John Curtice: For Westminster to ignore Lib Dems is folly

Share
Related Topics

The Westminster village has already decided it knows the result of the next general election. The Tories are going nowhere, so therefore Labour must be comfortably set for a third victory in a row. Yet such reasoning is folly.

The Westminster village has already decided it knows the result of the next general election. The Tories are going nowhere, so therefore Labour must be comfortably set for a third victory in a row. Yet such reasoning is folly.

It simply ignores the Liberal Democrats. Yet, at 22.5 per cent, the party's current average poll rating is healthier than at any time since Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994. Given that their vote usually goes up under the spotlight of a general election campaign, the Liberal Democrats appear well placed to pass the record 26 per cent won by the Liberal/SDP Alliance in 1983.

To this prospect the Westminster village has a simple answer. Most of the seats the Liberal Democrats are best placed to capture are Conservative held seats. There are 15 seats that the Liberal Democrats could capture on a 5 per cent swing from the Tories, but only five to be won on an equivalent swing from Labour. If anyone has to worry about the Liberal Democrats it is Mr Howard, not Mr Blair.

This is to ignore two possibilities. First, while the Liberal Democrats may not run a close second in many Labour seats, by winning the support of disaffected Labour supporters in constituencies where the Conservatives are a reasonably close second, a Liberal Democrat surge could help the Tories win seats. After all, the party's poll rise to date has already helped markedly to reduce Labour's national poll lead over the Tories even though the Conservatives themselves have simply stood still.

Second, just looking at the arithmetic of the last election may be a mistake. In winning Brent East and Leicester South, the Liberal Democrats have already demonstrated an unprecedented ability to make progress in safe Labour territory, even though this month's Hartlepool by-election looks a tougher test.

The party has become an effective challenger to Labour in local government elections where once it was largely only the Conservatives who had to fear the "yellow peril". That the same may be beginning to happen in parliamentary elections should not be ignored.

Not that any of this suggests the Liberal Democrats are heading for a major breakthrough. They have themselves sometimes become overexcited at the Conservatives' woes and suggested they could displace the Tories as Britain's main opposition party. This ambition ignores the high hurdle set by the electoral system, which means they have to be as much as six points ahead of the Conservatives in votes before they displace them from second place in seats.

But a very different prospect does appear to lie within the realm of the possible. For if the Liberal Democrats take more votes from Labour, and in so doing help the Tories to win seats as well as themselves, then the next election could produce an outcome that the Westminster village studiously ignores - a hung parliament in which no one party has a majority.

We are often reminded that on the current electoral arithmetic the Tories would need an 11-point lead over Labour before they secure the keys to Downing Street. What is less commonly pointed out is that it would only take a three to four point Tory lead to deny Tony Blair an overall majority. And with Labour's average poll lead currently standing at just 2.5 percentage points, we are not so far away from that prospect that it can be disregarded.

So the Liberal Democrats have at least as much interest in trying to win Labour votes as Conservative ones. Such a strategy may not bring the most immediate reward in terms of seats won but it is the more effective route to power and influence. For in a hung parliament the Liberal Democrats could hope to use their leverage to pressure Labour into resurrecting its flirtation with electoral reform - whose introduction would transform the Liberal Democrats' electoral prospects beyond recognition.

How well placed is the party to help bring about such an outcome? It certainly has a favourable backdrop - the government is unpopular while the opposition still lacks credibility - but opportunity only becomes reality if it is seized and exploited.

The pre-manifesto launched last week seems to have the right mixture. Developments over the past seven years have worried middle-class voters who find they now have to pay for their children to go to university, are unsure of how much they will inherit from their parents, and who are no longer confident that they themselves will have enough to live on in retirement. By promising to abolish tuition fees, provide free personal care and pay higher pensions the Liberal Democrats tap into those concerns. What remains to be seen is whether the public is persuaded that the party could deliver.

John Curtice is professor of Politics at Strathclyde University

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Electrical Engineer

£26500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Optimisation Executive - Marketing

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's fastest growing, multi...

Recruitment Genius: Professional Sales Trainee - B2B

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: First things first - for the av...

Recruitment Genius: Creative Web and UI Designer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced creative web and...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Charles Kennedy: A talented politician and a great friend, with a shared enemy

Alastair Campbell
 

Caitlyn Jenner's first shoot is a victory - but is this really best version of femininity we can aspire to?

Sirena Bergman
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral