One of the more remarkable statistics about the last general election in Wales is that the Liberal Democrats gained more than 10% of the vote in every Welsh seat bar Ynys Môn. This statistic speaks to a time that was only a few years ago but, politically, feels almost like another century. Since entering coalition in London, times have been unremittingly tough for the Lib Dems. Although the 2011 devolved elections saw the Welsh party mostly escape the heavy losses inflicted on their Scottish counterparts, last year’s European elections were particularly grim for the party here in Wales: their 3.9% share of the Welsh vote, which put them in sixth place, was by some way the Lib-Dems’ lowest vote share anywhere in Britain.
Nor are things looking obviously brighter for the forthcoming general election. The party’s showing in the Britain-wide opinion polls remains stubbornly low, at around one-third of their vote share in 2010. The picture of the Welsh polls is similar – indeed, possibly even worse. The most recent Welsh Political Barometer had the party in sixth place, on five percent of the vote: almost exactly one-quarter of the 20.1% that they won here in 2010.
One thing that has kept Lib-Dem spirits up, however, is the belief that while the party may suffer substantial vote losses in seats that they don’t hold, they will be able to put up a much stronger fight in many seats they do hold. Well-known and hard-working incumbent Liberal Democrats MPs, many in the party contend, will be much more electorally resilient than the national polls would suggest.
Is there any evidence to support this claim? Lord Ashcroft’s constituency polls have provided a mixed picture. In some of their seats the Lib-Dem vote seems to be holding up well, but in others much less so. Two such polls conducted in Wales illustrate this mixed picture well. A poll conducted in Cardiff Central in September 2014 suggested that the Lib-Dems’ vote share was down by around two-fifths on 2010 and that they were well behind Labour in the seat; however, another poll done two months later in Brecon and Radnor had their vote holding up rather better and the party clinging onto a narrow lead from the Conservatives.
Is there any other evidence we can bring to bear? Lacking a spare few tens of thousands of pounds to conduct my own series of constituency polls – I had a look down the back of the sofa, but no luck – I’ve been trying to see what clues we might be able to draw from the polling evidence that we do have. The detailed data supplied by YouGov for each Welsh Political Barometer poll contains the parliamentary constituency of each survey respondent. We also, crucially, have a measure of how each respondent voted – if they did vote – in the 2010 general election. With this information to hand, we are then able to compare directly how the same individuals, across different types of constituencies, voted in 2010 with how they say they intend to vote now.
What I’ve done is combine the last three Welsh Political Barometer polls: those conducted in December, January and March. (Between them they give us 3,446 total respondents; 604 of whom are recorded by YouGov as having voted for the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 general election. This is slightly below the percentage of people in Wales who actually voted Lib-Dem in 2010, mainly because the polls include some people who didn’t vote in 2010).
These three Barometer polls showed the Lib-Dems on 5% (December), 6% (January) and 5% (March). The average of 5.33% across the three polls is just barely above one-quarter of the support level the party was winning in 2010. But to what extent is this decline uniform? Or do the detailed Barometer figures show the party doing notably better in their four key seats? To assess this, I’ve split those respondents into two categories:
- Those respondents in the three parliamentary seats that the Lib-Dems currently hold (Brecon & Radnor, Cardiff Central, and Ceredigion), plus the one other seat that they appear to be seriously targeting this time around, Montgomery. (I did ponder whether or not to include Montgomery; however, the Lib-Dems own recent Welsh conference talked very positively about their prospects in this seat, so I have decided to take them at their word. It is maybe worth adding that I checked, and the results I report below do not differ substantially if Montgomery is removed from this category).
- The respondents in the other 36 seats.
The data is all taken from national Welsh polls and so they are not sampled to the demographics of each of the specific constituencies. For this reason the findings should be seen as indicative rather than definitive. Still, I think they are interesting.
In the 36 non-core seats, we see the Lib-Dems’ support falling by more than three-quarters on that gained in the 2010 election. That is much as we would expect to see based on the polls. What about the four key seats? Well here we do indeed see clear evidence that the Lib-Dems are doing better in those seats. But when you are losing about three-quarters of your support nationally, better is very much a relative term. What it means in the case of the Lib-Dems is that, according to the figures from these recent polls, they have lost slightly more than three-fifths of their 2010 support among our sample of respondents in these four seats. Yes, that is better than elsewhere. But it is not very much better.
If they do lose three-fifths of their 2010 support even in their four key seats, then the Liberal Democrats would come nowhere near to regaining Montgomery. They would also be very unlikely to hold any of Brecon & Radnor, Cardiff Central, and Ceredigion. Is the game up, then, for Roger Williams, Jenny Willott and Mark Williams? Not necessarily. There are several reasons for being cautious in interpreting these figures.
- First, these figures are taken from polls conducted between December 2014 and March 2015. As all readers of this blog should know by now, a poll is not a prediction of a future event but an attempt to measure attitudes at the time it is taken. Several weeks of remaining campaigning could well improve the Lib-Dems’ position in general.
- Second, the Lib-Dems will be campaigning hard in their key seats over the next few weeks. As with campaigners for all parties in marginal seats, they will be trying to get voters to focus on the local dynamics of their particular constituency. (Think ‘Focus’ leaflets with slightly dubious bar-charts, and horse-racing graphics alongside the message that ‘It’s a Two Horse Race’…). As this message gets across, one would expect the Lib-Dems’ position in their key seats to improve somewhat.
- Third, these polls used a generic voting intention question. Yet Lord Ashcroft’s constituency polls have shown that one can get rather different results when asking people to think specifically about their own constituency.
In short, the evidence at present is that the Welsh Lib-Dems will do rather better than the national swings in their four key seats. In the rest of Wales they are likely to see their vote slip back very considerably from 2010. However, with more than 10% of vote in every seat but one last time, the Lib-Dems have a lot of votes they can afford to lose. What matters to them this year is their vote in their key strongholds. Here we must, I think, expect them to be considerably more resilient. The key question for the Liberal Democrats in 2015 is whether better will be good enough.