I have just come across the “emerging evidence” from British Election Study (BES) for the 2010 general election.
The findings confirm two of my earlier conclusions, based on the Ipsos MORI election data: that Liberal Democrat support grew during the campaign but remained soft; and whilst Nick Clegg’s personal support shot up after the first debate, support for the Lib Dems did not firm up as a result.
As the BES summary and conclusions slide puts it:
With weak fundamentals, ineffective campaigns and widespread voter disaffection with politics as usual, the two major parties were susceptible to a move by the Liberal Democrats. The leader debates provided the Liberal Democrats with the exactly the opportunity they needed.
Despite their surge after the first debate, the Liberal Democrats had to rely heavily on Nick Clegg’s popularity. Their partisan base remained small, and they had little pulling power on the economy, the issue that dominated the campaign.
On the last point, the BES data seems to back up another of my previous conclusions: the Lib Dems did not win any of the arguments on the issues that mattered most to voters. Only 9% of the CIPS post-election respondents chose the Lib Dems as the best party on the issue they saw as most important. (Yes, nearly half of those who saw the environment as the top issue opted for the Lib Dems. But “green issue” voters accounted for only 3% of the electorate.)
The Lib Dems can draw a small amount of comfort from this BES finding:
. . . no party had the overall pulling power on major issues that Labour enjoyed in 1997, 2001 and 2005. In the CIPS post-election survey only 25% chose Labour as best on most important issue and only 30% chose the Conservatives.
And one of the above BES conclusions should be tempered, just a little. Voters were more likely to see the economy as the number one issue. Amongst those most concerned with the economy, the Lib Dems drew even with Labour and the Conservatives as the best party. I am sure that has not happened before.
But there’s no getting away from the twin realities. The Lib Dems will make little further progress unless we are more credible across the range of key issues that matter most to voters. And we need to go into election campaigns with a stronger base of core supporters. Just 11 per cent of voters, the same proportion as in 2005, identified with the Liberal Democrats in the run-up to the campaign. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives made any progress on that front either, but both started from much higher bases.
The big question for the next five years is: how will being in the coalition help or hinder the Liberal Democrats’ efforts to build more credibility on the issues -- and a stronger partisan base?