Understanding the election result requires understanding the previous five years

The likely explanation emerging for the Liberal Democrat vote share in the general election coming in much lower than even the immediately previous polls suggested is that there was a late swing away from the party, partly due to Lib Dem supporters being less willing to turn out (see, for example, this from ComRes). It’s natural to slide from that into a general story about the party peaking after the first TV debate and then being in decline during the rest of the campaign.

However, there is a risk of missing the wider context – and is show by these figures from a post-election Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll. Looking at when people say they made up their mind how to vote, we find support for the Liberal Democrats as follows:

Before election called: 18%
Shortly after election called: 29%
After first debate: 60%
After last debate: 26%
Last couple of days: 26%
On election day: 28%

The Tories peaked in the first two categories and Labour peaked in the “after last debate” category (suggesting that although Brown overall rated poorly in that debate he did manage to rally the core vote).

It’s the 18% figure for those who decided how to vote before the election was called that turned out to be the problem for the party. There was a debate surge and decline, but getting 28% amongst those who decided on polling day would have still put the party in close contention for second place – were it not for the deadweight from the people who had decided before the election started.

The poll also sheds some light on the class patterns to vote. Liberal Democrat support was up 4 points amongst ABs, up 2 points amongst C1s but down 5 amongst C2s and up 1 point amongst DEs. Labour support was also down amongst the C2s, but support for Conservatives and others was sharply up. (These figures are comparing two different polls, so remember the margins of error.)

This growth in C2 Conservative support may help explain the failure to squeeze the Conservative vote in some key seats if those campaigns relied too much on trying to squeeze the Conservative vote by targeting up-market parts of the constituency.

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This entry was posted in General Election and Polls.


  • I think that there was an issue with visibility, and yes it is mostly caused by two-party thinking. The tv debates solved that, and the biggest impact was from the first debate, because that is when Nick Clegg suddenly became visible, then for the rest of the campaign, he had already been seen. Now that Nick Clegg is Deputy Prime Minister, and other great Lib Dems are in the Government, visibility will not be limited to locations where the Lib Dems are one of the party’s in a two party race. From this position, it is important to sustain and build on awareness of our distinct nature as a party, and build up positive votes for what Lib Dems offer.

    Incidentally I hail from a family that have been backing the Liberals, then Lib Dems, since before, and then right through the eclipse, although I accept we are a rare bunch.

  • Perhaps it also requires an acceptance that the surge was unexpected and not planned for and that the response to it was woefully inadequate.

    It seems self-evident that two policies in particular – on joining the Euro and on what to do with illegal immigrants
    were particular vote losers. Given the rapid speed with which they were droped and the fact that both should not have been in the manifesto in the first place, I predict no-one will be held accounatble for their inclusion or the votes lost.

  • Stuart Mitchell 24th May '10 - 11:04am

    This is a fascinating survey with some fairly surprising findings.

    Most interesting is the voters’ attitude to “big government”. Many writers on this site have convinced themselves hat the election represents a huge shift in favour of “libertarianism” and away from centralism. Yet according to this poll, most voters – even most Lib Dem/Tory voters – are in favour of a bigger government getting involved in more things. Curious.

  • Andrea Gill 24th May '10 - 3:08pm

    @Geoffrey – Lib Dem state model is very much “small state” (and more powers and involvement on a local level) too. We just have a more pragmatic approach and more council level experience* than the Tories do, which is the only way this “Big Society” thing can work.

    * Our party structure itself is evidence of that, although bizarrely, the Tories are envious of this structure and it is rather odd to have Cameron endorse a bottom-up society when his own party is anything but.

  • Andrea Gill 24th May '10 - 4:34pm

    @Dave – “LibDems shouldn’t confuse their own fondness for local involvement with Conservative ambitions to divest government of a large chunk of its social obligations regardless of communities’ vastly differing capacity to bear the burden.”

    That is why our influence in this government is so important, the overall model/structure is the same but we have a more social democratic approach to it. And it looks to me like the coalition agreement does take this into account – without Lib Dem influence I think it would have been disastrous and was badly thought through/planned.

    (OTOH I do think some of our own policies may well benefit from being dropped now and worked on for 2015, because they are a good idea but need fleshing out, like the “amnesty” for immigrants – in the manifesto it says it is valid for everyone who entered before the end of 2010, but nobody seemed to really know if it was a one off etc – which will only be ‘sellable’ once border controls are strengthened)

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