Friday, 16 April 2010

The Liberal Democrats: The Invisible 1/5 of the Electorate

So, like many others, I watched the first televised pre-election party leaders' debate last night. Although I felt Nick Clegg did quite well for himself overall, I was still surprised at the results of the polls which asked who had been the most successful. Let's look over those poll results, shall we?

ITV: Clegg 43%, Cameron 26%, Brown 20%

YouGov/The Sun: Clegg 51%, Cameron 29%, Brown 19%

Channel 4: Clegg 58%, Brown 28%, Cameron 13%

Sky News: Clegg 37%, Brown 32%, Cameron 31%

(thanks, BBC News.)

Why was I surprised? Because as someone who's quietly supported the Liberal Democrats my entire politically-aware life, I know very well how whenever they come up in conversation the almost unanimous reaction is "voting Lib Dem is wasting your vote, they'll never be in power, they haven't got a chance, etc etc". The political climate since 1945 has been structured along a two-party line: the two parties being Labour and the Conservatives. That's the choice you have. Liberal Democrat voters have been seen as bizarre anomalies, people who refuse to accept reality.

Yet put Clegg on tv alongside the other two - the representatives of the two parties received wisdom says we should vote for - and not only does he hold his own, he comes out on top! What's going on?

And this is where I drop the bombshell. You might want to sit down.

The Liberal Democrats are not a non-entity. They are not only now emerging from a swamp of total political obscurity. There are in fact people who regularly vote Lib Dem. And they are not an insignificant minority.

Time for some statistics!

In the 1997 general election, in which Labour stormed to power, the Lib Dems got 16.8% of the vote.
In the 2001 general election they moved up with 18.3%.
In the 2005 general election they took it up a notch again, with 22.1%.
(thanks, Wikipedia.)

Nowadays, support for the Lib Dems hangs pretty steadily around the 20% line. That's one-fifth of the voting electorate.  The point I'm trying to make is: that ain't nothing.

So why are the Lib Dems so marginalised? It's the electoral system, dummy. Our First Past The Post system means that where support for a party is spread thinly across the country, instead of being concentrated in certain areas, it will get disproportionately few seats. In the 2005 election, with 22% of the public vote, the Lib Dems got 9.6% of the seats in the House of Commons. Even I can admit, 9.6% does look like nothing.

So, to recap. About a fifth of voters support the Lib Dems, but in the public consciousness they are seen as non-existent. Or they have been, up until now. My sense is that the tv debates might change everything. With the majority of public support post-debate, no one can now claim that voting for the Lib Dems is voting for a non-entity. No one can claim that you're throwing your vote away and ignoring reality. We're not invisible any more.

The next couple of weeks, and the poll results that come out after the next two debates, will be fascinating to watch. For now I leave you with this nugget of information. Labour's landslide victory in 1997 was achieved with 43.2% of the popular vote. If the results of the debate polls are maintained, that's the kind of percentage Clegg and co. might be able to attain this year. Anyone who tells you the election is still a two-horse race is full of shit.


  1. I think the other thing is, the media and cultural narrative assists in creating the situation where the two-party choice is more valid. They're always tagged on after the balance section of an article or report. The Lib Dems are the joke party. It's always a shame that Cable is LD, because imagine what he could do..! And so on.

    I'm not saying it's a media conspiracy (!), I think it's mostly just laziness/going for the easy narrative. It's within the same narrative that is "a Lib Dem vote is a wasted vote". Since when were we supposed to vote for the people we think are going to win? I feel like I've really missed the memo on democracy. Obviously, tactical voting is always going to be a consideration for some people, but it's a natural side-effect of the way we frame politics. I wonder how many people will come out of this thinking that Clegg is by far the most competent, but won't vote for him because he'll never win? I come across this sort of thinking all the time when I'm talking to friends about this and it drives me mad! (And I usually end up shouting BUT IF MORE PEOPLE VOTED FOR WHO THEY ACTUALLY WANTED TO VOTE FOR, YOU WOULDN'T END UP THINKING LIKE THAT IN THE FIRST PLACE! And then I rend my garments and swoon on the floor, obviously.)

  2. Morning Helen, well done on your first blog post :) I really hope that come May 6th, we'll be in a position where PR will come about.