Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Yellow fever

Paul Whiteley asks whether the Liberal Democrats really could overtake the Tories

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The Liberal Democrats have announced that they intend to replace the Conservatives as the main opposition party in British politics. What are their chances? A generation ago this would have seemed totally impossible, but over time it has become more of a possibility as party loyalties have weakened. When the first election studies were conducted in Britain in the early 1960s, almost half of the electorate claimed to have strong party loyalties. These loyalties were bound up with class identities and they meant that voters were very unlikely to shift their allegiance to another party. General elections were decided amongst the minority of voters with weak party loyalties in the marginal seats.

The latest evidence from the 2001 British Election Study shows that, at the time of the 2001 general election, only 15 percent of electors had very strong party loyalties. The study was a series of surveys funded by the ESRC and conducted at the University of Essex during the election. It showed that most voters had relatively weak loyalties, or no loyalties at all. This means that a large proportion of the electorate can be persuaded to switch parties, leading to large electoral swings such as the ten percent swing from the Conservatives to Labour in 1997.

A careful examination of the electoral evidence suggests that the Liberal Democrats can replace the Conservatives as the main party of opposition if two conditions are met. First, a two-party swing, comparable to the swing Labour obtained from the Conservatives in 1997, is required from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats. Since the Liberal Democrats are in second place to the Conservatives in some 58 seats, a swing of that size would deliver them 34 seats. If they won all of the 58 seats they would achieve their goal, since the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party would then consist of 110 MPs and the parliamentary Conservative party 108 MPs. However, this is very unlikely to occur since many of these seats have large majorities.

This is where the second condition comes in. If Labour repeated the swing from the Conservatives it got in 1997, it would capture an additional 54 Conservative seats. The result would be a Liberal Democratic parliamentary party of 86 and a Conservative parliamentary party of 78. Such an outcome would be unprecedented and it would make the House of Commons very lop sided, with no less than 494 Labour MPs.

Though a long shot, it is possible because party loyalties have weakened so much. Electoral behaviour is increasingly a matter of choice rather than a matter of tribal loyalties. Just as individuals feel comfortable about moving house, changing jobs, changing their shopping habits and their lifestyles, they feel comfortable about changing parties. If their preferred party looks as if it is failing and has nothing new to offer, then they are willing to consider an alternative.

The Liberal Democrats cannot hope to achieve this by capturing seats equally from the Conservatives and Labour, even though they were in second place to Labour in 51 seats after 2001. This is because these Labour-held seats have very large majorities, which are unlikely to fall to a Liberal Democrat challenge unless something unprecedented happens to the government. Thus the political conditions likely to bring this about involve a continuing decline of the Conservatives. Iain Duncan Smith is currently as unpopular as his predecessor and this state of affairs looks unlikely to change in the immediate future. So the charismatic, dynamic leadership required to produce a revival is simply not there.

Second, the Tories suffer from what might be termed the ‘opposition party trap’. If they stay in the centre ground of politics, where the votes are to be found, then they find it almost impossible to distinguish themselves from Labour. Electors then ask: ‘why switch if they are offering the same choices?’ On the other hand, if they take radically different policy positions from the government, many will see this as extreme and they lose more support than they gain. The Liberal Democrats avoid this trap by not being the major opposition party.

One problem is that the Liberal Democrats have not achieved swings from the Conservatives on anything like this scale in the past. The party’s vote share actually fell by one percent between 1997 and 2001 in the seats currently held by the Conservatives. So a ten percent swing from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats looks unlikely and requires a lot of Conservatives to switch in the future. To find out how likely this is we can use evidence from the 2001 British Election Study. Normally, when pollsters want to measure voting intention, they ask: ‘If there was a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for?’ In the election study, we asked a rather different question. We asked, ‘Using a 0 to 10 scale, where 0 means very unlikely and 10 means very likely, how likely is it that you would ever vote for each of the parties?’ The answers to this question provide an estimate of how many Conservative voters are likely to switch to the Liberal Democrats in the future.

The chart below shows, not surprisingly, that there is a greater chance that voters in general will support the Liberal Democrats than is true of Conservative voters alone. The average score on the scale for all voters was 5.1 and for Conservative voters it was 3.5. There is a group of about 30 percent of Conservatives who are adamantly opposed to the Liberal Democrats. If we include anybody who gives themselves a score of five or less on the scale, this makes up 56 percent of all Conservatives. On the other hand, roughly a quarter of Conservatives give themselves a score of six or above, which means that they are willing to consider voting Liberal Democrat. This makes a ten percent swing possible.

The Lib Dems have some other advantages too. Recent evidence from a Gallup poll carried out in October this year showed that only 39 percent of respondents who voted Conservative in 2001 thought that Iain Duncan Smith would make the best Prime Minister. Some 20 percent of them believed Charles Kennedy would be best and 21 percent preferred Tony Blair. So Charles Kennedy does reasonably well among Conservatives at the present time.

However, this scenario also assumes that Labour can deliver a knockout punch to the Conservatives by successfully making improvements in the public services. This currently looks like a tall order, since there is a lot of discontent among voters about the performance of the public sector. In 2001, more voters thought that Labour had performed badly rather than well in managing the National Health Service, which was easily the most salient issue in the election. The Tories did not capitalise on this advantage, however, because the voters thought they would do even worse. But this state of affairs is unlikely to deliver a large swing to Labour in the next election.

For these sorts of reasons, replacing the Conservatives at the next election looks less likely than a continuing erosion of Tory support, which would allow the Liberal Democrats to pick up seats and gain further ground. But if the Conservatives continue to fight each other and Iain Duncan Smith’s popularity falls further, there is the possibility that the British party system could undergo a sea change comparable to when Labour replaced the Liberals as the main party of opposition in the 1920s.

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Paul Whiteley

is a professor at the Department of Government, University of Essex

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