Following on from a previous look at Lib Dem runner-up places, we thought it might be revealing to look at what happened to votes cast in the 57 seats the Lib Dems were defending from the 2010 general election. Whilst it is widely recognised that the party lost 49 of those seats – a failure rate of 86% – there is still much denial and delusion as to what happened across those seats, or where those votes went, making such an analysis all the more overdue.
Nationally, the Lib Dem vote crumbled, with 4.4 million fewer votes in 2015 than 2010 – a loss of 64.7% of the party’s previous vote. In 626 out of 631 constituencies contested, the Lib Dem vote fell. This effect was replicated in most of the held seats – particularly Conservative-facing ones, which were supposed to be the ones where the Lib Dem vote was expected to hold, as per Ryan Coetzee’s strategy.
However, the underlying trends can be broken down into four broad groups: seats gained by the Conservatives, seats gained by Labour, seats gained by the SNP, and seats held by Liberal Democrats. Furthermore, such general election results should also be seen in the context of results from the local elections held on the same day.
Elsewhere, attention has focussed on changes in the Lib Dem vote share. We would like to do something slightly different, and to focus on the actual number of votes cast, to identify how the votes changed in the 57 seats previously held by the Lib Dems.
Seats gained by the Conservatives
The Conservative-facing seats showed a remarkably consistent pattern; the main factor at play was Lib Dem collapse rather than Conservative recovery. In each of the 27 seats lost to the Conservatives, the collapse in Lib Dem votes was sizably larger than any increase in Tory votes, by a factor of anything up to 29.
This has a number of implications. Firstly, it means that in 21 out of these 27 seats, the Conservatives ended up taking the constituency in 2015 with fewer votes than the Lib Dems did in 2010. Only in six seats did Conservative support in 2015 outnumber Lib Dem support in 2010: Chippenham; Solihull; Somerton and Frome; St Austell and Newquay; Mid Dorset and Poole North; and Wells (and in the case of St Austell and Newquay, Conservative support was just 61 votes higher than the Lib Dem vote in 2010.) Indeed, in Eastbourne, the Conservative vote actually fell from 2010, yet Conservatives still took the seat because of the Lib Dem collapse. This means that although the Lib Dem position in many Tory-facing seats is dire following a collapse of the party’s vote, the Conservative position is not necessarily ‘safe’ or stable; the Conservatives have won many of these seats on relatively small popular votes, and there still exists in these constituencies a reasonably large non-Conservative vote which could potentially be mobilised around a clear anti-Conservative candidate with a more appealing pitch than that of the 2015 Lib Dem campaign. Nor is the Conservative vote appreciably growing much in such areas. In seats like Lewes, Portsmouth South, St Ives, Sutton and Cheam, and Torbay, the increase in Conservative votes was negligible, and Lib Dem defeat can be laid down entirely to so much of the Lib Dem vote having vanished.
Secondly, it points to the net transfer of votes in these seats not having been from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives. While the Conservatives were the ultimate beneficiaries due to their pre-existing positioning in second place, Lib Dem losses of votes went in all directions – Conservative, Labour, UKIP and Green.
In 18 of the 27 seats lost to the Tories, the party that gained the most votes while the Lib Dems declined was UKIP. Indeed, in some seats like St Austell and Newquay, St Ives, and Sutton and Cheam, the UKIP gain in votes was several times higher than that of the Conservatives. This fact substantially challenges a number of existing preconceptions about the nature of the UKIP vote, and where it comes from. Certainly, on the face of it this would seem to point to direct Lib Dem-to-UKIP voter transfer, and this undoubtedly did happen on some scale. However, there is also a wider phenomenon of cross-party voter churn and more complex voter patterns having gone on.We were kindly shown an advance copy of some of the data that David Howarth has extrapolated from the British Election Study data, and it presented substantial evidence that such cross-voting was going on in held Lib Dem seats, with Lib Dem losses to the Conservatives in previously-held Lib Dem seats, and Conservative losses to UKIP in such seats. This is not the place to pre-empt Howarth’s own findings, but we recognise their importance and relevance here. What is clear is that the UKIP vote was drawn from all parties – including the Lib Dems, and included a “Plague on all your houses”, anti-Establishment pitch of the kind that the Lib Dems had previously been adept at making, and which Nick Clegg had noticeably shunned in favour of a “responsible party of government” pitch.
Was the UKIP surge in these seats enough to account for the loss of so many Tory-facing Lib Dem seats? No. But it was a major factor in combination with others. In particular, while the Green ‘bounce’ in most of these 27 seats was smaller than the UKIP ‘bounce’, it is noticeable that the rise in Green and UKIP votes taken together – the votes for the two main ‘protest vote’ parties in England – was larger than the Tory votes gained in 26 of these 27 seats. In other words, the Lib Dem loss of the protest vote, and the protest vote being transferred to both UKIP and the Greens, was almost certainly critical in the loss of 26 Lib Dem seats to the Conservatives. Only Twickenham had a higher rise in the Tory vote than the UKIP+Green combination.
In comparison, the rise in the Labour vote in these Tory-facing constituencies was (with some exceptions) relatively modest. Where Labour was the ‘big winner’ in Tory-facing Lib Dem held seats, gaining the most votes from 2010, was in suburban seats like Cheadle (where no Green candidate stood, and so the only ‘left-wing’ alternative party to the Lib Dems was Labour), and Kingston and Surbiton . By contrast, in the traditional West Country Lib-Con marginals, Labour’s vote only rose modestly (as in Mid Dorset and Poole North where Labour support rose by just 19 votes), or even fell in the face of a strong UKIP showing (as in Wells). Thus whilst there was a general loss of some support to Labour in these Tory-facing seats, it was far from pivotal in most cases; and generally pales in comparison to net loss of votes to UKIP and the Greens.
Seats gained by Labour
The 12 Labour gains from the Liberal Democrats were far more likely to have been due to a Labour surge than due to a Lib Dem collapse. In some of these seats, the Lib Dem vote even held up relatively well, most notably Bradford East, Burnley and Cambridge – in the latter, for instance, Julian Huppert still polled 18,047 votes compared to the 19,621 he had polled in 2010, which was an exceptionally strong showing compared to the nationwide collapse in the Lib Dem popular vote; however, in most of these seats, there was still a sizeable drop in Lib Dem support, most conspicuously Brent Central, which suffered the biggest Lib Dem drop in support in the country.
In eight of the 12 seats, the party that gained the most votes was Labour. Only in Birmingham Yardley, Bristol West, Burnley and Redcar was this not the case – in three of those four examples barring Bristol West (with its huge Green surge), UKIP actually gained more ‘new’ votes than Labour did, but Labour’s pre-existing second place was sufficient to see them through to victory. In the remaining eight seats, there was a noticeable Labour surge; a sharp contrast to the conspicuous lack of any comparable Conservative surge in most Tory-facing Lib Dem seats.
Consequently, this has left Labour in a much more secure position in several of these seats, than the Conservatives across their Lib Dem-facing seats. Brent Central appears hopeless for the Lib Dems for the foreseeable future, the party now back in distant third place. And in nine of the 12 Labour gains from the Lib Dems, Labour polled more votes in 2015 than the Lib Dems did in 2010; in short, if the Lib Dems had replicated their 2010 poll, they would still have been unable to overcome Labour advances into these seats. Only in Bristol West, Cambridge and Redcar was this not the case. Nonetheless, the Labour-facing Lib Dem marginals present a far more complicated picture than the Conservative- or SNP-facing seats, and defy the same kind of easier categorisation and generalisation; each of the 12 seats has its own distinctive quirks. Indeed, if we now include the Lib Dem hold of Sheffield Hallam as a Labour-facing seat, then the singularity of the Labour-facing results is confirmed.
Seats gained by the SNP
As with the Conservatives, the picture was relatively simple and consistent, across the 10 Lib Dem seats lost to the SNP. The decisive factor was the SNP surge. The colossal scale of the SNP rise (which memorably “broke” the BBC swingometer on election night) was such that in nine of the 10 seats, the SNP held larger popular votes in 2015 than the Lib Dems did in 2010, sometimes by quite extraordinary margins; most notably, Alex Salmond polled 10,142 votes more at Gordon than Malcolm Bruce did in 2010.
Paradoxically, despite the SNP winning a clutch of large majorities, surging to victory from second, third or even fourth place, Scotland actually had some of the “best” election results for Lib Dems in terms of votes. Five previously-held Scottish Lib Dem seats, all ultimately lost to the SNP, were actually the only seats in the UK where the Lib Dems increased the number of votes they polled in 2015 over 2010: Argyll and Bute; Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross; East Dunbartonshire; Edinburgh West; and Gordon. (The lack of an incumbent candidate in Gordon makes this last result all the more remarkable, and flies in the face of the received wisdom that an ‘incumbent bounce’ was as widely prevalent as Lib Dem campaigners predicted it would be.)
Of the remaining five Lib Dem seats lost to the SNP, the Lib Dem vote did not actually fall by that much in three of them; only in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine was the Lib Dem drop in popular vote sizeable; these were two exceptionally bad results, and along with Brent Central and Bristol West constituted two of the four held seats where Lib Dems dropped from first place to third.
Overall, aside from these last two results, Lib Dem performance against the SNP was quite respectable; a fact obscured by the scale of the SNP rise. However, as noted in a previous analysis of runner-up places, Scotland also had some of the worst Lib Dem results in the UK, particularly in Glasgow. Accordingly, it is fair to say that Scotland saw mass-targeting efforts, and most likely sizeable Unionist tactical voting from Labour and Conservatives alike within most of the SNP-facing Lib Dem seats; but that given the scale of the SNP’s margin of victory across most of these 10 seats, such tactics were still inadequate.
Seats held by the Liberal Democrats
How were the eight seats held by the Liberal Democrats different in their transfer of votes to the forty-nine which were lost?
The answer is “Not very”.
The main thing marking out all eight seats was that the Conservative vote dropped in all of them, defying the national swing (even if in Orkney and Shetland, it dropped by just seven votes.) On paper, six of these seats should have been Conservative-facing – although Hallam turned out to be Labour-facing, as did Leeds North-West which was Conservative-facing in 2010 and has been both a Labour and Conservative seat in the last twenty years. The four seats which were Conservative-facing in 2015 saw the kinds of drops in Lib Dem vote associated with the 27 other Tory-facing seats that were lost; but this was not matched by an increase in the Conservative vote. Had the Conservatives held on to their 2010 popular votes in Carshalton and Wallington, and Southport, these too would have been Conservative gains.
Why did the Conservatives move backwards in these eight seats? We would suggest that the rise of UKIP had much to do with it. Although we have identified the UKIP+Green phenomenon as being quite fatal to Lib Dems in most Tory-facing seats, it may well be that the strong UKIP challenge perversely helped the Lib Dems keep two of their eight seats, due to vote-splitting favouring them in these two instances.
An additional factor may well have been a Conservative willingness to tactically vote Lib Dem where the Lib Dems were competitive; certainly, this is plausible in seats such as Orkney and Shetland, as well as Sheffield Hallam, where the Ashcroft polling indicated Conservative anti-Labour tactical voting on such a scale as to be well beyond any margin of error. This is certainly consistent with an election in which Nick Clegg made little secret of his eagerness to renew his support for another Conservative-led coalition. Nonetheless, the scale of such tactical voting from the Conservatives should not be overstated. It would self-evidently have not been a factor in the four Conservative-facing seats; and while there is some evidence to support it having been a factor in eight of the 10 SNP-facing Lib Dem seats that were still lost, it only seems to have happened on any great scale in three of the 12 Labour-facing seats, all of which were still ultimately lost (Bradford East, Cambridge and Hornsey and Wood Green). Accordingly if it did exist as a factor, it did so on a relatively small scale, and ‘soft’ Conservative tactical voting for the Lib Dems was an ultimately unsuccessful strategy.
Only two of the seats held by the Lib Dems were Labour-facing in 2015: Leeds North-West, and Sheffield Hallam, both of which had scored Labour third places in 2010. Given that Hallam exhibited an almost Portillo-defying swing of 16.55% which saw Labour leap-frog from third place and 19,096 votes behind Nick Clegg to within 2,353 votes of unseating him, the circumstances of that particular seat seem most unusual. Indeed, given that Lib Dem activists were diverted from neighbouring regions like the East Midlands, that the leader’s election schedule noticeably accommodated Clegg spending at least two days a week in his constituency (a highly unusual feature for any modern leader of a major party – even Michael Howard largely ignored the attempted Lib Dem ‘decapitation’ of him in 2005), and that national resources were clearly thrown at the seat, it seems likely that the Lib Dem leadership was rattled by the five constituency polls from three sources which all forecast Clegg’s defeat. How much money was diverted to the seat will have to wait for the publication of Electoral Commission returns, but the diversion of activists from elsewhere was crucial. Given that Cambridge (also reachable for East Midlands activists) was lost by just 599 votes, and that the margin of defeat for some Lib Dem MPs was quite narrow (i.e. 733 votes in Eastbourne, 1,083 votes in Lewes), it may well be that the strategic decision to spare the party leader’s blushes and save Clegg in Hallam actually cost the party several seats elsewhere.
Against the Nationalists, the party held two seats, but it is difficult to extrapolate much from these two results. Mark Williams held on in Ceredigion, despite the loss of nearly a third of his vote, mainly due to his Plaid opponents actually falling back rather than advancing. Orkney and Shetland displayed an SNP surge similar to that found across Scotland, but Alistair Carmichael seems to have held onto his personal vote relatively well, with the smallest drop in votes (admittedly, amongst a tiny electorate) of any of the eight held Lib Dem seats – a far cry from Norman Lamb, who experienced the biggest absolute drop among the eight survivors.
In Part 2: A detailed study of the Lib Dem general election vote compared to the local election vote the next day, what this tells us about the “incumbency effect”, and the conclusion of the whole analysis.
Dr Seth Thévoz is a political, cultural and social historian of Britain from 1800 on, and specialises in social networks, and detecting corruption among legislators. He is a member of the Federal Finance and Administration Committee, and in his spare time he is Honorary Librarian of the National Liberal Club.
Lewis Baston is a writer on elections, politics, and history. He consults on electoral and political matters for private clients and has conducted training in elections and parliamentary processes for UK and international customers. He is a frequent commentator for various broadcast, published and online media.