The collapse in Liberal Democrat support since the election is startling. At the general election they recorded 24% (having hit 30%+ in some campaign polls, though we will never know for sure how much of that was down to polling error). By the end of the year, most polls showed them losing at least half their election support and in the case of some YouGov polls up to two-thirds.

The reasons why Liberal Democrat support has collapsed are fairly obvious. A Populus poll of people who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 in Lib Dem seats asked people in their own words why they voted Lib Dem and how they think they will end up voting at the next general election. In Populus’s poll the main reasons people gave for voting Lib Dem were believing in their values or principles, because they rated their local Liberal Democrat MP, because they thought it time for a change or didn’t like the main two parties, or as a tactical vote against Labour or Conservative.

As one can imagine, at least three of those reasons are now somewhat problematic – People who voted for the Liberal Democrats seeing them as a centre-left party pursuing liberal or social democratic policies may be unhappy seeing them working with a right of centre government (42% don’t think they will end up voting Lib Dem), people who voted for them as an idealistic alternative to the main two parties may not be happy seeing them working hand-in-glove with one of them (49%-50% don’t think they’ll vote Lib Dem next time), people who voted for them as an anti-Conservative tactical vote will obviously be less than chuffed (68% don’t think they’ll vote for them next time). The most loyal voters are obviously those who voted on the basis of their high opinion of the Lib Dem MP – but even there only 64% think they’ll remain loyal.

Unsurprisingly the main divide seems to be whether voters approve or disapprove of the coalition – most (but not all) of those Lib Dems voters who think the coalition was the right thing to do think they’ll back the party again, most (but not all) of those who disagree with the decision think they’ll end up voting for someone else.

If you look at where the lost Liberal Democrat support has gone (and I’m looking now at standard polls asking how people would vote tomorrow), the biggest chunks have gone straight over to Labour, or are saying they don’t know what they’d do at the next election. In YouGov’s final poll of the year only 24% of people who said they’d voted Lib Dem in 2010 said they’d support the party tomorrow, with 25% saying they’d vote Labour and 25% saying don’t know (the remainder split between voting Tory, Green, other parties or not voting at all).

The large chunk of former Lib Dems saying they don’t know what they’d do in an election tomorrow is, incidentally, a major reason behind the wide variance in the level of Lib Dem support different pollsters are showing. YouGov have tended to show the lowest levels of support with around 8 or 9 percent in their latest polls. ICM have tended to show the highest levels of support for the Lib Dems, with their last poll of the year showing them on 13 percent. Part of the reason for this is don’t knows – even ICM only actually find 11% of people saying they’ll vote Lib Dem – the 13% comes about because, based on past performance, ICM assume half of those former Lib Dems now saying don’t know will end up voting for the party in the long run.

Whether that turns out to be the case or not, it’s worth remembering that a fair chunk of those lost Liberal Democrats haven’t gone to Labour, or to minor parties or anywhere – they just don’t know what to do. Those people may yet defect to other parties or sit on their hands, or they may be won back for the Lib Dems in the fullness of time.

So what can the Lib Dems do to try and win those voters back? There are no easy answers. Some voters are probably out of reach for the time being – the Lib Dems used to win both anti-Labour and anti-Conservative votes, they are unlikely to be able to play both sides in the future. The second problem is that the Liberal Democrats could previously be a purist party that said all the right things, unburdened by the unpleasant compromises of government. A colleague characterised it to me as the Lib Dems fighting the last general election as if they were a virtuous maiden standing against two grizzled old whores, yet having got into government people have suddenly realised they were just like the other two. In a similar vein, the Lib Dems have often been able to trade on the popularity of their leaders – in 2001, 2005 and especially 2010 the Lib Dem party leader had the highest approval rating, Clegg now has the lowest approval rating.

The view of the Liberal Democrats seems to be that they need to highlight where they have made changes to government policy and to champion the more Liberal policies being introduced. This is probably right in principle, as polls increasingly show people are no longer sure what the Liberal Democrats stand for. As early as August 61% of people were saying it was “not very clear” or “not clear at all” what the Liberal Democrats stood for and YouGov’s regular trackers of party image have shown the proportion of people who think the description “It seems to chop and change all the time: you can never be quite sure what it stands for” applies best to the Liberal Democrats has gradually grown from 24% just after the coalition was formed to 36% now.

That doesn’t mean it is easy to do though, going back to the Populus poll of Lib Dem voters in Lib Dem seats, Populus asked whether people thought the Lib Dems had made a positive impact in various areas of government policy. In no case did more than a third of respondents think that the Lib Dems had made a positive difference to government policy – the highest was on welfare reform, where 32% said that the Lib Dems had made a positive difference, 26% thought they had made a positive difference on the spending cuts, in most other areas less than 20% thought the Lib Dems had made a positive impact. Remember this was a poll of Liberal Democrat voters in seats with Lib Dem MPs – these are the people most likely to think positively of the Liberal Democrats and be receptive to their messages, if even a chunky majority of them think the Lib Dems are not making a difference, then the party are clearly struggling to get the message across.

Looking at the threats and opportunities for the Lib Dems next year we have the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election. Labour are now the very strong favourite, but until we see some polling (and a company called Survation is apparently currently conducting one) I’m wary about writing the Liberal Democrats off. Recall the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election, fought at a time when the Liberal Democrats were polling almost as badly as they are today (they had just jettisonned Ming Campbell and stood at 11% in the polls), they still managed to win the by-election from Labour on a hefty swing. It would be a big boost to the party if they pulled it off. (as someone has pointed out in the comments, I’ve mixed up my Lib Dem interregnums – Dunfermline was after Charles Kennedy’s ousting, not Ming’s, and the Lib Dems weren’t in such a bad way.)

Secondly there are some policy areas that are due to be dealt with that they may be able to point to as Lib Dem achievements – such as House of Lords reform, control orders, or taxes on bankers (some of these things risk being the cause of arguments within the coalition too!)

Thirdly there are the local elections and the AV referendum in May. The local elections are likely to see the same sort of hefty losses for the Lib Dems that I predicted for the Conservatives yesterday. That brings us to the AV referendum – if it is won, then the Liberal Democrats will have something utterly solid they can tell their activists and supporters the coalition has delivered, if it is lost, then it will be a further blow to Lib Dem morale.

Is there a point when the Liberal Democrat position in the polls gets so bad they withdraw from the coalition (or the party splits?) – I don’t know, I don’t pretend to have any great insight into the views of Liberal Democrat MPs or activists. My guess is that the chances are greatly overestimated by people who would like it to collapse (the truth is I think we all overestimate the chances of exciting and interesting things happening!). Being outside the coalition wouldn’t necessarily help the Liberal Democrats much in the polls (it would give them the independence to promote their own policies, but the damage to their image has already been done) and the last thing the Liberal Democrats would want to risk in their present situation is an early election. I expect, like the Conservatives, Nick Clegg’s strategy is dependent upon seeing the job through until the economy has recovered and then pointing to what the Lib Dems have achieved and contributed to that.

When writing these round ups I try to present the good and the bad news. By necessity, this has ended up as a very pessimistic piece for the Liberal Democrats, though what can you do for a party that has lost half its support within a year? The harsh truth is that it’s not easy to see a light at the end of the tunnel for the party. So for a more optimistic point of view, I’ll leave you with a quote from Mark Pack (personally I think a by-election victory would be more likely to change things than scrapping control orders, but there goes – Mark’s pieces on the 2011 challenges for the Lib Dems are also highly recommended):

“Imagine if at the end of next month control orders had been scrapped and there was Lib Dem MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth. The political landscape would look very different.”

150 Responses to “End of year round up – the Lib Dems”

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  1. Always worth remembering that the Populus poll was of England & Wales only.

    We really have little information as to the likely fate of the LDs in Scotland in May 2011.

    While Barney and I are in (rare! :-) ) agreement that their prospects are dismal, it isn’t yet clear who the principal beneficiaries will be.

  2. Oldnat – for May we do have this Scottish MORI poll.

    Bad in the constituency vote, but not that disastrous* for them in the regional vote (since they didn’t perform that well in the regional vote in 2007 either). I don’t have a Scottish Parliament swing calculator to hand to work out the implications of those shares.

    (*compared to GB polling, that is. Still horrid)

  3. Crudely I would characterise the LibDem year as almost the opposite of the Tories.

    Great up to 10pm on polling day, and then disastrous. I was standing with a group of LibDem activists outside the NIA hall in Birmingham, watching the BBC and waiting for the count to start. They were happily talking up their chances, a breakthrough expected. Then the exit poll came in. Silence, followed by a lone voice “That’s wrong”. You could almost hear the dreams shattering on the cold concrete floor….

  4. Scotland?
    On the Mori figures, the Lib Dems would have about 9 seats which would be nirvana for them as it would open the possibility for them to offer Labour a chance of a majority (just) coalition but things seem to have moved against them since then

  5. Barney

    It’s an interesting speculation (and I’m not expecting an honest view from a candidate! :-) ) as to whether Labour in Holyrood would actually want allies to form a coalition.

    They would much more easily be able to mount meaningless confrontations with Westminster from the positioon of a minority government.

  6. Oldham and Saddleworth by-election. Labour are now the very strong favourite, but until we see some polling (and a company called Survation is apparently currently conducting one) I’m wary about writing the Liberal Democrats off.
    Thank you, Anthony – & Mark Pack. Some sensible comment on O&S. It’ll be interesting to see if the Survation polling confirms the LD’s own canvassing (which allegedly shows they are leading).

  7. It would be interesting to compare Scottish constituencies with English ones.

    Scottish LibDem’s constituents arn’t directly affected by tuition fees (though Scottish Government money is); there were votes against, and the incumbency vote is strong.

    On the other hand, the SNP is presenting itself as the anti-Lab, anti-Con party and has a strong rural appeal.

    That might result in fewer defections and the SNP rather than Labour gaining votes, but little or no change in seats.

  8. oldnat @ Barney

    “It’s an interesting speculation … whether Labour in Holyrood would actually want allies to form a coalition.

    They would much more easily be able to mount meaningless confrontations with Westminster from the position of a minority government.”

    The SNP wouldn’t do that?

  9. John B Dick

    That was the press fuelled assumption when the SNP formed the Government. It hasn’t really happened, and the demonstration of that will be comparison with the next 4 years – if Labour win.

  10. I have to say, from an Anglo-centric perspective, that the SNP government has looked and sounded far more competent and “normal” than I would ever have expected. I was really quite surprised by the mood-music after the coalition was formed. It very much appeared that Salmond’s first priority was a good working relationship, rather than nationalistic or party political concerns.

  11. Where is this optimism about LD chances in Old and Sad coming from? Surely every party claims it’s canvassing is going well. Noone wants the electorate to believe their party has no chance (well, perhaps apart from the Tories..)

    I have scoured the internet, and the Oldham and Saddleworth thread on this site, and I haven’t identified anything that suggests that there are special local factors that would hold the LD vote up. Understand the remark about the Dunfermline by-election, but that was still in the context of an “anti-government protest” election. Surely noone can expect anything similar to happen now the LDs are in government?

  12. Neil A

    “Where is this optimism about LD chances in Old and Sad coming from?”

    From Amber (in her pre-partisan mode).

  13. @ Neil A

    I was really quite surprised by the mood-music after the coalition was formed.
    Are you referring to Westminster? Holyrood has a minority SNP administration not a coalition.

    Are you suggesting the Tories could’ve/ could yet take a leaf from the SNP’s book & run a minority Westminster government?

  14. @ Neil A

    Or are you talking about the meeting that Alex Salmond had with David Cameron? I think AS would be polite towards any reasonable Westminster government because he doesn’t care who is in power in Westminster.

  15. An interesting piece Anthony, thanks. It’s tempting to think that after tuition fees, the Lib Dems have hit the bottom and can now build upwards. With cuts starting to bite, I suspect there’s worse to come over the next 6 to 12 months. After that there’s potential for rebuilding depending on how much they can win in coalition between now and the next election. A hefty price has been paid up front. It remains to be seen what they get for it. Maybe value for money can still be achieved. It always was a long shot but it may yet play out as they hope.

    Talk about a collapsing coalition or a party split endlessly amuses me. Nothing could be worse for the Lib Dems and they know it. They need the next election to be as far away as possible to give them the time needed to rebuild. They’d not going to pull the plug on the coalition. As for a split, apart from concern over the way Clegg is playing things, there’s no serious division within the party. Revolt will be to take their party back not split it up. 2011 is going to be a VERY interesting year.

  16. amber

    i think Neil is saying that the SNP govt in Scotland appears to be very grown up in it’s dealings with the new lib-dem lead govt

    i would tend to agree and i would also say that they look like the natural party of govt in scotland, i think they will be hard to beat

    but as an Englishman living abroad,,i know nothing

  17. The Lib Dems plight is far worse than had they formed an albeit more rickety rainbow coalition with Labour, the nationalist parties, the Greens and other fellow travellers. Had they done so, notwithstanding the difficulties involved, and even though they would have incurred the wrath of Murdoch and his dark forces, and the Tories would have screamed daylight robbery, they would have remained comfortable in their own political skins. Instead they’ve been inveigled into a centre right coalition that is, repugnant and repellent to the majority of their voters, activists and MPs. I fear they’ve changed their party forever, mutating from a legitimate and authentic party of the left to an unwitting adjunct of the Tory party.
    Therein lies, I think, their ultimate ruination.

  18. @ Neil A
    Well, there is one special local factor is OE&S which could help the LD’s, namely that the previous incumbent – a certain Mr Woolas – was removed in disgrace.
    Who benefits from the Woolas effect is, however, open to conjecture. He was a rather populist figure with firm views on immigration in particular. Could this favour the Tories? Especially given the surburban and affluent nuture of the constituency.

  19. “So what can the Lib Dems do to try and win those voters back? There are no easy answers”.


    To blindly tow the line is not how coalitions generally work in other parts of the EU. Thus far, it seems that the LibDems have not grasped this fact.

    From here on, if they wish to get some of their lost vote back, they simply must stand for things which are unquestioably left of centre (social democratic if you will) – and be seen to achieve them or at least vote against the Conservative party on them en masse.

    And they must do this on several occassions.

    I’d go further, ultimately, at the right moment, they ought probably to bring the coalition down.

    Anything less than the above sees them inextricably interwoven as part and parcel of a Conservative administration.

  20. colin green

    i think it could be good to collape the govt, have new elections and a labour govt. then we can sit on the sidelines throwing rocks at them as they refuse to reverse tuition fees, make deep cuts into the welfare budget, cuts in the NHS? and bring forward trident……………………….

    being in govt would serve em right

  21. RiN

    “the new lib-dem lead govt” :-)

    Fortunately, you took yopur sense of humour with you!

  22. More generally, I think that 2011 will be a real annus horribilis for European Liberals. They are poised to lose at least three of their actual five PMs: Rasmussen (Denmark), Kivinemi (Finland) and Cowen (Eire) – in the latter case with a tremendous decrease in votes and seats. They also poll very badly in all six state elections scheduled for 2011 in Germany, making thus impossible the formation of a center-right coalition in any of them. Add to this the predictable bad result of LD in Scotland and Wales and the poor ratings of IDV in Italy (they no longer are the second most important party of the center-left coalition, as they trail not only the PD but also the newly founded SEL). The only exception is Estonia, but only because the main opposition party is also liberal (KESK, center-left) , as the governing one (ER, center-right), so there will be an ELDR Prime Minister in either case.

  23. @Virgilio
    Very interesting. But is this a sign of a genuine collapse in the European Liberal vote, or merely the result of a general polarisation caused by difficult economic times?

  24. @ RIN

    My imaginary scenario for 2011 (with apologies to David Cameron, it’s nothing personal):

    The PM has to be absent for many months due to (??? fill in yourself). Nick Clegg is deputy & absolutely believes he should be acting PM. The Tories would likely have other ideas. The UK constitution is silent on this subject (I believe) so what happens next?

    I’d love to know what Anthony & UKPR posters think could happen – both sensible & bizarre scenarios welcome. :-)

  25. amber

    that’s easy

    during PM questions, clegg makes a formal and sincere apology for the unnecessary pain and suffering caused by the illegal invasion of irak that the UK participated in he go’s on to say that an arrest warrant will be issued for a certain tony Blair on charges of war crimes and treason, the entire house is silent

    then Liam fox jumps to his feet, grabs the mace swinges it a couple of times round his head before landing a horrid blow to clegg’s nogin, immediately a great cheer goes up from the labour and tory benches…………………

  26. @Nick Hadley

    “The Lib Dems plight is far worse than had they formed an albeit more rickety rainbow coalition with Labour”

    Had they done that, they would have been in direct contravention of their promise to try to form a government with the party winning the most support in the election. Or have you conveniently forgotten that? I think the very idea that the Lib Dems would have propped up a government with a rickety majority, after Labour had won 29% of the vote, is quite preposterous.

    No, the Lib Dems would have been in a much, much worse situation even than the one they are in now had they joined up with Labour. Same cuts, same blame, same poll ratings, with the pro-Tory voters deserting in even greater droves. And they would be allied with a party that would be unable to present a coherent programme of cuts, leading to massive financial and economic turbulence.

    Only clinging on for grim life to the coalition, making a bigger noise about what has been achieved (e.g. £10,000 personal allowance) and waiting for economic recovery will help the Lib Dems’ poll rating recover.

  27. @RAF
    Maybe it is both. Traditional liberal vote is collapsing because of the emergence of more “modernist” tendencies, as are the Greens and because of their almost total identification with the right. Maybe I do not fully understand all the reasons behind this collapsing, but the fact remains that it is the only European political family that is not poised to have success in any country whatsoever, whilst all the others have both positive and negative perspectives according to the circumstances in each country (e.g. Socialists positive in Germany, Eire, Denmark, negative in Finland and Spain, Popular Party positive in Poland and Spain, negative in Germany and Italy, Greens positive almost everywhere except Eire, and so on).

  28. Old Nat
    It is hard to comment on some issues when a candidate but in honesty I think Labour if short of a majority should try to form a coalition because it would be best for Scotland.

  29. RiN


    Have you started celebrating a Norwegian or English Hogmanay?

    A Scots one would be far more dour. I liked this description from Kenneth Roy –

    “Few of the men I knew in my childhood would let a drop of alcohol pass their lips before midnight; it was considered bad luck. On the stroke of midnight the drinking began in an earnest and dedicated fashion; it continued for 24 hours, perhaps longer, interrupted or at least alleviated by black buns and watery stews. It was never permissible to be happy. The core underlying principle of the Scottish New Year was the expression of an unfathomable sadness. It was like a mass funeral without the bodies.”

  30. I must admit I shared the same view as AW a few days ago, given chiefly the crass faux pas by VC. I thought that he would have destroyed the willingness of DC and co to tolerate the LDs any longer and thus the right wing plan would work. DC could have over-reacted, the damage could have been irreparable and he could have gone to the country subsequently on a pretext.

    However, I forgot that he does not have enough percentage to ensure a victory so thus the ‘sensible’ side would have ruled his attitude as much as his magnanimous side.
    But DC has behaved both sensibly and impeccably and it’s now forgotten, i believe just a subject of amusement and chuckling. Good job the undercover journos were pretty.

    So the Tories are stuck with the LDs just as much as the reverse and it will get worse in the polls as the cuts begin (remember first significant cut in spending (your spending) comes with the VAT increase on Jan 1st.

  31. Barney

    Thanks for the response.

    On the other hand, you don’t get sent crates of Peroni by voting for what’s best for Scotland! :-)

    (Which was the point I made [loudly] to the staff of an excellent Italian restaurant in Glasgow last night, in explanation of why none of the party would ever drink Peroni again).

  32. @ Old Nat

    If Labour won a plurality of the seats in the Scottish Parliament, do you think they’d form a coalition with the SNP? Or do the parties generally tend not to like each other?

    I’d imagine that a Lib-Lab pact might not work becausae the Lib Dems would look too strange being in a coalition with the Tories in Westminster and Labour might see the Lib Dems as the enemy right now.

  33. virgillio i think you will find that fine gael )centre right( will be the next government in Ireland. Theres even talk in Ireland, of Fine Gael (conservatives) forming a Coalition with Irish Labour.

  34. Howard

    “the VAT increase on Jan 1st.”

    Jan 4th

  35. I had coffee with a friend of mine today who’s a political strategist. He shared with me that some of the Lib Dems he knows were happy with being in the coalition. He also suggested that in the long run, being in government would be helpful for the Lib Dems. He explained that the Lib Dems could shed their image as a protest vote. By actually being in government, they gained some credibility as those who could be trusted in government and relied upon as leaders. He likened it to resume building. I was curious to get your thoughts on this.

  36. My earlier post should have included the word ‘also’ in the first sentence. In other words I feared that VC might have been the straw that………. But the rest of my post hopes to propose that the Cons are as vulnerable to a breakdown as the LDs.

  37. let’s add to the fun. In May if Labour makes good gains (hope so) will we see Lab-Lib local coalitions springing up? We had one in Charnwood from 2003-2007. Nice contrast to see Libs in coalition with Lab locally and Cons nationally.

    I am sure that Lib-Lab is more realistic than Lib-Con, but given the GE arithmetic the current coalition was the only possibility

  38. Old Nat
    Thanks. Still 5 days before the Green Mile is walked then.

  39. SoCalLiberal

    At a guess, your friend’s LD contacts are English. They were probably unaware that the LDs were in coalition in power in Scotland for 8 years.

    While being in coalition with Labour here did them no harm at all, their (currently) “Brief Encounter” with the Tories in England/UK looks like it has already been more damaging to them than it would have been to Celia Johnson’s marriage if she had actually gone to bed with Trevor Howard.

    (The above will be totally incomprehensible unless you have seen the 1945 English film!)

  40. @SoCalLiberal,

    I don’t think the LibDems being in two politically conflicting coalitions at once is a practical or constitutional problem of any kind. I think the problem would be a political one. Such an arrangement would provide excellent cover for the LibDems, allowing them to air their centre-left credentials, and their pragmatism, in a way that tempers the effects of their Westminster arrangement with the Tories. LibDem ministers in Scotland could rail against decisions from Westminster that LibDem ministers the UK are obliged to support.

    It is for this reason that I seriously doubt that it will happen. Labour would not want to hand such a life-raft to a party that they mean to try and destroy utterly. An SNP-LibDem government might work (particularly with tacit, but not open, Tory support) because the SNP don’t have to worry about UK-wide consequences.

  41. Old Nat
    I saw the film. She did.

  42. So this friend of yours whose a political strategist is it his day job? I do hope not, ‘cos if he honestly believes that load of rubbish he isn’t very good at it.

    The Libdems are heading for a disaster in Old&Sad. a disaster in the referendum and wipe out in the locals.

  43. My wife says she didn’t.

  44. @Eric,

    What excellent timing! Yes I think May will see a lot more support from the LDs of minority Labour councils. This won’t be a problem at all for the LDs, but Labour might be quite grudging about it. They’d rather LD councillors defected to Labour than remain LD and regain their credibility through centre-left policies at a local level.

  45. I quite believe that SoCalLiberal’s friend is being told those things by LibDems. I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re hoping will happen. Are they right? Dunno, but I am certainly not putting any money on it.

  46. Howard

    “Stephen”, whose room they were going to use to form the coalition, returned early and prevented the consummation.

    As was appropriate for a 1945 English film, temptation was there, submitted to – but events prevented the nasty thing actually happening!!!

  47. Socal’s point does make me wonder how many councils are Lab / LD coalitions. Anyone have it at their finger tips?

    Certainly it is the wish of every English LD that this happens in Scotland.

  48. Nice work from AW.

    On the longevity of the coalition though (“… we all overestimate the chances of exciting and interesting things happening!”), I somehow doubt that it feels very “stong and stable” on the inside.

    The comeback of Lord Hestletine (biting into more of Vince Cable’s portfolio), may be a sign of Cameron’s sense of becoming semi-detached from the Tory party.

    Working relations will have been severely damaged by the Telegraph’s undercover operation.

    As Chris Todd points out, the LD’s (on anything other than Nick Clegg’s constitutional projects) may increasingly feel that the only way to influence policy is to vote against, which would then embolden 40 or so potential tory rebels to act on their greivances.

    A good showing in the forthcoming by-election may only postpone the inevitable… fireworks and a sudden end to the coalition.
    Alternatively we could see an increasingly timorous administration, cramped and wary of provoking division (unless of course LD’s learn to mutely accept their fate).

  49. Howard

    Time for honesty – you identified with Howard because of his name (actually Howard-Smith), and you really fancied Celia Johnson.

    Hence your idea that he had succeeded where your fantasy had taken you. :-) :-)

  50. david

    go stick your head in a bucket

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