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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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