This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics
The fortunes of the Liberal Democrats offer a brilliant example of the glass half-full/half-empty dichotomy. Eeyores reckon that the party’s 2010 election performance was a disaster, given the promise held out by its poll surge following the first televised leaders’ debate, and they argue that Nick Clegg’s credibility since backing the coalition’s line on tuition fees has been very costly.
To be sure, at less than 14 per cent, the average Lib Dem vote share throughout the most recent Parliament is well down on the average for the Parliament before.
This figure is even worse if you calculate from the tuition fees vote onwards.
Yet the Lib Dems still have five cabinet seats and the deputy PM, plus a further 13 government ministers, which is an awful lot better than being in opposition. So, two years into the coalition, what are the prospects for the party, come 2015?
On the face of it, its prospects are not good. That pre-election surge was in very large part predicated on Clegg’s ‘honest Joe’ look directly into camera during the TV debates, and saying, “Trust me – I’m different from the other candidates.” Since those heady days, what must worry the party most of all is the extent to which it has become unfashionable to declare support for the Lib Dems generally, but Clegg in particular.
Also damaging is the claim that they are the Tory Party’s patsies. In a recent ComRes poll conducted exclusively for Total Politics, fully 50 per cent of the public said the Lib Dems “seem to have almost no influence over government policy” and only one-third disagreed.
Showing unity is fine, but as the next election looms the Lib Dems will need to be able to demonstrate to the electorate the difference they have made. That will be at a time when the Conservatives will be working hard to take the credit for everything that has gone well, and blaming the Lib Dems for everything that has not.
However, before we consign the party to history, it’s worth recounting that it did achieve a national vote share in 2010 of around a fifth higher than the Clegg era poll average of 18 per cent. While many in the party were understandably disappointed that they did not live up to the promise of the surge, and saw their seat numbers reduced despite a larger national vote share, it was nonetheless a creditable electoral performance.
That performance was, of course, due very much to the exposure they gained in the televised debates. Even though the impact of the surge weakened after the first one, it’s still likely to be a phenomenon that will prove repeatable, at least to some degree, in 2015.
Also in the party’s favour is that it has a very substantial presence in local government (even after the local elections) with around 2,750 councillors across Great Britain. This means it has a robust local campaigning infrastructure, and the party should have learnt the lessons from 2010 about how to take proper advantage of a sudden upsurge in popularity at election time.
However, even if the party does manage to revive its flagging fortunes, it will have to overcome the additional hurdle of the boundary changes. The government is well advanced in its plans to reduce the number of MPs by 50. Elections expert Rob Hayward calculates that while Labour will be hit hardest by the reduction and redistribution, it will likely reduce the number of seats of both the Conservatives and Lib Dems by around 10. To put this into context, it would mean a reduction of three per cent of Conservative seats, around 10 per cent of Labour seats, but a whopping 17.5 per cent of Lib Dem seats. As Hayward points out: “This therefore represents a marked hit for the party. It also probably makes a Labour/Lib Dem coalition that much less likely, with a net loss of about 35 seats.”
We cannot escape the fact, though, that the Conservatives currently remain well outside the vote share numbers that would result in an overall majority. Given the poll numbers right now, if an election were held, even on the new boundaries there would be a Labour majority of over 50.
So, with a Labour/Lib Dem coalition unlikely, could we be in for a repeat of the 2010 election outcome, waiting 80 years for a coalition government and then two coming along on the trot?
It’s a genuine possibility. Around a third of the 2010 Lib Dem vote has ‘parked’ with Labour for now, but with the oxygen of election publicity it’s likely that a lot of that will drift back to the Lib Dems. ComRes has had vote shares of 40 per cent for the Conservatives just twice since the 2010 general election, and David Cameron needs a bigger margin over Labour if he is to stand any real chance of forming a majority government. Britain may not be finished with coalition government quite yet.
Poll to watch
73% - MPs are divided over whether the government’s plans to legalise same-sex marriage will succeed or fail, according to a ComRes poll for the Campaign for Marriage. Ironically, given Cameron’s enthusiasm for the proposal, only 41 per cent of Conservative MPs believe it will succeed, compared with 67 per cent of Labour MPs and 95 per cent of Lib Dems. Cameron’s colleagues are consistently and significantly more hostile towards it than MPs from other parties. Therefore, their scepticism over whether it will succeed is either wishful thinking on their part, or they know something the rest of us don’t.
Behind the figure
2/3 - More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of young Asians living in Great Britain agree families should live according to the concept of ‘honour’, or ‘izzat’. Only six per cent agreed that it could sometimes be right “to physically punish a female member of the family if she brings dishonour to her family or community”. But a much higher proportion – almost one in five – agreed that certain specific acts that were seen as bringing a woman’s family dishonour were reasonable justification for physical punishment. These included disobeying a father’s wishes, terminating an existing or pre-arranged marriage and dressing in an unacceptable manner.
Andrew Hawkins is chairman of ComRes