '14 - 6:34pm

    The question I would ask Lewis Bastion & Steven Tall is this -“what percentage of voters think The Economy would be no worse off under Labour ?” Of course both of you already know the answer, its 26%. Doesnt that figure give a more realistic idea of how Labour will do in 2015 than their “Polling” average of 38% ? Labour now are a protest Party, like UKIP & like them they can pick up votes mid-term only to see them evaporate at a General Election.
    The “Polls” are useless & misleading & their only real importance is that Labour clings to them like a liferaft.

  • @paul barker

    Your assertion that Labour are now a protest party is ridiculous.

    You say “The “Polls” are useless & misleading & their only real importance is that Labour clings to them like a liferaft.”
    Which is also rather amusing to anyone who is familiar with your “usual” postings.

    You trash the significance of polls when they are unfavorable towards Liberal Democrats, you constantly try to spin the figures to reflect a brighter outlook than what is reality. And on the flip side you try to use polling statistics as evidence that Labour are doomed.

    Your flip flopping lacks serious credibility.

    Liberal Democrats are clinging to the hope that the party will be credited with any upturn of the economy and yet, all polling data shows that this is not the case. Liberal Democrats are not seeing any boost in either polling or more significantly in local election results.

    People on lower/middle incomes and those on welfare are not seeing any benefits of a “supposed recovery” the only people benefiting are those on higher incomes and corporations and their votes will go to the Conservatives.

    Liberal Democrats will struggle to even win over support from previous voters, people who genuinely thought that the party stood for and would deliver a fairer economy and society, Civil liberties and lifting people out of poverty.

    With just over a year to go until the next general election, I can not see the Liberal Democrats being able to pull a magic rabbit out the hat.

  • “What policies do you think the Lib Dems should introduce that will increase their support between now and the election?”

    You could always try being a little less slavish to the EU cause, perhaps (heaven forbid) even agree to a referendum, you know, that little thing called democracy, and let the people decide.

    Just a thought, novel I know, but worth a try?

  • A week IS a long time in politics…………………………………..and by this time next year…………… maybe……. better economic news, rising pay packets, splits in the Tory – divided right (Ukip) …………..a new Lib Dem Leader etc………………………… Remember what Joe Strummer often quoted ‘The Future is unwritten’…………………………

  • And Joe Strummer was brother in law to East Devon’s (Tory) MP!

  • Jonathan Brown 2nd Feb '14 - 12:38am

    You don’t get much more southern than where I’m from, so can someone explain to me why we were so unpopular in Scotland in 2010? Prior to going into coalition with the Tories? The implication being that we had – recently – been much more popular.

  • AH

    We’ve not only agreed to a referendum on EU membership, we’ve legislated for it, so no future government will be able to get out of it. Why the Tories want two is beyond me. Presumably we’ll be told to keep voting until we get the right result!

  • I find all these predictions pretty hard to translate into which seats we’ll be able to hold and where we might lose.

    I guess you write off the marginal seats where our MP is retiring but after that what? Uniform swing predictions see us losing Bristol West but surely there’s no chance of that. But what about places like North Poole, Wells, Solihull and some of the seats down in Cornwall?

    Anybody care to make some predictions?

  • Oli87: ‘Anybody care to make some predictions?’

    Tapping in Lab 35% Con 33% UKIP 15% LibDem 10% into Electoral Calculus indicates that we lose the following seats in 2015:

    Aberdeenshire West and Kincardine
    Argyll and Bute
    Bermondsey and Old Southwark
    Birmingham Yardley
    Bradford East
    Brecon and Radnorshire
    Brent Central
    Bristol West
    Caithness Sutherland and Easter Ross
    Cardiff Central
    Cornwall North
    Dorset Mid and Poole North
    Dunbartonshire East
    Edinburgh West
    Hornsey and Wood Green
    Inverness Nairn Badenoch and Strathspey
    Manchester Withington
    Norwich South
    Somerton and Frome
    St Austell and Newquay
    St Ives
    Sutton and Cheam
    Taunton Deane

  • My MP Simon Wright is most certainly destined to lose his seat.

    We are a traditional Labour seat, however it was lost to the Liberal Democrats at the last election with just over 300 votes.

    We have a strong student vote in Norwich South because of the University of East Anglia.

    I do not think Simon has helped his cause either by becoming parliament private secretary to Nick Clegg either. Which meant he was restricted in speaking out against the government.

    I wonder how many of the 10 newly elected in 2010 Liberal Democrat MP’s stand to lose their seats.

    Labour have a good candidate in Clive Lewis. A local BBC TV news and politics presenter, is considered to be on the centre-left of the party. He’s a former soldier – and fought in Afghanistan

  • Time for people to get real. We are going to lose many seats. I expect we will be down to around 20 seat. There is being optimistic and then there’s just being out of touch with reality. People seem to expect we will lost a lot of the seats where Labour are main challengers – which is around a third of our seats. What they don’t seem to expect is big losses in those seats where the tories are the main challengers. Why not? The tories will be ruthless, people almost seem to think they will help us out because we ‘ve been buds for the last 5 years. Wake up. We have lost all the Labour voters who lent their votes to us in such seats for a start. But hey we are going to fight 57 by-elections apparently…

  • @Tim P
    “We’ve not only agreed to a referendum on EU membership, we’ve legislated for it,”
    At this moment in time, there is no IN/OUT referendum on the statute. So you are either wrong and are not aware of it, or you still think spin is the way forward.

  • Peter Hayes 2nd Feb '14 - 1:47pm

    I doubt a Cheltenham loss. The current MP is local, the Tory candidate is from London although I believe he was here when younger. The county council results for the LibDems were very good. Only danger is there were a lot of young, newly registered, voters in 2010 who may stay away.

  • Bill Le Breton is right. Clegg is a liability. He does not deserve to be regarded as a joke but that is what he has become. He is not in the same class as Vince.

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Feb '14 - 4:38pm

    @Joe King:

    “Tapping in Lab 35% Con 33% UKIP 15% LibDem 10% into Electoral Calculus indicates that we lose the following seats in 2015:”

    I repeat that Electoral Calculus is a fool’s tool. Having said that, if we go as low as 10 per cent, I would only expect around a dozen of that list to be ‘saveable’.

  • The latest poll figures are even worse than I used earlier:

    Lab 36%
    Con 29%
    UKIP 17%
    Lib Dem 8%

    My concern is that we have seriously annoyed quite a few Tories, over EU referendum, human rights legislation, and now Trident successor, They are going to start putting the boot in to us without mercy from now on.

    What if we lose 3 percent points to them? i.e. Con 32% Lib Dem 5%: We end up with only 8 seats, namely:

    Norfolk North
    Orkney and Shetland
    Ross Skye and Lochaber
    Sheffield Hallam
    Westmorland and Lonsdale

    I am not sure that we could even hold on to Bath given that Don Foster will be retiring. I am not sure that Electoral Calculus knows about retirements, it probably calculates based upon how long the seat has been with a particular party. Is that why UKIP do so badly in the calculations despite having a far higher percentage vote than us?


  • Just for the record, Caratacus, all the points that I make did not apply in 2011, when e.g. our prospects in the two most northerly Highland constituencies were adversely affected by the retirement of our two sitting MSPs. Moreover, SNP candidates have regularly done worse in Westminster elections than they have in Holyrood elections, so the threat to us from that quarter is likely to be less severe than in 2011, particularly if Scotland has by then voted no in the independence referendum. Anyway, optimism is better than despondency any day !

  • Something that has been puzzling me about Electoral Calculus is that UKIP get very few if any MPs according to the predictions. Can this be right? Even in my example with UKIP on 17% and we on 5%, UKIP get zero seats and we get 8. This seems implausible somehow.

    It may be that I can see what the problem is, could someone please confirm or correct my theory.

    Have a look here:
    ‘Polls in October 2007 implied that the Liberal Democrats would get zero seats. This is obviously too low, although the model was behaving as expected.’

    I am wondering whether this is also a problem with predicting UKIP now?

    Given that UKIP support has rapidly gone from 3% to a fairly steady 15% to 20% in the polls, and often better than that in elections, we have to get to grips with what is happening, or else have an unpleasant and unpredicted surprise in 2015. In the past votes for UKIP have been described as a protest vote. Something has changed, and I have the feeling that they have at least a 10% hard core of voters and maybe this is a 15% hard core, with maybe an additional 10% who plump for them on the day.

    From what I can make out, the Strong Transition Model used by Electoral Calculus will be completely missing this dimension of hard core UKIP support. Quoting from their website:

    ‘As a simple model, we assume that the weak supporters of a party in any given seat are all those who voted for that party up to a threshold of 20% of the turnout. The strong supporters are those who voted for the party beyond that threshold. There will be no strong supporters in seats where the party received less than 20% of the votes cast.’

    It would seem that their model would put all UKIP voters into the weak supporters category, i.e. the party has not reached the apparently arbitrary threshold of 20%. Not quite sure where that threshold has come from, it seems like some sort of ‘magic number’ that somebody has dreamed up.

    Regarding the Strong Transition Model:
    ‘The predicted support is always positive, but strong Lib Dem seats decline less dramatically than under the Transition Model.’

    I am wondering whether the Electoral Calculus is being overly generous to us, and under-representing the expected results for UKIP, given that they had only a small percentage votes at the last general election.

    I would appreciate detailed comments from anybody who has carefully examined these matters. My concern is that we may be looking at the situation with rose tinted spectacles, we need to have a realistic view, however painful it may be.

  • I used to think the Lib Dems were facing annihilation, but who knows, If the Tories swing even further Right you might get some of their moderate vote and the hardliners might stay with UKIP and make a Labour majority more likely.

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