After the dust has settled, will Labour or the Conservatives have to form a coalition to govern? It seems likely they will: the Tories failed to win a majority in 2010 and are unlikely to improve on their share of the vote, and the surge of the SNP is ruining Labour’s hopes.
If the two parties win fewer than 300 seats, as the polls currently suggest when you include the SNP, they will need to form a coalition with either “Team Scotland” or the Lib Dems (or possibly both) to hold a majority. The SNP have ruled out a deal with the Tories, and their demands may be too great for Labour, which may leave the Lib Dems as the kingmakers yet again.
The nature of the Lib Dem party that remains after May will be crucial. Are they more likely to rejoin the Tories or suddenly swing behind Labour? We can use The Drilldown, our new insight into the polls, to investigate. Five facts stand out.
They approve of the government’s record far more than the average voter
Around seven in ten of those who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010 have abandoned the party. But those who remain are – and have been – broadly supportive of the government of which their party is a part.
This compares to the average voter, who is strongly unsupportive.
They are more economically optimistic, and very supportive on the economy
In the past fifteen months optimism about the economy has changed drastically and swiftly. After three years of strong pessimism, which peaked in mid-2012, opinion reversed in a year. In April 2013 only one in five voters thought the economy would improve in the next year. By April 2014 nearly half of us did.
Optimism among Lib Dems is even greater. Only one in six of them think the economy will worsen. And there were less pessimistic through the coalition’s early years. And they are strongly supportive of the government’s approach on the economy. If the party’s voters are fairly supportive of the government’s record, very supportive of them on the economy, and economically optimistic, are they likely to want the coalition to break up?
They blamed Labour when the economy stagnated
Who do voters blame on the economy? The way this question is asked by Opinium is, we argued this morning, increasingly problematic.
But the question they ask – “Who is most responsible for the current state of the UK economy?” – was meaningful in 2012, when it was clearly about apportioning blame. If we look back to 2012, we can see 2015 Lib Dems were even more likely than the average voter to blame Labour, rather than the coalition, for the way the economy was stagnating.
The majority of them blamed Labour, and fewer than a fifth blamed the coalition. Economic blame has been one of the most recurring battles of this parliament. The two parties hurl accusations at each other every week at PMQs; Cameron will always fall back on how “Labour crashed the economy!” if he is struggling.
If 2015 Lib Dems were so supportive of him in 2012, it’s hard to see why they would so quickly abandon him. Why partner with the party you think more responsible for the difficulties you will have to confront?
For Lib Dems it really is all about the economy
For the first three years of the coalition, at least three quarters of voters identified “the economy” as one of the three most important issues facing Britain. Now ‘only’ one in two do.
But the issue was, and remains, more important for Lib Dems. Nine in ten of them thought the economy the most important issue in May 2010, and two in three of them still do. In 2010, fewer than one in three Lib Dems thought any other issue important.
The only difference four and a half years later is the slight increase in the importance of health. The most notable difference between the average voter and the Lib Dem is attitudes to immigration. Only one in three Lib Dems think it important; whereas five in nine general voters do.
Another Tory-Liberal coalition may be plausible, but a Tory-Lib-Ukip grouping seems impossible: not only are the minor two very different culturally, but by far the most important issue to Ukippers is of relatively little import to Lib Dems.
Could healthcare unite the Lab-Lib left?
A glimmer for those hoping for a Lab-Lib coalition may be healthcare. It is the second most important issue for 2015 Lib Dems. And they trust Labour more than the Tories on the issue. On the other hand, they trust the Tories more on the economy, which, as we can see, is the most important issue for them.
Ultimately, there are more reasons to foresee another Tory-Lib pact than a sudden Lab-Lib one. That wasn’t necessarily true in 2010, when 23 per cent of voters backed the Lib Dems.
The vast majority of Lib Dem MPs who will survive will be in Tory-Lib marginals.
Labour are polling so strongly in Lab-Lib marginals that they are on course to win almost all the Lib Dem-held seats where they came second in 2010. In other words, they are set to wipe out the Lib Dem left.
The vast majority of Lib Dem MPs who will survive in May will be in Tory-Lib marginals. If their voters back the coalition on the economy, and their MPs are almost all in centre-right seats, it is hard to see how Ed Miliband will convince them to support him.