It’s rare you read something about British politics and feel enlightened. So Rob Ford’s post on the electoral impact of the Lib Dem collapse is a real treat. It’s brilliant, useful, and I encourage you to read it if you want to consider the likely shape of the next election. Not least because if you’re an aspiring Labour hack, the table at the end of the post should be Page 1, chart 1 of ‘How Labour wins a majority in 2015’.
So, go and read the whole thing. It’s great.
I can’t (and don’t wish to) find fault with Rob’s overall analysis, but I think a commentary on his detailed findings might be of some interest.
A NINE POINT GAIN.. BUT IN SEATS?
The key point of Rob’s piece is that even if nothing else changes, a collapse in Lib Dem support produces a positive net effect for Labour, as Labour gains from the Conservatives significantly outweigh Conservative gains from the Lib Dems.
To a certain extent, this is obvious. After all, if a significant number of votes switch from Lib Dem to Labour, you’d expect Labour to benefit!
This may just be a matter of perspective. As I already expect Labour to pick up seats from the Conservatives on the basis of a LibDem collapse, It doesn’t appear shocking to see it set out so clearly and straightforwardly, though it’s no less useful for that.
For me, the most interesting thing is that Rob’s scenario shows Labour moving to an effective tie in the popular vote, but sees the Conservative seat count holding up remarkably well, because the Conservatives pick up a number of Lib Dem seats in exchange for seats lost to Labour. This is especially true if you assume a proportional, not uniform swing*. In other words, we see a red tide sweeping over Conservative marginals, while the blues pick off a smaller number of yellow islands. The electoral map of Britain changes significantly.
WHO HAS LEFT THE LIBDEMS?
Whether these broad tidal movements translate accurately into actual seat changes is a fascinating area.
One of the interesting points that Mark Pack makes in his analysis of ‘lost Lib Dem voters’ is that the Lib Dems have lost almost all their 2010 ‘Tactical Voters’. These were the most ‘Labour’ voters of those who supported the Lib Dems in 2010, with fully 48% of tactical voters saying they were generally ‘Labour’.
This might have two different consequences.
One would assume that Labour identifying ‘tactical’ voters are likely to be concentrated in LD/Con marginals (as why be a tactical voter, otherwise). If it is these voters who have defected ‘most’, then this could work against the Lib Dems in their Conservative marginals, as these ‘Labour’ tactical voters might decide there is precious little difference between the two parties.
On the other hand, a Lib Dem campaign in such a marginal seat might be able to reclaim these voters by stressing they are the only credible way to prevent Conservative victory. If this were the case, a moderate over-performance by the Lib Dems in their incumbent constituencies could cost the Conservatives several seats, which could prove crucial..
THE DON’T KNOWS ARE DIFFERENT
One point I’m less convinced of is how Rob has allocated those who have left the Lib Dems to ‘Don’t Know’ or to ‘None”
Rob says: “Looking in depth at the “don’t knows”, we find this is a group that is closer to the left than the right – if one measures such things as views of the parties and left-right ideology, they look more like Lib Dem defectors to Labour than Lib Dem loyalists or Lib Dems who have defected to the Conservatives.
However, many of them are clearly reluctant to make the shift over to Labour, despite the Coalition, so clearly retain some loyalties to their former party. I therefore split them 50-50 between the Lib Dems and Labour…”
I’m not sure if this is right.
One of the questions the YouGov polling asked is how 2010 Lib Dem voters who have since defected identified themselves, generally speaking. This suggests that those who have left the Lib Dems to ‘Don’t Know’ are rather different to those who have left to Labour, around half of whom identified themselves as “Labour”.
So will the Don’t Knows split evenly between LD and Labour as Rob suggests? If we assume that they are most likely to revert to their 2010 party identification, it doesn’t look like it. About half would go back to the LibDems, the rest splintering.
Another way to look at this would be to see where there are differences as to where 2010 LDs who have stayed loyal, defected to Labour or defected to don’t know see themselves on a left right scale. Here, you see that 2010 LD voters who defected to Labour trend to be more left wing than either loyalists or defectors to ‘don’t know”. The latter, in particular, tend to see themselves as almost exclusively as centrists, very slightly to the left or not to identify as left or right at all.
Now, none of this may be significant, but when you’re dealing with a finely balanced election scenario, it’s quite possible that whether current Lib Dem ‘Don’t knows” head to Labour in significant numbers would tip a few crucial seats either way.
(Amusingly, if I move these “LD- Don’t knows’ voters from Labour, with 1% going to the LibDems and 1% to other, electoral calculus gives me a dead heat!)
INCUMBENCY CUTS BOTH WAYS
The obvious and correct objection to any projected gain of Tory seats from the LibDems is that it neglects incumbency. However incumbency cuts both ways.
The majority, if not all, of Rob’s ‘Tory/Labour marginals with a high Lib Dem’ vote are 2010 Tory gains. Traditionally, incumbency effects are most noticeable of a first term defender. This might provide the Conservatives with a buffer against a disproportionate Labour vote in these seats.
DON’T FORGET THE BIG STUFF
Rob’s analysis, quite rightly, focuses on what happens if the Lib Dem vote collapses and nothing else changes. His analysis, correctly, is that this should broadly favour the Labour party, though there is a weaker cross current of Tory potential gains from the Lib-Dems ‘via the back door.
However, this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that if Labour were able to secure a swing from conservative voters, the impact in Lab-Con marginals would be much higher.I know Rob realises this, but political tacticians can let ourselves be blinded to the obvious.
As we speak, Labour is winning Conservative voters to a certain extent, but if we were able to attract Conservative as well as former LD voters in strong numbers, the electoral map would tilt decisively in Labour’s favour.
Equally if the Conservatives were able to persuade a proportion of Labour 2010 voters that the Conservative were best for them, this would greatly assist their defence in marginal seats. (As would rallying UKIP voters, who seem to be costing the Tories dearly in the polls at the moment).
Rob’s biggest lesson might be that if the LD vote collapses and nothing else changes, the next election will be very, very tight. Making sure that something else does change should perhaps be the political parties’ top priority!
* In my view, a pure proportional swing is very unlikely, but as Rob mentions it, I took a quick look to see whether in Scotland the 2011 anti-LD swing was closer to proportional or uniform. While the lib Dems saw their national vote share halve from 16.2 to 7.9, losing eight points, in their incumbent seats, their vote fell from an average of 42% to 28%, a loss of 14 points, but only a loss of one third of their original support. Might this be a reasonable projection to run for Westminster?