Mark Gettleson: A Liberal Democrat meltdown could kill Tory chances at the next election
Mark Gettleson is an elections and polling analyst, focusing on British and American politics. He writes for PoliticsHome.com and ‘The Knowledge’ in The House magazine. He is also a Liberal Democrat councillor. Follow him on Twitter.
When considering the effects of a possible meltdown in the Liberal Democrat vote on Conservative prospects at the next election, it is crucial to consider the kinds of voters sticking with Mr Clegg, as well as those moving away from his party in droves.
Nate Silver, the extraordinarily insightful elections analyst at the New York Times, has coined the term ‘voter elasticity’ to describe the extent to which people in swing states actually change their voting habits. Why, for instance, is Obama neck-and-neck with Romney in both Wisconsin and North Carolina, when in 2008 he won the former by 14% and the latter by 0.3%? Largely because while North Carolinians are fairly set in their party loyalties (inelastic black voters and liberal urbanites vs. rural white conservatives), Wisconsinites are far more open to persuasion.
Such concepts clearly have a part to play amid the shifting tectonic plates of a post-Coalition electorate. Those people who have moved towards the Liberal Democrats in recent elections are among the more disloyal in their voting patterns. They are influenced by new political information and therefore the most likely to be pushed back into their former voting patterns by something they disagree with.
Other Liberal Democrat voters, however, will prove comparatively inelastic. They may be in one of the constituencies of the Celtic fringe, which has sent an esoteric Liberal to parliament, possibly with some time off, since 1868. Their father, grandfather and great-grandfather before them may well have been Liberals. Much as breaking this loyalty is far from impossible, as Glyn Davies proved sensationally in Montgomeryshire in 2010, but these voters will prove far more resilient.
Linked in with this is locality. Lord Ashcroft's research on Liberal Democrat voters and the Coalition proved fairly conclusively that those who were won over by national politics were the most likely to desert Clegg's party, while those impressed with the local record of their Liberal Democrat MP are the most likely to stick. It is for this very reason that many Liberal Democrats in such seats go to great lengths to change the question from “which party do you want to win?” to “who do you want as your next MP?” The two groups have a clear logic to them; for the politically-driven, the basis of their support has likely been undermined by the Coalition, while for the locally-driven, this is less relevant, as the local activity that provides the basis of their support goes on. It is for this reason, again, that the Liberal Democrats so feared the disruption to incumbency brought about by potential boundary changes.
The consequences for the Conservatives in this local-national split form two sides of the same coin. First, where the Conservatives hope to overhaul a locally active incumbent Liberal Democrat MP, their voters will prove harder to dislodge and comparatively fewer of them are likely to shift towards Labour – there are also many seats Mr Cameron will be hoping for gains, particularly in the West Country, where Liberal loyalties going back generations will prove harder to shift. Next year’s county council elections will be fascinating in this regard: in Somerset, for instance, where the Liberal Democrats had a poor performance in 2009 yet went on to win five of the county’s six MPs the following year, Conservatives will be hoping a major shift of votes from the yellow to red column paints the county a deeper blue.
More crucially for Conservatives, where there is a third-placed Liberal Democrat vote in a seat without significant local activity from that party, those votes will have almost certainly been obtained through national political messages – and will therefore be the most elastic. It is with these voters that an obvious left-right split becomes important – more precisely a Labour vs Coalition one. While Liberal Democrat voters who feel favourably towards the Coalition may well stick with Mr Clegg rather than leap to the defence of their incumbent Conservative, those who find the idea of going into bed with the Tories revolting will switch directly to Labour. In such a way, the Coalition has united the centre-Left and split the centre-Right for the first time in a century. It should come as no surprise that the first Corby by-election poll sees exactly this phenomenon, with more than half the Liberal Democrat gravitating towards the Labour column.
This pattern will likely repeat itself across Conservative marginals facing a tough battle with Labour in 2015. By definition, it will prove particularly important where the Liberal Democrat vote is large, where its growth clearly came at the expense of the Labour Party in previous contests and, above all, where there are enough of these defectors to overhaul the Conservatives. In total, there are 33 constituencies where the size of the Conservative majority is less than the number of voters who moved from Labour to the Liberal Democrats since 1997 (estimated at the lesser of the number of voters Labour lost or the number the Liberal Democrats gained).
Particularly noticeable on this list are seats like Warrington South and Northampton North where the Liberal Democrats as well as the Conservatives targeted the seat and actions of both parties contributed to the Labour MP’s loss. In such three-way battles, there is a far greater pool of disillusioned Liberal Democrat voters on which Mr Miliband’s party will be able to draw. The Conservatives can essentially kiss goodbye to many of these three-ways.
There are of course a further 62 seats where the size of the Liberal Democrat vote in 2010 was more than the Conservative majority over Labour. In such places, local factors and demographics will unquestionably play a key part.
This is not to mention the fact that there are a large handful of seats where national factors intermingled with local campaigning allowed the Liberal Democrats to gain seats off Labour in 2005 and 2010. With only a few exceptions, these seats can be expected to return to the red column, taking Ed Milliband a few steps closer to Number 10. As a final nail in this psephological coffin, the briefest glance down the list of seats the Conservatives can hope to win off Labour in 2015 reveals a high number of metropolitan areas (such as Hampstead & Kilburn or Bolton West) where the Labour incumbent will be able to benefit disproportionately from the Liberal Democrat collapse. Don’t anyone mention a possible rise of UKIP.
No Conservative should underestimate the immense effects that a post-Coalition collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote could play on their party’s fortunes in 2015.