Opinion: 10 reasons that you will not be able to stamp out the Liberal Democrat “Cockroaches”

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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25 Comments

  • Richard Harris 14th Mar '13 - 1:54pm

    Tom, please clarify point 1 for me. You say 31% or people want to see the LIbdems “back in government” – do you mean with their own majority?

  • No, I mean 31% of people want the Liberal Democrats back in some form of coalition.

  • David Evans 14th Mar '13 - 2:06pm

    “In football, the best teams win even when they are playing badly.”

    However, they do have to play like a team, with the captain and the rest of the players united around a common goal. They don’t win if the captain ignores some players to the extent they walk off the pitch in despair.

  • Charles Beaumont 14th Mar '13 - 2:19pm

    This is a great, feel-good piece. But there are some stark questions hidden in there. Are you saying that we need a change of leadership? Does the election campaign bounce still work given that the LDs are now a party of government so presumably can’t claim to be ignored by the media any more? Your polling data shows that coalitions are very unpopular. Given that we can’t seriously expect an overall majority in 2015, the big parties’ main campaigning message can be “don’t make the mistake of another hung parliament”.

    I feel a bit better for having read this, but not that much better….

  • Points 6 & 7 contradict each other

  • I’m naturally an optimist, but I think this outlook is still a bit too rose-tinted. We lost ground in terms of seats in 2010 because the Conservatives managed to snatch several seats off us by turning the tables on us and campaigning very hard (with Lord Ashcroft’s money) in Lib Dem marginals. We might be able to reverse this process in 2015 if we work hard enough, but the method of using intensely localised campaigns has been learnt by the other parties and has therefore lost much of its effectiveness.

    But then again, on the ground, as Eastleigh shows, on the ground, the Tories are in many places in disarray and have been decimated by things like equal marriage.

    We should not underestimate, however, the largest mountains we face: the loss of voters to Don’t Know and to Labour. Between them, they have swallowed up half or more of our 2010 votes. After all the compromises we have had to make in entering a Coalition with the Tories, and without the luxury of a new leader untainted by having been in power, these two obstacles are going to be formidable ones to surmount.

  • Most of your analysis is based on historical data which is now obsolete due to the party being in Coalition, we are in power, actions we take make a difference to people, we have sometimes more news time than we would like as part of the coalition.
    It may happen that some of your theories will be right, i certainly hope so but the truth is that no historical data or even current opinion polling tells us anything concrete about 2015, the next batch of Local election may but i am not sure of that either.

  • Peter Watson 14th Mar '13 - 2:50pm

    @Tom Hancock “31% of people want to see the Liberal Democrats back in government.”
    But as you show in your reply to Richard Harris, on the figures you present NOBODY wants to see a Lib Dem majority government. Does that sound good to you?

  • Peter Watson 14th Mar '13 - 2:56pm

    Oops – just read Colin’s post about there only being four options in the poll.
    Still leaves the question about who that 31% are: Lib Dem supporters (with a more leftward lean), SNP/PC/Green, don’t knows, none of the above, etc.

  • paul barker 14th Mar '13 - 3:14pm

    Glad to see someone not sunk in gloom. Some futher statistics – think Labour has the best economic policies 23%; want Ed Milliband to be PM 23% again. The 40% Labour are getting now is very soft but Labour mostly think they are really ahead. Labour Uncut have run a series of articles pointing out the weakness of the Labour position but they are regularly dismissed as whingeing Blairites.
    By the spring of 2015 Labours lead will have evaporated, the question then is how they react, with calm & discipline or panic & division ?

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Mar '13 - 3:23pm

    Tom Hancock

    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.

    Eastleigh tells us we can hold seats where we are strong. It doesn’t tell us we can win more. We can be happy it suggests the complete wipe-out many commentators have assumed, extrapolating from a national swing in a way that is silly when it comes to our vote, won’t happen. But going on and on about it as if it is a major success is going to end up getting us fooled by believing our own propaganda if we aren’t careful. The true test would be if a by-election came up in one of those Tory seats with a good LibDem second place that we used to be able to win automatically.

    To argue, as the leadership has done, that our holding Eastleigh was in part due to us being “in government” is silly. If that was the case, how come we managed to win it when we weren’t? Was there really any evidence of significant numbers of people saying “I never thought of voting LibDem before, but now I see LibDem government ministers, I will”?

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Mar '13 - 3:26pm

    Tom Hancock

    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.

    It didn’t happen last time. There was an initial surge yes, but as the campaign carried on and we got more coverage, we went down from that, not up. Why was that? What was different this time?

  • Matthew,

    Sorry that was perhaps poorly phrased – I mean rather that there is a poll boost for the lib dems during the official election campaign. So before the 4 week election period last time the lib dems were on somewhere between 17-20% and ultimately received 23% or thereabouts.

    Although i’m inclined to agree with William that we wont be able to rely on this boost purely though media coverage, another cause for this boost is the fact we are pouring far more resources into constituencies during this period and therefore are a lot more visible.

  • @Tom Hancock
    “we wont be able to rely on this boost purely though media coverage,…..”
    No, Tom, you won’t.
    It is simply naive to leave out that 33% the LibDems achieved in your former paragraph when you say, “So before the 4 week election period last time the lib dems were on somewhere between 17-20% and ultimately received 23% or thereabouts.”
    It was by no means a simple trajectory. Take a look: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/election-2010/7605260/General-Election-2010-Lib-Dems-take-lead-in-new-poll.html
    That’s before the boot rather than “boost” given by most media coverage.

  • That’s true Sean, and I remember that 33% very fondly indeed! The point I would make is that the 2010 election is very clearly an atypical election campaign but the broad principle that Lib Dem support surges slightly in campaign period has continued. Personally i’m of the opinion that the media frenzy that followed the leaders debates pretty much cancelled out any gain we had from them and without the leaders debates we would have probably arrived in roughly the same place.

  • paul barker 14th Mar '13 - 8:41pm

    Its widely believed that the Libdem slump in mid-term is due to us falling off the media radar, that doesnt make it true. In fact it is as Scientists say “not even wrong” because there is no way it could ever be tested. We dont know why it happens so we cant tell if it might be different now we are in Government.
    We have to use the past as a guide because thats all we have.
    On past experience oppositions should have a lead of 12%, on average, just to be equal with the leading party at the actual election. Labours current average lead is 10%. That would actually be quite a good position for Labour if they didnt believe they were in a much better one.
    On past experience we have taken a small hit but the Election campaign could change all that, as long as we dont give up before the real contest begins.

  • “Will Conservative voters go out and support their coalition partners like they did in Oldham? ”

    No. But then, they didn’t in Oldham.

    There was a huge differential abstention by Tory supporters. in the by-election. The turnout was appallingly low.

    Effective squeezes are not created nationally, they depend heavily upon the effect of local teams, and local MPs.

  • “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.”

    Wrong.

    The results in the 2010 general election for Lib Dems were monstrously different, even in similar demographic areas . Some Lib Dem incumbents and ‘targets’ were hammered, which may or may not have been largely-attributable to Ashcroft cash. Others exelled, scoring their best result ever.

    We might understand what happened here, had the Party bothered to have a sensible and independent ‘inquest’ into these very strange results. But they didn’t. They refused to. So, yes, we do appear VERY likely to repeat, if not perform worse, in the same sort of areas.

  • Richard Dean 15th Mar '13 - 2:14am

    But do cockroaches ever get to govern?

  • @Paul Barker

    “On past experience we have taken a small hit but the Election campaign could change all that, as long as we dont give up before the real contest begins.”

    This small hit – 25% loss of members in 2011, down again in 2012, a loss of over 1,000 councillors – It’s not what I would call small, and these are the people we would normally rely on when the real contest begins.

  • The question “how would you vote if you thought the Liberal Democrats could win” used to give a figure of about 45% to 48% but newspapers rarely if ever published this – maybe it has not dropped significantly but you can be sure we will not be told if that is the case. I guess newspapers would not pay for a survey asking that question anyway unless they thought the result would be 10% or something like that.

  • Simon Banks 15th Mar '13 - 9:46pm

    It’s a valid point that historic drops in Liberal Democrat support between elections and revivals int he election may be misleading as one of the main reasons was the media ignoring us between elections, something that isn’t happening now for obvious reasons. After all, the obne time this didn’t work was February to October 1979, when we held the balance and were in the public eye a lot. But the other reason why predictions based on mid-term polls were so wrong, that should still work. Ask most people in mid-term who they’ll vote for and they consider purely national factors. they don’t think, “Well, that nice Mr Growser the Lib Dem was only a thousand votes behind the Tory and Labour have no chance in Toytown, so I’ll vote Lib Dem.” But come the election, they may well think that way. If they didn’t, we’d have far fewer seats.

    Actually there is pretty good evidence from local elections. Look at Colchester last year, where we successfully defended all our seats, mostly with increased majorities, from Tories and Labour alike. In areas where we’re strong, we can still triumph.

    I still expect net losses, though. We’ve lost some good people.

  • There probably is cause to be cautiously optimistic.. It looks like the Conservatives simply can’t take the seats they need. However, It remains to be seen what kind of effect things like the Bedroom tax will have and how economy is doing, plus how Labour react. They might replace Balls with someone less abrasive like Darling as the election looms.
    Personally, I think the Lib Dem dip has bottomed out and voters are looking more closely at the Tory half of the Coalition.

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