Reasons to be careful about new analysis suggesting Lib Dems “set to lose several more seats than national polls with uniform swing would predict”

by Stephen Tall on December 9, 2014

A new analysis by Oxford academic Stephen Fisher (a member of the team which was behind the scarily accurate BBC/ITN exit poll at the 2010 election) douses the comfort blanket to which many of us Lib Dems have been clinging, suggesting as it does that the Lib Dems are losing more votes in our strongest seats:

The most significant factor affecting party performance at the constituency level is prior Liberal Democrat strength. … the Liberal Democrats are clearly loosing [sic] most in the seats where they started strongest and losing least where they started weakest. Partly this is inevitable. There are over 100 seats where the Lib Dems got less than 16% of the vote in 2010 and so their vote share cannot fall by this much. Moreover it is unlikely that the party will fall exactly to zero even where it does very badly. So if the GB polls are right overall, the Liberal Democrats must be falling more where they started stronger, and the BES data suggest the drop is broadly proportional to their prior strength. This mirrors the pattern of change at the local authority level at the European Parliament elections this year, adding confidence that the effect is real. The implications for Liberal Democrat seats are straightforward. If they are indeed losing most heavily in the seats they are defending they are set to lose several more seats than national polls with uniform swing would predict.

Cue this headline in The Guardian today: Liberal Democrats facing even bigger wipeout than expected.

This may turn out to be true: anyone predicting the next election with absolute certainty from where we are today is riding for a fall. However, there are good reasons to treat with some caution Dr Fisher’s analysis – and Newcastle academic Craig Johnsons lists four of them over at his blog here:

1. The data in the [British Election Study] suggests, as have other polling companies, that Labour are set to be the biggest beneficiaries [of former Lib Dem support]. They can only have so much of an impact on Lib Dem seats, given that it is the Conservatives who are in second place in 37 of the Lib Dems’ incumbent seats.

(Agreed: and of course in those Lib Dem / Conservative battlegrounds, Ukip’s intervention is likely to hurt the Tories more. Lord Ashcroft’s polling points to Lib Dem support having fallen since 2010, but in many seats Tory support having fallen further: net result, a Lib Dem hold.)

2. Following on from above, there are a great many seats where the Lib Dems came second with a large share of the vote. In many of these seats, Lib Dem support in local elections has completely dropped off, whilst it has remained somewhat stronger in areas where they have MPs. It is perfectly possible that Lib Dems will lose a great share of the vote in 150-250 seats, but manage to hold on in a number of seats where they have MPs already.

(Agreed. At the last election, the Lib Dems came 1st or 2nd in almost 300 seats we were contesting – ie, almost half the UK constituencies – and I’d be amazed if the equivalent number was in triple-figures in 2015. I can think of a number of seats where the Lib Dems were runners-up to Labour last time where we are likely to collapse to fourth or even fifth this time around. To be clear, this is a major problem for the Lib Dems for the future. However, it is not in itself a problem which will cost us any seats in five months’ time.)

3. Fisher rightly recognises the importance of incumbency and local variation for the Lib Dems, but it is worth stating again. People’s responses, as outlined in polling by Michael Ashcroft, are much more positive for the Lib Dems when asked about constituency voting intention rather than national voting intention.

(Agreed. Dr Fisher suggests Lord Ashcroft’s polling, which asks voters to think specifically about their seat, is risky: “there is a danger that such prompting over-states incumbency advantage”. Perhaps. However, as I’ve pointed out before, Ashcroft’s polling doesn’t name the candidates. It is therefore just as plausible that it under-states incumbency.)

4. Local variation might well damage the Conservatives too. In many of the seats that the Conservatives might hope to take from the Lib Dems, they might find UKIP splitting their vote enough that the Lib Dems can cling on. Again, polling by Ashcroft would suggest this is currently the case.

(Agreed. Ashcroft’s most recent constituency polling showed the Lib Dem vote down 13% since 2010. However, the Conservative vote was also down, by 9%. (Labour and Ukip were up 4% and 13% respectively). Overall result: a clutch of tight Lib Dem holds.)

In his latest Liberal Democrat Newswire, Mark Pack gives his assessment:

Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft has now polled 38 Liberal Democrat held constituencies (counting Portsmouth South as Lib Dem held although its MP is now sitting as an independent), having started working his way up from the most marginal. In those seats, his polling finds the party ahead in 17, dead tied in two and behind in the others. … So a reasonable starting point in projecting seat numbers is to look at what happens if the party were to hold the seats not polled and those where it is currently tied or ahead. That would give the party 38 seats (important caveat – of which 11 are in Scotland). … [it is] quite plausible for the party to hope to end up with 40+ seats in the next Parliament and hence an almost inevitable share of power in another hung Parliament. Not guaranteed by any means, and getting comfortably into the 40s requires a bit of a following political wind (finally) for the party, but clearly possible, just as the number of small margins shows the possibility of a much worse result too.

A Lib Dem meltdown is possible; so, too, is a better-than-expected result. More likely, then, it will be somewhere inbetween. However, I’ll be very surprised if Stephen Fisher’s contention that the Lib Dem loss of seats will turn out to be “greater than the uniform swing would predict” comes true.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.