Pollwatch: Debate sees Lib Dems’ star rising to set Tory nerves jangling (April 16 2010)
The party in yellow always sees a spike during campiagns due to higher visibility but Conservatives should still be wary
Even if the first reports of the post-debate boost for Nick Clegg were a bit outlandish, it seems that the leadership debates have added to the usual lift that the Lib Dems get from election campaigns.
There have been already been several inconsistent accounts published concerning which of the larger two parties would suffer most from a rise in Lib Dem support. The answer must be, unfortunately, “it depends”. But in terms of the parties’ aims in the election it is more likely that the Conservatives will have most cause to regret Nick Clegg’s equal time and his effective use of it.
Gaining seats from the Lib Dems is an element of the Conservative strategy to get over the winning line of 326 seats in the new House of Commons. Pre-campaign polls with figures like Con 40, Lib Dem 19 implied a 5.5% swing towards the Tories. Based on uniform swing (a particularly rough approximation when it comes to Lib Dems) this would gain 23 seats for the Tories, an important contribution to their target of 116 gains, which allowing for boundary changes would get them to 326.
Even before the debate, there was evidence that the Conservatives were struggling in their efforts to win seats from the Lib Dems. YouGov’s regional trends showed them doing poorly in the south-west, where many of these seats are located, and the Crosby/Textor poll of marginal seats showed no Tory progress at all in the Lib Dem held marginals. The Tories may still pick off a few of the 23, but might also lose one or two to the Lib Dems such as Eastbourne. If there are no net gains from the Lib Dems, the Tories have to find 23 seats from somewhere else. It gets worse – the party is under-performing in Scotland and would be lucky to gain any of the apparently vulnerable SNP seats or more than one or two from Scottish Labour.
There are 24 Lib Dem seats and two SNP among the 116 numerically most vulnerable to the Conservatives. If there were a neat, even swing from all others to the Tories, seat 116 (Waveney in Suffolk) would fall with a 6% swing. Taking Lib Dem and SNP seats, plus the more ambitious targets from Scottish Labour, off the boards means the required swing from Labour alone increases to 8 per cent. An 8-point national swing implies a Conservative lead over Labour of 13 points, although allowing for a 1.5% overperformance in targets from Labour would take it down to the Tories needing a 10-point lead to win. It is still a very tall order.
But what about Labour? A Lib Dem surge harms them as well, but perhaps less than one might think. There are eight Labour seats vulnerable to a 2% swing to the Lib Dems, but a sharp swing of 7% would only net the Lib Dems 10 more seats from Labour. In practice, however, Lib Dems always perform patchily, winning outsized swings to gain seats that did not look at all marginal (like Solihull and Manchester Withington in 2005) while missing some apparently easier targets (like Dorset West and Oxford East in 2005).
A national boost would probably in reality help bring in some long shots. The real danger for Labour is that Lib Dem voters might become unwilling to give tactical votes to vulnerable Labour candidates in marginals where there is a Labour-Conservative fight, and thereby hand the seat to the Tories (as happened in several places in 2005, like Shipley and St Albans). This would in turn make it easier for the Tories to gain the seats they need at Labour’s expense. But there were already widespread conjectures about “tactical unwind” happening.
If the Lib Dem boost is sustained, as it may well be (although not at the fanciful levels suggested in initial reports of the ComRes poll), it poses a clear threat to the Conservatives’ chances of achieving their strategic aim, a parliamentary majority (or a sufficiently predominant position in a hung parliament to run a minority government which could reliably get legislation passed).
It poses less of a threat to Labour, because fewer seats are directly at stake, and Labour’s strategic aims are more nuanced than just the big ask of a parliamentary majority. By brandishing an olive branch at Clegg during the debate, Gordon Brown was bidding for progressive voters for Labour, but also preparing the ground for Labour’s Plan B – a coalition, or minority government with an explicit accommodation with the Lib Dems.