Cliffs AND ledges. The Lib Dem polling plunge, 2010-15, explained

by Stephen Tall on June 10, 2015

Mark Pack has a typically insightful blog-post asking from when can we date the Lib Dems’ election catastrophe — from the moment the Coalition deal was signed, or as a result of specific events within the Coalition? Here’s the metaphor Mark uses:

There is a little argument to be had, with polling spreadsheets at the ready and magnifying glasses deployed, over whether Liberal Democrat support immediate fell off a cliff edge the moment the party went into coalition in 2010 or whether there was a small ledge before the party plunged off the edge a few weeks later.

The debate matters because the answer has big implications for whether the party should consider coalition again. Is there something intrinsic about being a junior party in a Westminster coalition which means you’ve lost before you’ve started? Or is your fate in your own hands — is it possible to make a success of it, if handled well?

However, I don’t think the answer’s quite that simple or binary. And I’ve taken up Mark’s magnifying-glass-polling-spreadsheet gauntlet to illustrate the point. Here are the Lib Dem ratings (as measured by ICM and ComRes) from 2010 to 2015. The spiky yellow line shows each poll; the smoother black line the 3-month rolling average; the overlying cliff-like / ledge-like red lines are my insertion.

lib dem poll ratings 2010-15

What I think this shows is that:

1) entering into the Coalition with the Conservatives was, unsurprisingly, a toxic act for many 2010 Lib Dem voters. The party’s vote share fell off a cliff, from 23% to 13%;
2) the tuition fees U-turn coincided with this, though didn’t in itself precipitate the collapse. It did, however, do longer term reputational damage to the party (and of course its leader);
3) Lib Dem ratings then stabilised at around 13% (or a little lower) for the next year;
4) until, that is, the furore over the NHS Bill in 2012, an avoidable debacle which lost the party another chunk of support (down to 12%) — and was probably the final nail in the coffin of its progressive, liberal-left vote, many of whom were crucial tactical voters for the Lib Dems in key marginals;
5) then came the Ukip breakthrough in May 2013, when Nigel Farage’s party polled 22% in the local elections — as the Lib Dems were usurped as the third party, so our relevance declined, a vicious spiral;
6) entering 2014, the Lib Dems were level-pegging with Ukip and Nick Clegg gamely took on Farage in two debates on Europe: the second (and most-watched) he unarguably lost. The Lib Dems were almost wiped-out in the Euros. Clegg almost quit. The party ratings took another hit (down to 9-10%);
7) finally, the 2015 general election and the Lib Dem attempt to fight a first-past-the-post election on the basis of being everyone’s second favourite party, resulting in a ruthless but traditional squeeze by Labour and the Tories which left the Lib Dems on just 8%.

In short, there was, yes, a cliff which the Lib Dems fell off in May 2010. However, there were a series of ledges over the next five years which the party jumped off.

The very act of going into Coalition badly damaged the party; but it was what the Lib Dems did (or didn’t do) within the Coalition which resulted in the party losing 86% of its MPs last month.


Under a PR system, as in Germany, Ireland or New Zealand, it’s usually pretty clear which parties will join together in coalition/confidence and supply after the election is over. In the UK, the relationship between votes and seats is so haphazard that many voters are casting their ballot for the “least worst” option. Combined with other voters who positively voted for the LibDems based on the promises contained in 2010 manifesto and who then felt betrayed in whatever measure, in retrospect entering coalition with Labour OR the Tories was a recipe for electoral disaster…

by James on June 10, 2015 at 11:48 am. Reply #

“2014 – Clegg almost quit”. Really? News to those of us that tried to make him. Pity he didnt go in 2014, it would have given us half a chance.

by Jonathan Pile on June 10, 2015 at 12:20 pm. Reply #

David Howarth speaking at the SLF AGM in Birmingham after the election identified some other triggers for the plunge drawn , if my memory serves me well, from data from the British electoral survey. These included the first Osborne budget and the sight of Lib Dems congratulating him, Clegg’s speech on social mobility in August 2010 which appeared to abandon attempts to address economic inequality in the here and now as well as breaking the pledge on tuition fees that the party machine had done so much to promote to candidates. It could be argued that theses were self inflicted and not part of the platform on which we fought the election.

by Iain Brodie Browne on June 10, 2015 at 12:55 pm. Reply #

That graph reminds me of the graphs showing a series of plateaus superimposed on a steady increase that are used to parody the climate change deniers – things like this:

I think a progressive decline from about the end of 2010 to the end is a better description of the data. Which suggests that it wasn’t any particular events, but just a grinding collapse from coalition/tuition fees to the end, because we never changed the narrative.

by Richard Gadsden on June 10, 2015 at 5:01 pm. Reply #

I agree, Richard; it looks like a two-stage linear graph to me. But I don’t think a narrative change would have helped – and also, I think the Lib Dems tried to change the narrative, but the strictures of collective cabinet responsibility limited the chances of success. I suspect that what caused support – which at that point was core support, the non-core support having vanished when the coalition was formed – to continue to fade away was that the Lib Dems remained in, and continued to vote with and attempt to justify, a coalition that kept doing illiberal things. (My own red-line moment came early on, when an announcement was made effectively abandoning the promise to stop detaining children in concentration camps like Yarl’s Wood.)

Changing the narrative would have required breaking the coalition, either by departing from collective responsibility or by formally leaving. Once the Lib Dems had bound themselves to the Tories, the Tories were the masters of their fate.

Incidentally, this was all predicted, more or less play for play, in 2009, in the Radio 4 drama Number Ten. I can only assume few Lib Dem MPs had time to catch it.

by just passing on June 11, 2015 at 6:36 pm. Reply #

[…] UPDATE: Stephen Tall has examined the cliff versus ledge question further. […]

by Ledges, cliffs and the myth of short-term factors in elections on June 10, 2015 at 6:36 pm. Reply #

lessons of remorseless opportunism by Clegg mixed with a combination of seeing professional politicians as being more important than the public and Orange Book liberalism exposed as intellectual waffle that demonstrated a lack of valyes ither than being clver for the sake of it.

Apart from being a co-author of the above book that is the world’s greatest cure for insomnia, Clegg will be remembered for the final euthanasia of his Party. It would have been better to simply disband than become the object of public scorn.

by Michael Macdonald on June 13, 2015 at 6:45 pm. Reply #

One thing worth considering is that while “Coalition” is a vote loser in itself, it is fulfilling the worst estimations of what “coalition” means that kills the party electorally.

Confidence and Supply would have been a much smarter move. But even a Coalition where the party behaved in more of a Confidence and Supply way could have been more popular.

The bizarre philosophical trope of “proving Coalition government can work” played into the hands of a Tory government with many more policy making and tactical resources…

by Metatone on June 25, 2015 at 9:41 am. Reply #

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