Pollwatch: Conservative coalition could cost Liberal Democrats dear (12 May 2010)
Lib Dem losses are likely at the next election, especially in Scotland, cities and where Labour voters backed them tactically
The decision to go into full coalition with the Conservatives will probably cost the Liberal Democrats dear at the next election. Coming to agreements in hung parliaments has not done them much good in past elections, as it inevitably involves taking tough decisions and alienating many of their supporters.
In 1923-24 they managed to relegate themselves to the fringes of politics by first installing a Labour government and then throwing it out again, and the hung parliament in 1929-31 ended with the Liberals split into three factions. David Steel was lucky to escape relatively unscathed in the 1979 election after the Lib-Lab pact. But they have always lost votes and seats following pacts and peacetime coalitions.
Lib Dem losses are likely to be particularly severe in three categories of seat.
Eleven of their 57 MPs represent Scottish constituencies, and the hostility of Scottish public opinion to anything connected with the Tories remains undiminished. There has been a substantial Labour vote even in quite rural Lib Dem constituencies. The Scottish secretary, Danny Alexander, already looks a candidate for a “Portillo moment” in the next election in his Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey constituency. Labour also came fairly close in several other seats, such as East Dunbartonshire and Edinburgh West.
The Lib Dems have won several seats from Labour in the last three elections in urban areas, intellectual middle-class seats such as Manchester Withington, Leeds North West, Hornsey and Wood Green, and grittier constituencies such as Redcar and Brent Central. There are about 11 constituencies in this category, and they will be lucky to hold any of them.
The third category of likely losses are those seats where there is a substantial latent Labour vote which has been giving tactical support to the Lib Dems to keep out the Tories. Labour-inclined voters are now unlikely to see the point of doing this, and the tactical message of supporting one coalition partner to tame the excesses of the other is a bit more difficult to sell than “keep the Tories out”.
There are around eight seats here, none of which would probably go Labour but where a big withdrawal of tactical support would throw the seat to the Tories or Plaid Cymru. Chris Huhne in Eastleigh would be a likely casualty. In other constituencies, though, the loss of tactical Labour support is probably going to be counteracted by votes gained from the Conservatives and there is less of a threat – Taunton and Eastbourne are examples of this kind of seat.
The Lib Dems have relied on personal votes for incumbents in many seats, and while some of them look safe, holding Berwick without Alan Beith or Bermondsey and Old Southwark without Simon Hughes look tough tasks.
This means that about half the party’s seats are therefore either write-offs or severely vulnerable in a future election. However, this is to assume that the next election will be fought on the same lines as the one just finished. The electoral system might change if the alternative vote (AV) is approved in a referendum. This could save many of the Lib Dem MPs because they would still attract grudging second preferences from Labour voters, and perhaps more enthusiastic ones from Tories.
Another possible change, a Tory shibboleth that the Lib Dems seem to have signed up to, is more ominous for the party. This is the plan to have a radical review of parliamentary boundaries and reduce the number of constituencies. Farewell, then, the undersized seat of Orkney and Shetland, and others.
Personal votes for incumbents will be disrupted by radical boundary reviews, with territory mixed and matched between constituencies in a way that will make it difficult for them to build up personal votes and retain constituencies.
While the referendum may not pass, the “reduce and equalise” plan just needs legislation. The Lib Dems would be wise to make one conditional on the other. But even without being carved up by their coalition partners under “reduce and equalise”, many of their MPs are dead men and women walking unless they get AV.