Thursday, 24 April 2014

The hunt for 2010 Lib Dems. Part 2: the Lib Dem held seats

Yesterday I looked at the Lib Dem position in Scotland and found it was truly dire. But more important, I found that it did not fit standard electoral modelling methods. Now to look at what might happen in England.

The Lib Dems are not doing as badly in England and Wales as they are in Scotland, but the picture still isn't a happy one. In Scotland they've lost two thirds of their support since the last election, if the polls are to be believed. In Great Britain as a whole, they've lost half their support, maybe a bit more. 

The same technical question arises: is uniform national swing a useful tool? And while the position is not quite as stark as in Scotland, for me the answer remains no, basically for the same reasons: the drop in support at these levels is too steep and it takes insufficient account of the local campaigns that the Lib Dems will fight. 

If the Lib Dems tally half the votes they got in 2010, then the maths of uniform national swing will not work in any constituency where they got under 11.5% of the vote. And it also implies that in seats where the Lib Dems tallied only slightly more than that in 2010 they will be reduced to trace elements. 

I just don't buy this. In almost all constituencies there will be a residual number who will vote Lib Dem come what may, regardless of how little campaigning the Lib Dems put into the area. Bear in mind that in 2010 the Lib Dem vote was very evenly spread. In the 125 Labour target seats held by the Conservatives, the Lib Dems' average vote share was over 10% in every constituency and over 15% in 94 of these:

Some of these Lib Dem voters will stay loyal. 

As I noted yesterday, there is no easy mathematical model for dealing with this to identify a seat count for the Lib Dems. My suggested approach is to assume a national level of polling, assume a base level of support in seats where the Lib Dems will not in practice campaign and see what that leaves you with in the rest. 

What might the base level of support be in untargeted seats?  This is unclear, but we can make some guesses from Lord Ashcroft's marginals polling:

Last year he found 8% support for the Lib Dems in the Conservative-held Labour targets, and I have no particular reason to disbelieve this figure. Lord Ashcroft tells us that the constituencies surveyed were the 40 most marginal, and the average Lib Dem vote share in the 32 of these seats that Labour are targeting in 2010 was 17.5%.  The national comparison opinion poll had the Lib Dems on 11%, so the Lib Dem support in the national poll was 47% of the 2010 performance and that in the marginals poll was 45% of the 2010 performance.  This looks much closer to proportional swing than uniform national swing in these constituencies.

If this is correct, this is bad news for the Lib Dems because it implies that they are currently doing worse than uniform national swing in the seats that they are seriously contesting. (It also implies that the value bet on Lib Dem lost deposits remains at the bottom end of the spectrum.) Of course, current polling does not take into account how the Lib Dems will in fact perform on the ground in the campaign. But the Lib Dems will have it all to do if they are to retain the seats they would hope to keep on a uniform national swing basis.

Let's have another look at the list of Lib Dem seats arranged by swing:

Based on the last ICM poll, on a uniform national swing basis the Lib Dems have seen a 3% swing to the Conservatives and a 9.5% swing to Labour. If they are going to struggle to meet that, we should look with disfavour on their chances of holding on at the margins of this swing. particularly in those seats where Labour are the challengers, because the defectors from the Lib Dems to Labour have no tactical reason to return.  Perhaps Simon Hughes won't get by on a recount after all.  Labour don't look like a 9/4 shot in Southwark & Old Bermondsey, anyway - they must be at worst an evens shot. I'm on.

But how will 2010 Lib Dem voters react when the Lib Dems come calling for their vote? We know that substantial numbers have deserted them, principally for Labour but in some numbers for both the Conservatives and UKIP.  Different polls show different proportions, but Labour are poaching of the order of 30% of the 2010 Lib Dem voters.  The Conservatives have also skimmed off maybe 10 to 15% of these voters.

I shall look next at how likely it is at a national level that these voters will return to the Lib Dems (spoiler: not very). For now, I want to look at how vulnerable the Lib Dems are in their own seats to losing previous Labour-inclined tactical voters.

Here's a table I prepared just after the last election of the Lib Dem held seats with Conservative challengers:

The first thing to note here is just how low the Labour vote shares are. This is quite out of line with the Lib Dem vote share when they are in third (as shown by the earlier table) and the Conservative vote shares when they are in third are much like the Lib Dems'. This strongly indicates past tactical voting by Labour supporters in the Lib Dems' favour.

The next thing to note is that Labour have been squeezed in varying degrees of severity in different seats. That must be a hint as to how vulnerable the different Lib Dem incumbents are to untactical voting.  Unless incumbents have convincingly pitched themselves as internal opponents of the coalition, many Lib Dem MPs will have alienated this part of their support.

The Lib Dems will continue to pitch for tactical votes from Labour supporters of course.  And they will continue to have some success.  But it seems unlikely that they will gain tactical votes to the same extent as before.  Labour supporters in such constituencies have an invidious choice between casting a tactical vote in favour of Judases or casting a useless vote in favour of their preferred party.  Many will prefer the latter.

I would expect the average Labour vote share in these constituencies to look much more like the typical vote share that the Lib Dems and the Conservatives managed at the last election in constituencies where they were third placed - getting up towards the 15% mark or so.  This has serious implications for those who have to date been highly successful at gathering those tactical votes.  Unless the Lib Dems pick up a bit in the polls, they might easily find themselves losing up to half their seats.

Jeremy Browne in Taunton Deane has managed the unusual feat for a Lib Dem of appearing to oppose the coalition from the right.  Given his slender majority and that he has apparently benefited from substantial Labour tactical voting in the past, this seems adventurous.  Take the evens on the Conservatives.  Cheltenham might be a worthwhile bet on the Conservatives at 7/4.  Conversely, the Lib Dems may be harder for the Conservatives to crack in Berwick-upon-Tweed than they look on swing alone.

I have danced around the subject, but next I will look at the main action: what will the 2010 Lib Dem voters do in Conservative/Labour marginals?  This is very important for the outcome of the next election.

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