The Liberal Democrat general election prospects: what does history say?

I was having a look at data from previous elections recently with a particular focus on the number of seats and percentage of votes gained by the third party in the last few decades.

The first thing that is clear and which I already knew is that in the last three general elections, the Lib Dems have consistently increased their number of seats. The figures are:

1997: 46 (+26)
2001: 52 (+6)
2005: 62 (+10)

The huge leap in 1997 is often put down to our improved targeting campaign techniques championed by Chris Rennard.

There is something else interesting in the figures which I had not realised. I wanted to see what happened when you compare the percentage of seats we had won with the percentage of “proportionally earned seats” we would have got in a proportional system. I was particularly interested to see if and how this had improved over the years and indeed it has.

In fact when you look at the figures since 1970, this is what you get:

Mark Thompson: data table

This chart shows vote share plotted against seat share:

Mark Thompson: graph

As you can see there is not much correlation between the two. The vote share bounces around all over the place but the share of seats is clearly trending upwards with a few small interim falls.

This graph shows the “proportionally earned seats” share on its own though:

Mark Thompson: graph 3

In every general election since the second one in 1974 (so the last 8, coincidentally every single one since I was born in July 1974) the proportion of seats won with respect to the share of the vote has increased.

The fact is that the third party has consistently got better and better at fighting first past the post elections.

Whenever I have been asked how I think the Lib Dems will do at the next election I have always said that I think our share of the vote will be higher than last time (22%) but that our number of seats may well fall. A number of other Lib Dems have taken me to task on this suggesting that I am not taking into account how difficult it is for our opponents to shift us once we win seats and that I am being too pessimistic. The data above seems to back up their view.

The history of elections in my entire lifetime would suggest that if the Lib Dem share of the vote goes up then our number of seats will too. If this doesn’t happen then it will be bucking a 36 year trend.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that we will not lose seats at the coming election.

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This entry was posted in General Election and Op-eds.


  • Trouble is that some of the excesses of targeting in the past have left us with relatively few seats we can realistically win. Nick Clegg has talked about winning 150 seats next time – are we actually making a serious effort in 150 seat this time. If not then this aim will not be achieved because we just won’t have enough good prospects. We’re always fighting the last general election..

  • Geoffrey and Jon both right. All things being equal, when the Tory tide rises we will lose more due to the lesser number of Lab/Lib marginals. Something that should have been addressed in 2005.

  • Bill le Breton 22nd Mar '10 - 1:22pm

    The emphasis on targeting began soon after the formation of the new Party. As a member of the FE, I wrote a paper on concentrating resources predominantly in the South West and where we had strong local government presence. This was accepted – just. This then influenced both the selection of the new Chief Executive and then the new Director of Campaigns.

    Although money made a huge difference to what could be done in 1997, the strategy was there in ’92. [We should be ever thankful to Anthony Jacobs (General Election Team ’97: Head of the Target Seats Campaign) for giving Chris (Director of Campaigns) a free hand and much encouragement in an organisation [the General Election Team] which is independent from the Party’s day to day structure.

    The real difference in ’97 – and this was first identified by Ashdown’s strategic brilliance who watched the figure like a hawk – was the answer to the polling question (put something along the lines of …) ‘Do you trust Labour on the economy?’

    This was important because when it began to be positive in the middle Nineties the old Conservative scare (in most of those target seats) that ‘a vote for the Lib Dems will let Labour in’ failed to resonate to have its previous traction. It was the moment to move from the previous equi-distance policy.

    Our MPs in these seats have done a great job and the power of the incumbency when they have won once, been re-elected and are seeking re-election for the third time is very powerful. Added to which there is, in these seats, palpable proof that ‘the Lib Dems can win here’ which is also critical.

    However, everyone should keep watching the results of that question, ‘Do you trust Labour on the economy’. When it turns negative and/or the complementary question for the Conservatives becomes highly positive campaigning becomes very difficult.

  • The 2005 result, though a net gain of 10 seats, was a disappointment to many, given the uniquely favourable circumstances (the unpopularity of the Iraw War and student tuition fees – among students, and the failure of the Howard “interm” leadership to transform the Tory Party).

    The reasons may be twofold:-

    (1) The lack of professionalism of Charles Kennedy (would you want a Prime Minister who fumbles when asked about his own policy?).
    (2) The increase in support among middle-class progressives and students alienated swing voters in Lib Dem/Con marginals.

    Does anyone know how the polls reacted to Kennedy’s catastrophic Manifesto Launch performance?

    I doubt that the Tories will have much success against Lib Dem incumbents, because of lot of Tory support is actually quite soft. Are the masses really rolling their eyes at the mention of Cameron’s name as they did with Tony Blair in the late 1990s?

  • paul barker 22nd Mar '10 - 2:39pm

    Thanks for a fine article Mark, on your main point I would expect the proportion of “earned” seats to rise to around 50%; perhaps 90 seats. Certainly the “Tory Tide” has been & gone.

    Have you thought about our vote share, this Election could be the first since 1983 where the share really matters, particularly in how close we get to Labour. The polls are not much use yet & wont be for another month or so. We know our vote share will rise as election day approaches & we should get ready to ride on any Liberal Tide.

  • One reason why we did well in 1997, 2001 and 2005 was we learned how to earn tactical votes from Labour – that was partly born by desparation after 18 years of Conservative governement. I’m not sure we’ve yet learned how to do the opposite, or whether the “anti-Labour tactical voter” is something that exists after 13 years of Labour. Perhaps it would only be created with the same conditions in reverse.

    Happy to see evidence to the contrary, though.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 22nd Mar '10 - 5:54pm

    The trouble with statistics is that you can prove anything using them.

    For example, an alternative interpretation of the data above is that, in the last 9 elections, the Lib Dem seat percentage has fallen every time the Tories have won an election (with one exception) and risen every time Labour has won an election (also with one exception).

    The exceptions are October 1974, when Wilson’s minority government was confirmed in power, and 1983, when the Liberal/Alliance vote had nearly doubled after the formation of the SDP.

  • “I’m also interested in our relative performance against a ‘rising tory tide’ (ahem, an ‘ebbing Labour tide’ might be more accurate) as it will be the party’s first experience of this since the merger. ”

    History says that we do less well against the Tories when they are ascending (not as much as they should be, but the swing is something like 4% at present poll levels). But then history didn’t have us with 60-odd seats. We could well be hurt by the “smaller” parties and non-vote to vote shifts rather than churn. We shall see.

  • A little noticed feature of elections in the Blair years is the decline in tactical voting. Look at the size of the Labour vote for third placed Labour candidates in 1997 and 2001 compared to the 1980s and early 1990s (and the seats we failed to win on account of it). Recent local elections have shown third placed Labour support collapsing back to 1980s levels, which is encouraging. However, this has been accompanied by a rise in Tory support. But that rise in is not really that impressive, when one considers that the Conservative Party has not won a general election on 38% since the war (or indeed ever?).

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