Shy Liberal Democrats

As regular readers and watchers of polling methodology will know, one of the questions facing pollsters is what to do with people who say don’t know or refuse to answer voting intention questions. A purist approach is to ignore them, to base reported figures only upon people who actually say who they would vote for or, for companies using a squeeze question, who they are most likely to vote for – this is the approach used by most pollsters in the UK. The alternative approach is to estimate how they would vote based on one of their other answers.

This re-allocation of don’t knows was pioneered by ICM after the 1992 debacle when the pollsters all vastly overestimated Labour. They noticed that there were a lot of former Conservatives now saying don’t know, and theorised that many of these were people who would still vote Tory, but were reluctant to admit to pollsters that they were supporting an unfashionable party. This was supported by recontact surveys after elections, when people who had said don’t know to pollsters prior to the election did tend to end up voting for the party they had done at the previous election.

As a result, ICM started reallocating 50% of don’t knows and refusals to the party they said they supported at the previous election. During the 1990s this invariably helped the Conservatives, and became known as the “Shy Tory adjustment”. The name stuck, so it was often still known as the shy Tories through the last two terms of the Labour government, when it actually tended to help Labour instead. Andrew Cooper of Populus called them “Bashful Blairites”.

In recent months it has changed again, polls are now showing a large proportion of people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 saying they don’t know how they would vote in an election tomorrow, and ICM’s reallocation of don’t knows is now favouring them. In ICM’s last three polls the re-allocation of don’t knows has bumped up the level of Liberal Democrat support by 2 points – yesterday’s topline figures of CON 36%, LAB 38%, LDEM 14% were CON 37%, LAB 40%, LDEM 12% without the don’t knows.

Naturally this leads us to the question of whether this is a sound thing to do. Certainly there is solid evidence to back up what ICM and Populus do. Re-contact polls after past elections always supported it, and ICM’s re-contact survey this time round found that about 50% of people who said don’t know in the pre-election polls did indeed end up voting for the same party they did in 2005. Equally, at past elections the adjustment has tended to make ICM’s figures more accurate. None of this guarantees it will still work in the future – the current political situation is rather unusual and these former Lib Dems may behave differently – but it’s a sound starting point.

The difference between re-allocating don’t knows and not doing so is more one of principle. Should polls report just what people say, or should we estimate what the people who refuse to answer think? There are good arguments for both, and in terms of voting intention I think it’s a positive that both are produced. We can see what people are actually saying, but also take account of the fact that there are lots of former Liberal Democrats out there saying don’t know, who may or may not filter back come election day. It’s just important to know which pollsters already factor in those don’t knows, and which ones don’t.

284 Responses to “Shy Liberal Democrats”

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  1. I think it is right to allocate the don’t knows to their last party affiliations specially in the case of LibDems. Those who have voted LibDems but wont do so next time have already made up their minds and the ones still not sure are the hard core LibDem voters maybe having a wrestle with their conscience but will in the end stay true to their party.

  2. a lot of shy libs will show up as greens, it might be useful later on to have a seperate breakdown for them

    can i ask other posters to refrain from nasty nicknames for shy libs

    shy tories was not offensive
    bashful blairites was not offensive
    – – – – libs should not be offensive either

  3. I think subjectively that Liz could be right. I also think that objectively.

    I suppose if NC and co were to give me the definite impression they were not so keen on Fairer Votes any more or more importantly were not fervently campaigning for it -then ‘I’m outa here’.

    Socal Liberal. A
    After spending half an hour trying to find your comment on AV in California, I must say I was disappointed with the terse reply I eventually found. Could you explain what the Ca run off system does that Av does worse please? Perhaps we would not understand the run off system anyway. I am not sure I do.

  4. R in N
    May LDs come up with offensive ones though?

    Mine is ‘cowards’.

  5. @RiN

    low key libs?

  6. howard

    i can’t stop you but i rather you didn’t :-)

    if you jump ship where will you go?

  7. The alternative approach is to estimate how they would vote based on one of their other answers.
    That is rather risky and no wonder people complain about Rouge polls/outliners.
    The best method, would to place all the don’t knows in a catagory of their own. It makes a lot more sense then trying to figure out how people vote or in the worst case, ingnore the don’t knows completly. No wonder the Labour vote is grossly overestimated.

  8. Coy Cleggies?

  9. Aleksandar

    low key, is sufficiently neutral

    i seem to have set myself up as a censor a strange position for a liberal

  10. Limbo Libs. They aren’t being discreet about who they’ll vote for, they really can’t decide. They are in limbo until they see what all the major Parties do over the next few years.

  11. Lilly livered Liberals

  12. I know opinion polls ask about a theoretical general election but they do seem at odds with local by-election results. The number of Lib Dem council seats has steadily gone up since May. Surely it can’t all be down to people who dislike the coalition but quite like their councillors.

  13. So 40, rather than 38 is a gross over-estimation? 2% difference?

    I’d say that’s changed somewhat – unlike the shy Tories, or the “Bashful Blairs” who had nowhere to go and eventually fell back to their party because the third party just wasn’t worth the effort, if Libs are dissatisfied with their current Orange-Book party, they’ll have a considerably more liberal Labour party to go to, and I think most Libs were voters Labour lost on their way over to the authoritarian Right (tuition fees, anti-war, anti-trident would’ve been Labour causes in the past). It just depends on whether Miliband does enough to court them, and my feeling is from what he’s done so far, he won’t – but let’s wait and see.

  14. I get the impression from a lot of limbo LDs (& even some Labs) that many are actually giving Labour the “benefit of the Doubt”.

    If Lab move left they’ll get the majority of the “Limbo Libs”, if they shift to centre they’ll probably just get a handful.

  15. @CRAIG
    A considerable number of life long Tories turned Liberal Democrat in the 90s because they were heartily sick of the Tories. Scandals, sleaze (it all looks a bit unimportant after the last 13 years) which looked bad at the time, plus a feeling that Conservatism had become nasty. Guildford, Winchester, Cheltenham all went Lib Dem. Therefore, your personal politics which does not allow you to comprehend unsure Liberals turning anywhere but Labour is flawed. It seems a weakness with Labour supporters, but however sure you are about the greatness of the British Labour party, many millions disagree.

  16. I will be blunt
    I think the Lib Dem don’t knows are waiting to decide who they will choose to vote for instead of the Lib Dems

  17. amber

    you seem to have won the contest, your suggestion “limbo libs” being the first to be used by another poster :-) 8-)

    Quite so.

  19. Some urgent but informed help is needed by this bold LD.

    The Date, having been announced on the (now) poxy 29th April. we are now fervently trying to plan our spring holiday to avoid the whole build up and run down.

    It’s not too bad with the costs even though school children will be on holiday, at least departing mid week around the 20th and returning after the honeymoon departure say on the 5th May.

    Flights are from £50 return if booked now,

    There is of course unfortunately the problem of posting our AV votes. We’ve sorted that because we will simply have them posted to our son who will proxy for us.

    But where for 50 quid to avoid totally the unwanted intrusion of the Event?

    Suggestions welcomed. We are prepared to share a tent by the way.

  20. Roland haines
    You are right. Those Lib Dem voters who have already broken away are mainly Labour sympathisers who voted Lib Dem to keep out Tories. They will not IMO go back. There will be others as you describe who are not sure now where to turn. However, the main point at the moment is Lib Dems are not going to be elected as easily as in the last 20 years

  21. Wary Whigs

  22. Roland Haines
    Our mutual appreciation society posts crossed!

  23. Howard,

    Just spend the day reading all those Morning Star copies you have missed out on.

    No Royal Wedding stories, guaranteed.


  24. howard

    there is no escape!!

    ever since the announcement i’ve had people asking me if i can get them tickets

    the national TV stations have already cleared their schedules

    i reckon your best bet would be to take your tent to Eden and hide out there for a month :-)

  25. @Colin Green
    The number of Lib Dem council seats has steadily gone up since May.

    Sorry to have to contradict you, but I believe the LDs have gained 8 seats and lost 9 in by-elections since the GE. None of the gains were from Labour. Their performance held up into July, but it’s tailed off noticeably since then, presumably related to their slide in the polls. Of the 17 by-elections in November to date, the LDs have yet to win a single one although they’re defending a fairly substantial majority in one this Thursday.

    The group I refer to are as you see based in the Tory shires in wealthy constituencies. They may return to the Tories, I cannot see Colonel Bufton- Tufton of Winchester going to Labour. Your general point I totally agree with.

  27. I would have thought that by now, some wag would have posted that ‘voting Lib dem in 2010’ and ‘don’t know’ is pretty much the same thing, judging by their ability to forget their pre election pledges. [Cue smiley thing].

  28. This is a follow on from Alec’s posts on the last thread regarding Ireland, Portugal and Spain (or back to the misery…)

    I do not pretend to understand the way the global capitalism really works, and my economics is probably no better than O Level.

    Does anyone else feel unnerved that the international financial system appears to be picking off countries with ‘weaker’ economies, and pushing them into the clutches of the IMF etc?

    I am not saying that Ireland and Greece haven’t been at least partially responsible for being vulnerable, but it does seem once an economy has been identified as weak, the pressure to breaking points comes very swift and hard. Surely historically economies have been weak, but not gone through this trauma so fast and hard?

    Ultimately who really benefits from the IMFs medicine? Is the the IMF solution one size fits all?

  29. Phil,

    What’s your bet for Worth Valley, Bradford on Thursday?

  30. ICM’s assumptions seem quite extreme, as were in a very unusual situation and only 39% of 2010 LD voters are still sticking with their party, of those who have expressed a voting intention. Surely the equivalent % must have been a lot higher in the past for the Cons and Lab, so is the adjustment still credible?

    Rather than allocating half of the dont knows back solely to the LDs, you could just as easily argue that those who would vote at all would split in the same ratio as the expressed current voting intention of the LD voters who have made up their mind (i.e. 18% Con, 32% Lab, 39% LD, 12% Other). That would still help the LDs, but nothing like as much as the 2/12th addition to their declared support that ICM assume.

  31. @ALEC
    The Liberal Democrat pledges you speak of, were made to the people of Toytown. Now, Big Ears has died and Noddy has had to come into a horrible horrible place called The World. Its a whole new bag of excrement.

  32. @Garry K
    Sorry, no idea! Are all the parties fielding candidates?

  33. The seat was vacated by the new Keighley MP.

    He got 60% of the vote in 2008.

    When the ward was fought in 2010 (another Councillor), it ended up Con 45, Lab 30, LD 18.

    With the seat being fought on Thursday with no incumbent, Labour need a 7.5% swing to take it. It has won seats with this sort of swing since May.

    I think the LD vote will fall, going mainly to Lab and some Con.

    I think it will be Con low 40s, Lab high 30s, and LD single figures.

    What is interesting is that if Lab can win seats like this, it is good news for them. If the LDs don’t hold onto their vote well, next May maybe some what difficult for them.

    I am not aware of the local nuances, but this type of seat maybe a pointer.

  34. “… reluctant to admit to pollsters that they were supporting an unfashionable party.”

    A useful clarification. Comparing ICM and Populus to the others tells you that beyond the fluctuation of floating voters, there is doubt, and a sense of disappointment or even shame among the supporters of a particular party.

    In other words evidence of a steady malaise. Quite likely, shy the Tories of 1992 abandonned the party in 1997, and bashful Blairites of 2005 ditched Labour in 2010.

  35. I think given the amount of ridicule and scorn being heaped on Lib Dems at the moment I would think 2% is an underestimate.

    There is a huge hate cult going on out there, with people assigning all of the blame for the cuts to Nick Clegg et al.

  36. Actually I see a 3-4% slice that have gone to the Tories since the general election returning to the Lib Dems if they think the Tories are going to end up in power on their own i.e. with their right wing loons e.g. Redwood unchained.

  37. Roland Haines
    Sir bufton?
    Agreed. But his daghter is going in all likliehood to be a Labour MSP. Claudia Beamish, daughter of Sir Tufton Beamish MP (Cons) is a hot favourite for the Scotish Parliament if I have understood correctly

  38. No need to worry about my escape further. I’ve sorted it, thanks for suggestions. A quiet Mediterranean village will welcome our company (no TV).

    But our departure on April 26th is a big loss to the AV campaign and I now think that the Event was decided upon by palace staff (all Tories) on the basis that it would ensure the mass exodus of republicans and anti-soap, anti-Murdoch individuals, all of whom could be relied upon to be staunch AV supporters.

    Royalty killed AV -OK ( OK?).

  39. Long Live President Clegg?

  40. It’s a tricky one, and given that the Lib Dems have not been in power since the arrival of voting intention polls the pollsters are certainly in uncharted territory.

    In the 1980s (sorry to hark back again – but it’s the only point of reference I have) some felt that the polls underestimated Alliance support because most people would forget about the existence of the SDP and Liberals unless prompted.

    Believe it or not this did make a difference: I remember standing outside a polling station, with a partially concealed SDP rosette pinned to my lapel, during the 1982 London Borough elections. Along came a mother and son: they didn’t really notice me (as I am generally of little consequence) but they did happen to look down the list of candidates displayed on the notice on the door of the church hall. They started intimating they would vote Labour – but then suddenly exclaimed “Oh look – SDP candidates” and changed their minds then and there.

    Because of this “awareness” issue, the order in which the various pollsters asked their political questions did result in a bit of a disparity in trms of the level of Alliance support registered. Those who asked about voting intention first (e.g. MORI) tended to measure support for the SDP and Liberals at slightly lower levels than those who only asked V.I. after asking about levels of satifaction with the party leaders (e.g. Gallup until 1987).

    If memory serves, a senior Liberal politician was even quoted in The Guardian newspaper as accusing MORI of asking biased questions (so frustrated was he with what was then called “Question Order Effect”). But he retracted the remark when my boss (Bob Worcester) threatened legal action.

    Nowadays, forgetting the existence of the Lib Dems is not likely to arise (after all – they are in government) and so this factor should not result in any underestimation of their level of support in the polls. But as Anthony says – their current association with unpopular cuts may well result in the phenomenon of “shy Lib Dems”.

    The other factor which may cause an underscoring of Lib Dem support – and it’s one that Anthony has alluded to previously – is the fact that many left-leaning people in Tory/LibDem marginals will answer “Labour” in response to a general voting intention survey, but may for tactical considerations answer “Lib Dem” in response to those voting intention surveys that ask specifically about how they will vote “in this contituency”. However, this factor should automatically correct itself during the course of a general election campaign.

  41. @ HOWARD
    I suppose if NC and co were to give me the definite impression they were not so keen on Fairer Votes any more or more importantly were not fervently campaigning for it -then ‘I’m outa here’.

    Your politics is certainly principalled and that is to be applauded. I don’t aim to poke fun but rather to better understand the various motivations of Liberal Democrat identifiers.

    From what I have read, many supporters of fairer votes feel that the loss of the referendum on AV may obstruct progress for years to come as opponents use its failure as ammunition, but that the converse is not true, AV doesn’t automatically create momentum leading to STV.

    The sad thing for those who believe in a fair voting system is that without sufficient support behind it, AV is unlikely to be won, and STV could well remain a lifetime away for the simple reason that although many Con and Lab may suspect that it is the right thing to do, they will act out of presumed self-interest when in comes down to it.

    How would Dems tackle this problem? Greater engagement with Tory and Lab fringes perhaps?

    Do Dems feel let down by Blair when a deal was mooted and options investigated but in the end Labour thought (correctly as it happens) that they could win a second election without voting reform. Was Labour’s support for AV interpreted as genuine or come across to Dems as too little, too late? Perhaps there is a presumption that certain Tories will come out in support of AV?

    Is AV seen only as a stepping stone to STV (or similar) or a fairer system in its own right? I presume that it is likely to have the effect of making voters feel like their vote counts, whilst actually having a small effect on seats (apart from in the case of landslides) but I may be wrong.

    And, of course, there is the matter that if STV ever came into being would the Liberal Democrats remain as a single entity, or split into Orange, SD and Green factions?

    Do supporters see the Lib Dems as a perpetual entity in itself or simply as an agent for change, and potentially ultimately its own destruction?

  42. @roland – neatly put. I can’t help feeling that this coalition has changed the face of British politics forever. I used to love Liberal manifestos (we promise to provide lifers with calming hash pipes, we promise to train all dogs not to use pavements as toilets, we promise to spend money on whatever people want and never have to tax them etc).

    We’ll never see the like of this again, as someone, somewhere in Cowley Street will look up and say – ‘are you absolutely sure we’re not going to be in power next week….?’

  43. @garry K – just posted a response on the last thread but don’t want to paste and confuse.


    … comprehend unsure Liberals turning anywhere but Labour is flawed. It seems a weakness with Labour supporters, but however sure you are about the greatness of the British Labour party, many millions disagree.


    All very well.

    But why would the Lib Dems of today turn “back” to the Conservatives?

    The Conservatives have failed to achieve 40% of the vote at a General Election since 1992. 18 years ago. A generation has been lost. And it does not appear inclined to return.

    2010 36.1%
    2005 32.4%
    2001 31.7%
    1997 30.7%

    These are very poor figures – at the elections which really count. And there is no solid reason (based upon current trends) to imagine that changing for the better in the near future.

    Relying on disaffected LibDems to get back to the days of 40%+ is all very well. But Righties like yourself need to realise that times have changed.

    You’d better keep crossing those fingers, Roland.

  45. I think one has to put oneself in the position of someone (at root Lab) who lives in a Con / LD marginal. These are the ones that matter to the LDs having got off the ground (as they have done).

    The Labour supporters in these seats have, over the years, awoken to FPTP and have recorded LD to pollsters who ask ‘how would you vote tomorrow here’.

    A steady proportion cannot abandon their background and still, even in 2010 voted Lab. Thus often handing victory to Con, still. The unhappy few.

    Those that held their nose did so on the belief that LD was ‘a bit social’.

    Now think of 2015. Those voters, a proportion of the 59% who polled ‘would consider voting Lib Dem if they thought they could win’, are faced with a choice.

    Do they punish then traitors or do they just shrug and let the Tory in again. In seats where LD scraped a victory (e.g. Somerton and Frome) what will they do?

  46. Zeph
    My last has flown into mod.

    You wrote:
    Do supporters see the Lib Dems as a perpetual entity in itself or simply as an agent for change, and potentially ultimately its own destruction?

    Anyone who joined aftyer 1980 – the last.

  47. Thanks for the reply Alec.

    It was good info, but I don’t feel much better for knowing it ;-)

  48. The Labour share of vote in the last two GE was the lowest since 1935 ( apart from 1983 / 1987 / 1992) . Labour was trounced in 1959 with a share of the vote well above 2005.

  49. zeph

    Do Dems feel let down by Blair. yes i’m bloody furius, PR in 97/98 would have split the blues and the reds could have tacked to the left and the whole country would have been better off. but oh no the reds want to pretend to be blue to get reelected and then when that doesn’t work they want our help only to drop us again when it suits them

    oh dear, i’m still upset

  50. Lib Dems and the cuts?
    It is not the cuts which are hitting the Lib Dems. The defectors and the shy are not backing away from cuts. They are feeling they have been tricked. People (including me) always think themselves cleverer than others and smart advertisers appeal to this. The family Robin H saw were thinking maybe voting SDP is a bit cleverer than my usual Labour vote. It proves I am thinking about things, weighing them up.
    A lot of Lib Dem voters thought voting Liberal is the smart thing to do often to keep out Conservatives or to have a smarter more modern conservative. How many told their partner or their parents or their work-mates that they were considering this smart move? Then the roof falls in because the smart move leaves the Tories in the driving seat able to look down on the pathetic lackeys (as the Lib Dem voters see them) like Clegg, Alexander, Laws etc and it makes the Lib Dem voter feel duped and stupid. that is what is not forgiven IMO of course.

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