In hindsight, the Liberal Democrats’ decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives looks like electoral suicide. Their vote – 22% in 2005, and 23% in 2010 – has been decimated according to the polls. Obviously, a large factor behind this is a big proportion of left-leaning Lib Dems switching their support to the Labour Party. It is likely that a large number of these switchers are lost for the foreseeable future – the idea of getting into bed with the Tories is, in their eyes, unforgivable. At the time, however, a perfectly rational spin could be put on it – and indeed Clegg still wheels the reasoning out now from time to time. 1) prove to the voters that you can be a responsible party of government, 2) appease the left by blocking some Tory proposals and 3) establish the Liberal Democrats firmly as the ‘centrist’ party between Labour and the Tories. This has failed – all of the polling shows that their vote is completely fragmenting, and they are being given very little credit by the voters for their role in government.
However, it may still be possible for the Lib Dems to recover their polling position slightly – and more importantly, save some more seats in 2015.
Firstly, forget any notion of a Lib Dem ‘wipeout’ in 2015. Their support bases in seats that they hold remain relatively strong – just see the Eastleigh by-election for proof – it was an impressive hold for a party in government. The Lib Dem vote will most likely be annihilated in Lab/Con marginals, and will also be hit hard in Lib Dem/Lab marginals. The crucial seats for the Lib Dems are the ones that they currently hold, where the Tories are in second place – there are 38 such seats, so there is plenty to play for.
The problem for the Lib Dems here is that they are also losing a number of voters directly to the Tories. The number is not as damaging as the flood of deserters to Labour, but it is certainly significant. Below is a chart of the % of LD>CON switchers over the past year, from the first Sunday Times/YouGov poll of each month.
If the majority of LD seats are fought against the Tories, and the Lib Dems have been losing the Tories, then the plan seems obvious – do whatever it takes to win these voters back. They are an interesting group – why did they not vote Conservative in the last election, but now feel comfortable in doing so? If they were protest voters against governing parties, then why have they not switched to UKIP? The Lib Dems are also losing substantial numbers of voters directly to UKIP, so the issue of the EU doesn’t appear to be one that has much bearing on this.
In my opinion, these are mainly anti-Labour voters. At the last election, perhaps they (misguidedly) saw Clegg as having a genuine chance of having power, and preferred him as an alternative to Cameron. Now that the next election is a two horse race, they prefer Cameron to Miliband. In this case, maybe these voters will be just as hard for the Lib Dems to get back. But, in an election that is already going to be incredibly hard for them, it is probably their best hope.
There are perhaps already some signs of Clegg adopting this strategy. He aggressively attacked Labour when he stood in for David Cameron at PMQs. There are also rumours of Clegg appointing Danny Alexander in place of Vince Cable for the election campaign. Alexander is – perhaps even more so than Clegg himself – the ‘willing Lib Dem’ face of the coalition. He is likely to completely turn off any potential LD>LAB switchers from returning back to the party, whereas Cable still holds some degree of sway with left-leaners.
There are also probably people who voted Tory in 2010 who are still very much out of step with the views of anti-gay marriage component of the Tory party for example, which reared its head in this Parliament. The Lib Dems have to show that they are socially liberal, but can also be trusted on the economy, which as stated earlier, is what Nick Clegg’s plan was all along when deciding to go into coalition. It hasn’t paid off for him so far – but the Lib Dems would probably be wiser now to stick out their current path, attack Labour, and hope that they can recover some proportion of that chunk that have defected from Lib Dem to Tory. It could be crucial to their number of MPs and potential influence on the next Parliament.