Depending on which pollster’s figures you look at the Liberal Democrats have lost between a quarter and a half of their support since the last election. Where has it gone? Who will lose out if they recover?

The graphs below shows the voting intention of respondents in ICM’s polls for respondents who said they voted for each of the main parties in 2005*. When I started this post I was going to look just at the Lib Dems, but actually it is as interesting to look at the others too. Hopefully it’s self explanatory which is which – white is those who told ICM their chance of voting was less than 7/10, grey the don’t knows and won’t says, purple other parties and gold, red, blue are Lib Dem, Labour and Conservative. Looking at the individual breaks on each graph can’t tell us much – the sample size is small and the figures erratic – so these are rolling averages of the three most recent polls.


Looking at those people who told ICM they voted Tory in 2005 they remain very loyal. Over 70% consistently say they would vote Tory again, what leakage there is goes mostly to don’t knows and not sure to votes – very few people who voted Tory in 2005 say they’ll vote for other parties, and when they do it has a tendency to be for “other” parties like UKIP. Even at the height of the Brown bounce few would vote for Labour. The 2005 Tory vote is solid.


Moving to Labour we should add a caveat. People who tell ICM they voted Labour in 2005 are not necessarily the same as people who actually voted Labour in 2005. Because of false recall many of those people who say they voted Labour are actually people who didn’t vote at all, or people who actually voted tactically (or as a protest) for the Lib Dems. Hence the reason why former Labour voters look less likely to vote may just be because they didn’t actually vote last time either!

Looking at how people who say they voted Labour say they will vote now we can see a substantial wedge don’t know or aren’t sure if they will. While Tony Blair was Prime Minister the proportion of Labour voters staying loyal was only just above 50% (if that sounds low, remember again that the chances are not all these people really voted Labour), with a big wedge of former Labour voters defecting to the Conservatives, Lib Dems and others. There is an obvious step change at the point when Gordon Brown takes over as PM: since Brown became Prime Minister he has attracted back a significant proportion of those disloyal Labour voters, putting Labour’s vote retention back into the region of 60%. However, having been split between Lib Dems, Conservatives and others, in the three months since then though the remaining ‘disloyal’ Labour voters have coalesced around the Conservatives.


Finally we come to the Lib Dems. Whereas with those people who said they voted Labour in 2005 probably includes people who didn’t, people tend to under-remember voting Lib Dem – this sample probably misses out many Lib Dems. Looking at the graph the Lib Dems are only retaining around half of those people who claim to have voted Lib Dem in 2005, and since Gordon Brown became leader that has fallen further, now down into the low 40s. The interesting bit is looking at the group of former Lib Dem voters now backing other parties. This was around 18% or so of 2005 Lib Dem voters when Blair was PM, and they were mostly backing the Tories. It’s grown since then to almost a quarter, but those voters have been swinging about, first backing Labour and then moving back towards the Conservatives.

So looking at these breakdowns what can we tell? Firstly past conservative voters are solid. Past Labour voters swung back to Labour after Brown became leader, and that renewed support hasn’t faded, Labour might be behind again in the polls but the past Labour supporters Brown won back haven’t gone anywhere, they are still sticking with him. Unless that changes Labour aren’t going back to the depths they experienced prior to Brown becoming PM. The movement and the recent Conservative recovery has all been amongst the floating voters who backed Labour or Lib Dem in 2005 but aren’t anymore. Those former Labour voters have gathered behind the Tories in the last few months, 2005 Lib Dem voters looking for someone else to support have backed first Labour and then the Tories.

So back to the question of what happens if the Lib Dems recover, who will they take support from? Well, amongst past Lib Dem voters far more have defected to the Tories than Labour, if people came back in direct proportion to who they are backing now it would damage the Conservatives more. It doesn’t necessarily work like that though – the people who have drifted away from the Lib Dems in the last few months may be more likely to come back, and they would appear to be more likely to be backing Labour. It may also depend up who the Lib Dems select- conventional wisdom is that Nick Clegg would be better at attracting Tory votes, Huhne better at attracting Labour votes. My own suspicion is that it probably doesn’t make much difference where the Lib Dems are placed ideologically, it will be more important how successful the new leader is at getting media coverage and once again becoming part of the mainstream media agenda, rather than being rather sidelined as the Lib Dems seemed to be under Ming Campbell.

*Not all the figures are on ICM’s tables, so I’ve assumed that the difference between the number of people who gave their likelihood of voting at 7 or above and the total of those who did give voting intentions is made up of don’t knows and won’t says. The proportions supporting each party would be much the same anyway.

37 Responses to “Where have the Lib Dems gone?”

  1. Anthony,

    Good post, as ever.

    It’s been obvious for a long time that the LibDems are the most likely to switch so the graphs don’t really tell us that much. What I think it does highlight is how important targeting the LibDems is to Labour and the Tories if they want to win the next election.

    On the risk of being exiled to another thread I’d ask if the figures from Scotland show anything different. I suspect that what we would see is that when you factor in a 4 party system instead of a 3 party one, the drift in LibDem support would be about the same.


  2. Anthony,

    Does this pattern happen with all pollsters?

  3. Peter – really is impossible to say, you’d need to have the cross-breaks themselves broken by region, and you don’t get cross-breaks of cross-breaks in standard tables (sample sies would be things like 4 people anyway ;) )

    Ralph – haven’t done a detailed examination. ICM have been making the data available consistently for the longest period of time, so they provided the most to go on. The only other pollster where there may be enough to have a detailed examination is Populus, but they normally only do a single poll per month while ICM often do ones for the Mirror or Sunday Telegraph, so it wouldn’t be so robust anyway.

  4. Comres also publish similar figures in their detailed data . It is a long established fact that LibDem support is less firm than Labour and Conservative but it should be noted too that they have more to gain than lose from movement between parties . If their support is say 20% and they lose 1/4 of all their voters they would go down to 15% but a gain of 1/10th of voters from other parties would put them up to 23% .
    I seem to recall a study into the 2 general elections of 1974 which showed a vast change in support and voting for the Liberals as they then were between the 2 elections .

  5. Agreed with Mark.

    The Lib-Dems will at the next election lose voters and seats to the Tories. They did even under Howard, there’s no way that in 2009/2010 Cameron will not out-poll Howard/Hague/Major in ’97

    However what they lose on one hand, they could gain on the other. If Labour performs worse in the next election than it did in the last then the Lib-Dems could make up ground in that churn.

    It makes sense surely for the Lib-Dems to target whichever party is going down. In the recent past that was the Conservatives, but there’s surely little chance of that in 2009?

    If I was Lib-Dem leader, I’d target Labour and position my party as the one for disgruntled Labour voters to go to rather than the Conservatives. If that blue chunk of the Labour vote is soft, then the Lib-Dems could make up the ground they are losing by turning it gold.

  6. “there’s no way that in 2009/2010 Cameron will not out-poll Howard/Hague/Major in ‘97”

    in terms of % share of the vote I wouldn’t be surprised if Cameron failed to gain the same figure as Howard in 2005.With two,soon to be three, relatively new party leaders I suspect the polls will look substantially different by 2009/10. Now, if Cameron enjoys a healthy poll lead for the next 18 months, and overtakes Brown in terms of leadership and, more importantly, the economy , you may be right.But that’s a lot of ‘ifs’. Usually there’s a seismic event that does for a government.The winter of discontent for Callaghan,Black Wednesday for Major.Iraq was Blair’s.Brown, as yet, hasn’t had the earthquake that pulls the electoral rug from beneath him..

    Good analysis as ever, Anthony.

  7. Howard got 33.24% of the vote, you seriously think Cameron’s Conservatives will get less than that Brian? :o

    Even at the height of the Brown bounce the Conservatives were regularly polling above 33%, only a single poll put them on 32%

    I disagree with the common analysis that Iraq was Blair’s “Winter of Discontent” or “Black Wednesday”, let’s not forget he won the last election 2 years after the Iraq war.

  8. Anthony, thanks for the explanation.

    Brian, for Cameron to do worse than Howard Brown has to do better than he did during his bounce.

  9. Yes, I could see circumstances in which Cameron could poll less than Howard’s share of the vote.Bitter experience has taught me never to confuse a mid term opinion poll lead with actual vote share once the polls close.If Cameron has maintained the lead for 18 months then you may be right, but voters don’t vote on whether or not someone has a wind turbine on their chimney.

    As for Blair winning the election.He won the election with barely 36% of the vote, having lost 5% since 2001. I’d say that’s pretty seismic in historical terms.Thankfully he had Howard as an opponent….

  10. It seems to be coming quite clear that the Lib-Dems reached their zenith in terms of seats in 2005. They had a likeable and quite charismatic leader in Charles Kennedy and, of course, the advantage of the public’s aversion to the disastrous Iraqi venture. Such circumstances are unlikely to reoccur. We saw in the summer how Cameron’s gaffes over grammar schools and the floods damaged his credibility. Can he guarantee that such misjudgments will not be repeated? As Macmillan remarked, ‘Events, dear boy, events….’ Brown’s foolish indecision over the putative 2005 election took the gloss off him – but only to a degree – he still outpolls Cameron on strength, leadership and the economy.

  11. Blair won in the wake of the Iraqi war because Howard couldn’t use it against him, the Tories had backed the war.

    That effectively meant that, though Blair had miscalculated badly on how the war and it’s aftermath would go, any fall out went to a party that couldn’t win, and which would hurt the Tories, his only real competition, just as much.

    Next time that might not happen, although given the amount of triangulation between the Brown and Cameron we could again see a situation where if one part makes a mistake on policy the party with the same policy can’t exploit it.


  12. Well, anything can happen in three years, but I think the chance the Conservatives will poll less than 33% is extremely remote.

    Sometimes, the electoral cycle turns without any seismic event, as in 1964. The people were just fed up with the Conservatives then.

  13. See Question time last night with the Lib Dem hopefuls? It might expain why they are in such poor shape. The follow up programme had significantly fewer post programme text messages and emails than usual.
    The Lib Dem websites seem undecided on the outcome and a bit dissappointed by the performance of their new media face Nick Clegg.
    The outcome of the LibDem race is tied to Cameron’s fortunes. If he stays on course, Clegg will remain in front.

    I agree with Phillip Thompson’s analysis, namely that it makes sense to go for the weakest link. However, events are likely to dictate they will do precisely the opposite.
    It seems to make such obvious sense to pick at the Labour party’s left where even Brown’s traditional supporters are expressing discontent.
    Anyone desperate to get rid of the Govt will vote Tory or tactically, and only for the LibDems if they can not bring themselves to vote Tory. The LDs do the best when they do the political splits [or reject the left-right axis as they like to say]. It has to be Hulne! The Tories have said they would not go into a coalition in any event. The LD websites accept that. Gordon will not want to give up power even in a hung Parliament. They have to be able to work with Labour.

  14. Sally C,

    The problem for the Libdems is that with the policies of the othe two so close, how do they target one, not the other, and no risk either hitting the wrong target or alienating the middle ground.

    Both Brown and Cameron can to an extent rely on traditional loyalty to keep their core supporters on board while they shift to attract their opponents floaters, but as Anthonys graph shows the libDems don’t have anything like as large or solid a core vote, and any rapid shift could see to many votes melt away to different parties.

    That’s their problem, the cores not big enough to keep them their seats and not solid enough for them to pivot on like Brown or Cameron.

    (Does “pivot on” make sense for a discription of triangulation… it does to me but I might be wrong)


  15. Peter,

    Thank you. Are you saying they are doomed?
    I thought they might be the long run. I can not see either of the prospective leaders working well with Mr Brown to form an effective Govt. I do not believe the English would be happy with a coalition Govt at Westminster. Not sure about the Scots/Welsh? But that is the LDs problem – without PR they can only be a devisive presence at Westminster and as such, anyone who is not committed [not many it would seem] will reject them.

    But another analysis would suggest they will not get that far. Where then? Doing battle with you, in Scotland? If Labour is unpopular and rejected both north and south of the border, we could end up with two parties in power/oppostion at Westminster and two completely different parties in the same roles Edinburgh.

  16. Peter is correct the Lib Dems have no solid core vote. What was striking from the graphs above is that the Conservatives have the strongest core vote and they will always (baring some disaster) have 30-33%. A very good basis on which to build to c. 40%.

  17. I think the days of Liberal votes coming from tactical voting to oust Tories is over – the Liberals are literally fighting for their political lives – we are hopefully heading for a better 2 party system where a minor 3rd party does’nt dictate the goevernment of the day for their own ends .

    Interesting watching a local North East news coverage of Cameron’s visit to the area this week – interviewing some lifelong Labour voters – their response was that they like the look of Cameron and had heard good things about him and would consider voting for the Tories in the future as they were feeling alienated by Labour .

    The Tory vote is holding up well in the North East (Labour’s oldest heartland) , that’s why Cameron has made his visit this week / Stockton-on-Tees council has just fallen into Tory hands .

  18. How has Stockton council fallen into Tory hands when they have just 13 councillors out of 56 ????

  19. Mike,

    “The days of Liberal votes coming from tactical voting to oust the Tories is over”. I think you may right about general anti-Tory votes. However I think it is possible for some of the traditional Labour vote which has been soft to firm up at the prospect of a Tory win. This may to some extent, result in Labour building up extra votes in their heartlands. We shall see.

    Labour obviously think Clegg will hurt Cameron. One Labour minister is reported as saying, “This can’t possibly hurt us”.
    I am not so sure. If Clegg is perceived as too like Cameron, any anti-Tory Labour voters are unlikely to collect around him and there is a chance that at least some Tory voters will vote tactically in Lab/Lib contests to oust Labour.
    There is alot of attention on the possibility of the Libdems being King-makers, but the more people talk about it the less likely they are to vote for it due the natural aversion to a hung parliament, at least in England.
    The issue we may be more likely to face after the next election, is the Conservatives with more votes and Labour with more seats.
    The potential implications in the event of this outcome for the electoral system and the Union are huge. Whilst the Tories got 250,000 more votes last time in England, this was only marginally outside precidents set by previous elections. A massive differential would cause a huge outcry. A clear Tory victory would have what effect on Scotland?

  20. “A clear Tory victory would have what effect on Scotland?”,

    I’d tell you, but Anthony says I am not allowed to do that here……


  21. “A clear Tory victory would have what effect on Scotland?”

    Little probably, any more than a clear Labour victory has what effect on the South.

  22. “Whilst the Tories got 250,000 more votes last time in England, this was only marginally outside precidents”

    In our system people take more notice of the number of seats.
    If the Tories had more seats than Labour In England and all the rest of it…….
    This issue could blow up after the next election if the Tories do well but not well enough.

  23. Mark Senior – Don’t let facts confuse the issues.In some peoples eyes the Conservatives having 13 seats out of 56 has to mean it has fallen into the Conservatives hands.It’s called wearing blue tinted spectacles.Get a pair and enjoy yourself.for goodness sake.

    Chin chin!

  24. Sally,

    What’s different now for the two main parties is that their leaders aren’t hate figures in the way, at least to some, their old leaders were.

    The Lib Dems have to work out which of the two choices they have will be able to hold the seats they have and win new ones. As it is unlikely that the Tories will do worse than 2005 the only area for the Lib Dems to gain seats is off Labour. Huhne could do that, Clegg probably can’t which might explain why Labour want him to win.

  25. Would I be wrong or are public sector professionals over 50 heavily over -represented in the LibDems? One feels a certain lack of enterprise.

  26. Talk of constitutional outrages or similar cataclysmic responses to the winning party having more seats and fewer votes is somewhat hyperbolic. That sort of result occurred in 1951 and again in Feb.,1974. The nation, rather more politically active and involved in those days, accepted the result. The Conservatives begged the Liberals to coalesce with them in 1974, but were summarily rejected.
    How many seats will the Lib-Dems lose at the next election? I estimate about 30, two of which could well be those of Messrs.Clegg and Huhne.

  27. John,

    In part you are right, the Tories need a swing of around 1.5% to wipe out the Labour majority but need to be circa 10 points ahead to get a majority. If the Tories were say five points ahead with no majority people would see that as unfair.

  28. if anybody really thinks cameron,and it is not a joke,will poll 33% or less at the next election get down to the bookies and make yourself a fortune.
    i am a conservative and clegg really anoys the hell out of stop dreaming about conservative switchers.the libdems will come back, eventually, when there is a brown black wednesday(i think it has already happened with northern rock,but the labour votes have not moved yet).the next election will be repeat of the 87 election where the left wing of the uk becomes split between labour and lib.

    conservative liberals are very comfortable with cameron.

  29. Is there any way of estimating what would be the outcome if Brown was ever brave enough to introduce a “fairer” voting system – perhaps if he saw defeat staring him in the face, and a coalition became the least worst option.
    (Probably the only type that could be carried through would be numbering votes in order of preference, rather than just put a single cross – whatever you call that).

  30. Ralph, the Tories do not need to be 10 points ahead. On a Universal Swing just between Labour and the Tories, they need that. But no election ever has universal swing. Plus all opinion polls suggest a Lib Dem -> Tory swing (as this thread is about in fact) in addition to a Labour -> Lib Dem swing.

    JohnH, that is called Transferable Vote. The Australians have it in the Commons, which is still constituency based like ours.

  31. Except the Aussie Lower House is not called the Commons.

  32. is reporting a new YouGov Poll for the Sunday Times: Con 41 (nc), Lab 35 (-3) LD 13 (+2)

    First YouGov poll wan 3 weeks ago, in-between we’re having the LD election and in the Queens Speech one of the governments biggest set pieces of the year. To still above 40% is something I am very happy with.

    Not sure who’d be more upset at this poll, Labour or the Lib Dems. For the LDs its good to be up, but they could hardly go down. After all the publicity they’ve had lately, to be on a mere 13% can not be encouraging!

  33. Second para should read: Last YouGov poll was 3 weeks ago, …

  34. While overall in 2005 Labour won more votes than the Conservatives (by just under 3%) they ended up with nearly 160 more seats. But in England, the Tories won more votes (by

  35. who ate my post ?

    In England the Tories won more votes (by

  36. I suspect (since even I can’t see it behind the scenes!) it had a “less than” sign in. WordPress seems to take it as the start of some html tag and doesn’t show it.

  37. Anthony,

    Thank you for that. It was indeed a “less than” sign, as in Con led Lab in England by less than 1%. Yet, Labour got 286 seats to 194 Con, 50% more seats with fewer votes.

    It would be “just one of those things” if the parties were fairly level – say on 36 & 37% respectively, but the seats fell say 290 vs 280 the other way around.

    That such a sharp disparity as seen in 2005 is what makes the current boundary distribution unfair, and could lead to real anger if the Tories are well ahead in share of the vote and still end up with fewer seats than Labour.