A Liberal Democrat poster promoting the debate.
Show Hide image

Why Clegg and Farage will both win from their debates

Farage gets to enter the political establishment, while Clegg has a chance to reconnect with those voters who warmed to him in 2010.

You could almost, almost, feel the anticipation pulsing through the Westminster bubble as the breaking news was announced on Wednesday: the BBC are to host a head-to-head debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage in April on the UK’s future in Europe. This is will be an important moment in British politics. Though it remains to be seen who, if anyone, will actually watch it, the debate will set the tone for the European parliament elections barely a month later, which will in turn influence the narrative for the general election next year.

What impact will it have? The truth is we just don’t know. The leaders' debates in 2010 saw Clegg’s personal ratings, and those of his party, rocket immediately following the first debate. By the time of the election just a few weeks later, however, the Lib Dems had only increased their vote share by 1 percentage point from 2005 and had suffered a net loss of five seats. 

While their performance was doubtless better than it would have been without the debates, the boost diminished as election day approached.  It can be argued, though, that without “Cleggmania”, Clegg would not have been in a position to negotiate for himself the job of Deputy Prime Minister. His own personal position had been elevated, he became a nationally known – and very popular – political figure. Fast forward a few months later, however, and Clegg had been hammered in the polls having gone into coalition with the Conservatives and (shortly afterwards) broken his promise on tuition fees.  The scale and speed of his fall from popularity was perhaps exacerbated by the unnaturally high position he was enjoying post-debates.

By agreeing to the debate, Clegg is risking Nigel Farage benefiting in the same way he did. He is elevating the leader of a party with no MPs, and that achieved just over 3 per cent of the vote at the general election, to a platform alongside the Deputy Prime Minister and the leader of a party that won 23 per cent of the vote four years ago. Farage is currently a popular, if unscrutinised, politician. In February, ComRes found that 24 per cent of the public have a favourable opinion of UKIP, higher than the 17 per cent that are positive about the Lib Dems. Farage, meanwhile, is more popular (20 per cent) than Clegg (13 per cent), though David Cameron is the most popular party leader with 31 per cent.

Clearly, then, Clegg has little to lose in the popularity stakes: he is the least popular leader of the least popular party. He and his team will have calculated that the Deputy Prime Minister performed well in this medium before and it may have the opportunity to restore some popularity and perhaps even credibility – his ratings could hardly get worse. Perhaps more significantly, by taking this on he is becoming the face of the pro-European movement in Britain.

Farage stands with plenty to gain but also plenty to lose by agreeing to the debate. His party stood at 11 per cent in the most recent ComRes poll, broadly in line with the Lib Dems' 10 per cent. UKIP are riding the crest of a wave, enjoying national levels of support that even the most optimistic supporter could not have imagined just a few years ago. While Farage is an accomplished public performer, he hasn’t been exposed to this sort of intense scrutiny before. This will be an hour-long primtime BBC debate against an experienced political opponent. The self-styled "maverick" of British politics is entering into the political establishment with this move.  His customary pint and cigarette will have to be put away for the hour.

Clegg believes the debate gives him the opportunity to take on the UKIP leader, undermine his arguments and expose him as a man short on ideas and substance. Farage, meanwhile, hopes to continue the momentum his party is building, increasing awareness of his party and trying to cement them in the mind of voters as a credible alternative to the status quo. If he does well in the Clegg debate, and in the European elections a few weeks later, it will put him in a powerful position to claim a place in the 2015 leadership debates.

Ultimately, though, it is likely that there will be no knock-out blow, just as there was none in 2010, and that both men will be able to claim a victory of sorts. This outcome may in fact benefit both leaders. Farage will be able to keep steam-train UKIP on track, while Clegg may re-establish his relationship with those who warmed to him in 2010. The Lib Dems may even be calculating – though it is a high risk strategy - that strong UKIP performance in 2015 benefits them by hiving off Conservative votes in Tory-Lib Dem marginals.

Whatever the outcome, it is an important moment as we head towards 2015, with yet another first for British politics adding to the intrigue and uncertainty. We wait to see if Faragemania is about to break out. 

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.