I’ve said on that twitter that, thanks to the wonders of our electoral system, the Lib Dems could be seeing net gains at the next election.
(In fact what I actually said was “UKIP on 25% means about 80 seats for the Lib Dems and 10 seats for UKIP”)
This has been met with consternation from some quarters. I have been drinking (One Gin and one Beer as it happens) and that sounds quite odd, probably so– I am Lib Dem core vote strange as it might seem and weren’t many of us to start out with – but this is not some weird theory – it’s a reading of the poll numbers – where UKIP support is coming from and, in a utterly seat predication model crushing scenario where UKIP do achieve 25% of the popular vote more or less across the board what the actual impact on individual seats is.
Keep your UNS at home
There’s a few things to get out the way here. The Universal Swing is dead. It hasn’t been very good at anything other than Labour to or from Tory swing since its inception and it’s become increasingly meaningless – especially where Lib Dem seats are involved.
If it was a valid model then the near million extra votes the Lib Dems achieved in 2010 would not have resulted in 5 losses.
The second thing to get out the way is that First Past the Post is not a fair system and has zero correlation with seats won. David Cameron won a minority of seats with a higher vote share in 2010 than Tony Blair achieved in 2005 when he won a handsome majority. The Lib Dems won 23% of the popular vote in 2010 and 9% of the available seats. Cry me a river.
FPTP is an arse – as UKIP are soon to find out.
Now back to the claim. On the assumption that UKIP win 25% of the Vote and the Lib Dems recover to around 10% of the vote, two things will likely happen.
UKIP will likely get lucky in the 5-10 of the 10 or so seats they are planning to target and rack up huge numbers of votes in all other seats resulting in good third and second places.
The Lib Dems will find it much easier to win and defend seats.
This counts for both Lib Dem defences and targets, and helps them disproportionally against the Tories.
This means a seat by seat analysis – which I will get onto – but first I want you to take a look at where UKIP’s 2015 votes are coming from – consider these polling info-graphs from You Gov: (First from Feb 2014 second from October 2014) and keep them in mind when discussing the seat by seat business.
The thing to remember about UKIP is that they are at heart an anti EU, Anti-Immigration and predominantly right wing party. This is a poor fit for that 30% of the population who vote or would consider voting Lib Dem, whereas that platform appeals to a great mass of Tory voters, and to a lesser but by no means insignificant extent, working class voters who usually vote Labour.
The one subset of 2010 Lib Dem voters UKIP does appeal to are those disaffected by politics and voted for the party because it was seen as representing a change from the establishment or as a protest. These voters were lost to the Lib Dems the moment they agreed to Coalition. They represent 10-20% of the parties 2010 support in general terms but, and it is worth saying – they are breaking to UKIP more so than Labour in opposition which is much better for the party than them going to Labour or the Tories.
Seat by Seat: Defence
So, the Lib Dems are hopeful they can retain at least 30 of the 56 seats they currently hold – I think, based on Lib Dem strength when defending seats due to incumbency factors, like relative local strength of the parties, more emphasis on the individual MP, casework and street campaigning, they can be hopeful of retaining 40. Perhaps this is just expectations management.
Where the Party does have a concern is in Labour facing seats – basically anywhere north of Watford – Birmingham Yardley, Redcar, Manchester Withington, Leeds North West, most of London, Brent, Hornsey and Wood Green, Southwark and basically anywhere in Scotland not represented by Ming Cambell, Alistair Carmichael or Charles Kennedy.
That’s not to say all hope is lost – all those seats are represented by MP’s who are popular locally and well regarded by their constituents – but if the Lib Dems make big losses it will be in these seats.
It does help that the chunk of their vote in these seats which is anti-establishment is not transferring directly to Labour, the Lib Dems can count themselves lucky that Labour’s leadership has been inept, that UKIP is stealing populist support is an added bonus as, thanks to a lack of transfer, these are likely to minimise any Labour gain from a reduced Lib Dem vote and drain some of the Labour vote from the Labour total, meaning that these seats can be retained even on lower vote shares.
This latter consequence of UKIP support has a magnified effect in Lib Dem defences against the Conservatives – Solihull becomes much easier to retain when you consider that Tory voters are switching to UKIP in droves and Lib Dem defectors are going to UKIP and the Greens by a much lesser extent – this seat will essentially come down to whoever between the Tories and Lorely Burt can more effectively stem the tide of seepage to the minor parties but that’s a much easier fight for the Lib Dems than a straight up fight with the Tories.
Seat by seat: Offence
Here’s where things get interesting – If I said to you the Lib Dems could make gains at the next election, if you were someone who vehemently hates the party your head might explode and if you merely were resigned to a very poor night for the party you might think I’d been drinking more than I have.
The problem is, it’s not at all impossible – and – if UKIP are going to do well enough to win more than a fifth of the vote – mostly at Tory expense – all you need to do is take a look at the following seats. (Kindly Stolen from http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/2015guide/lib-dem-targets/)
Those are the top 27 LD/Conservative Marginals in the country.
Now, look again at You Gov’s Data and bear in mind that UKIP are much more likely, by almost 3 to 1 to gain Tory Voters than Lib Dem. Bear in mind also that the Lib Dem vote will most likely keep up in seats where it is a strong challenger and has a strong local party and candidate, then do me a favour and look at Hereford & South Herefordshire, West Dorset and Romsey & Southampton North and tell me how, if UKIP poll 20% in those seats and three Tories vote UKIP to every Lib Dem, the Lib Dems fail to pick up these seats?
That’s 22, 29 and 39 on the most winnable Lib Dem seats.
It also makes seats like Watford – where the Lib Dems hold the mayor and it remains a very competitive three way seat – even more competitive if the Tories get knocked out this way.
There’s even a few Labour seats where things get too close to call – defying all logic. If UKIP are, as Labour fear, picking up working class voters dissatisfied with Ed Milibands leadership and want to give them a good kicking as well, Hull North could become one of about 5 ‘dark horse’ Labour/Lib Dem battleground seats where, if the Lib Dems can hold up their local vote and UKIP hit Labour’s working class support, Labour could be dropping seats to the Lib Dems.
I’m not the first to notice how UKIP could hurt Labour – but Conor Pope does fail to look at any impact on Lib Dem/Labour target seats – perhaps he might tell me what he thinks could happen in Kingston upon Hull North, Swansea West, Ashfield, and Chesterfield if there is a strong Lib Dem local party in place putting a heavy squeeze on the Tories and any voters Labour gain from the Lib Dems being at least equally lost to UKIP?
I’d also like to know what he might think of Edinburgh South if you swap UKIP for the SNP…
Is it possible?
This isn’t, by the way, on the assumption that the Lib Dems will increase their share of the vote – everywhere where the Lib Dems have no real presence they can expect to halve their support if they are lucky – there is a precedent for this – the Lib Dems dropped 5% vote share in 1992 nationally resulting in only 2 losses. Vote share dropped a further 1% resulting in a gain of 26 MPs in 1997. It’s not about how many votes you win – it’s about where you win them and how you target your resources in this crazy First Past the Post World.
Nor am I saying this is a likely outcome. The game can change in all kinds of ways yet – can UKIP sustain their surge? What if there is a Labour defector to UKIP? Does Labour Change leader or tack to the right on immigration putting off any potential Lib Dem switchers? Is there a pact? What if Lib Dem and Tory vote share drops at more equal rates in marginal seats? What if the Lib Dem’s aren’t as good on the ground in the face of a hostile electorate as we all expect and opposition ground game is?
It’s possible I have too much faith in Lib Dem ability to hold on to what it has, or the parties resources to maintain fights in 30 marginal seats at once and in the face of a repetitive narrative of doom and wipe-out this seems hard to fathom. I know all this – but consider this scenario:
UKIP win the next couple of by-elections – a few more Tory and one or two Labour MP’s defect, Labour and the Tories go right to compensate putting off a great swathe or centre ground voters and still losing small ‘c’ conservative voters to UKIP. The Lib Dems with a small bounce in support and facing split opposition hold on to 50 seats and take 25 more on reduced shares of the vote.
UKIP Win 10 Seats, Lib Dems win 75-80, the SNP take 15 from Labour in Scotland and the Tories and Labour make net losses.
I’m not saying it’s fair. I’m not saying it’s just. I’m not saying this is what I think will happen (I’ve been saying 40 Lib Dem seats since 2012) I’m not saying there won’t be outcry that, on half the vote share from last time the Lib Dems have a stronger strangle hold in a hung parliament but I would ask you – is it entirely impossible?
Don’t blame me – I campaigned to get rid of First Past the Post. Silly system if you ask me…