Lib Dem and Labour voters have more in common than you think

New polling analysis shows that Lib Dem supporters continue to lean to the left.

In this week's New Statesman, Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg's former strategy director, calls for a recasting of the Liberal Democrats as a centrist liberal force that divorces itself from the party's social democrat past. Intellectually, the case may be a powerful one. But electorally, there is a huge problem: the strategy ignores the people who support the Lib Dems today.

Even though so many left-leaning voters have deserted the party, few of its loyal supporters are classical liberals of the centre or soft-right. New Fabian Society analysis of YouGov polling from the last 12 months shows that, even after two years of the coalition, the Lib Dems' remaining supporters are much closer to Labour than to Tory voters. Lib Dem and Labour supporters share views on the economy and government and far more Lib Dems would consider voting Labour than Conservative.

First, consider how people identify on a left-right political spectrum. 43% of remaining Lib Dem supporters describe themselves as on the left of politics, compared to 53% of Labour supporters and 1% of Conservatives. By contrast, just 8% of Lib Dem and 6% of Labour voters place themselves on the right of politics, compared to 60% of Conservative supporters.

Labour and Lib Dem supporters also have similar views on the role of government in British life. Consider this statement of the liberal case against the state: "Government should do the bare minimum and stay out of people's way; people are freer when there is less Government". Forty four per cent of Conservative voters say it's a convincing argument, compared to just 24% of Lib Dem and 22% of Labour voters.

It's a similar story on the economy. Forty eight per cent of Conservative voters are sympathetic to cutting red-tape, compared to 13% of current Lib Dems and 9% of Labour supporters. Forty two per cent of Lib Dems and 40% of Labour supporters want an interventionist industrial strategy, compared to 25% of Conservatives.

So how does this translate into the political preferences of Lib Dem supporters? During the summer, YouGov found that 54% of remaining Lib Dem voters would consider voting Labour, while only 36% would consider the Conservatives (defined as a 4 out of 10 chance of voting for the party in question). This finding is so striking because we are talking about current Lib Dem supporters not the defectors.  This pro-Labour bias comes on top of Lib Dem deserters splitting 4-to-1 in Labour's favour.

These new insights into the Lib Dems' remaining supporters should give both parties pause for thought. It suggests, for the Liberal Democrats, that a centrist appeal to classical liberalism will do little to consolidate the party's current support, let alone grow it. It demonstrates that, in the voters' eyes, the Lib Dems should reject 'equidistance' in favour of a pro-Labour bias.

Meanwhile, Labour politicians need to recognise that most remaining Lib Dem supporters continue to have left-leaning views. If the electoral maths demands it, Labour should stand ready to cooperate with a party that speaks for people who share their values and are deeply suspicious of Conservatism.

Labour and Lib Dem supporters have similar views on the role of government. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.