The latest issue of Progress – the journal of the “New Labour pressure group which aims to promote a radical and progressive politics for the 21st century” – features an article by Professor Paul Whiteley of Essex University, in which he summarises the key findings from a large-scale survey of party members.
Professor Whiteley and his colleagues found four dimensions or clusters of grassroots attitudes in the data. These are: “lifestyle liberalism”; “equality and redistribution”; “free-market liberalism”; and a strongly pro-EU stance. But he shows that when there’s a tension, the egalitarian impulse will win out. We are, at heart, a social liberal party.
Whiteley concludes that the party’s dismal poll ratings will tie the Liberal Democrats to the coalition, but that over time, both coalition parties will veto policies from the other side that their supporters oppose, most notably on reducing public spending and taxes.
This situation is a recipe for policy gridlock as the next election approaches.
Professor Whiteley may be correct. But then he may not. The coalition government has proved several times already that making political prophecies is a hazardous business, especially when the leaderships of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are prepared to act in ways that are so detached from the expectations of their grassroots.
What I found more interesting are the signs of a disconnect since the party went into coalition between core views and instincts of Liberal Democrat members (as set out in Professor Whiteley’s article) and those of Liberal Democrat voters.
Here’s a signpost. On Monday, UK Polling Report commented on a new YouGov poll asking voters where they placed the parties on the ‘left-right’ spectrum.
Until the general election the Liberal Democrats had consistently been perceived as a left-of-centre party, scoring between -9 and -17 on the left-right scale. They are now viewed as being almost exactly in the centre, with a score of +1. Nick Clegg himself is now seen as firmly right-of-centre with a score of +10.
As is well known, the pool of Liberal Democrat voters is smaller than it was at the 2010 general election. Current Lib Dem voters are more likely now to see themselves as being “in the middle” of the political spectrum.
The data also gives us firm evidence of what most people assumed anyway – that the votes the Liberal Democrats have lost since the election have been their more left wing voters, leaving them with a somewhat more centrist rump. “Lost Liberal Democrats” (those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 but wouldn’t tomorrow) place themselves on average at -20 on the left-right scale. Those who have remained loyal place themselves on average at -6.
We now have some clues as to what this “centrist rump” of Liberal Democrat voters think and expect of the government.
First, Liberal Democrat voters appear to be not much more likely than most to be concerned about the cuts to benefits, or changes to social housing. In November, Ipsos MORI asked voters what they thought of the coalition government’s spending cuts.
Over half of the public (54%) were concerned about cuts to benefits but a significant minority (44%) were not concerned. 52% of Liberal Democrat voters were concerned and 47% - about the same ratio - were not concerned.
On changes to social housing, it was a similar story: 52% of voters were concerned, but 42% were not concerned. By comparison, 51% of Liberal Democrat voters were concerned and 47% were not concerned. (Note that the sub sample was very small.)
On university fees, however, 81% of Lib Dem voters were concerned about what the government had announced, and only 19% were not concerned. Amongst all voters the breakdown was 67% to 32%. But whether this issue is really about using tax revenues to reduce poverty (as per the question on the egalitarian dimension in Professor Whiteley’s survey), is open to argument.
Second, when it comes to the spending cuts, Liberal Democrat voters have been more prepared than average voters to give the government the benefit of the doubt. In October, just after the Spending Review was delivered, Populus found that Liberal Democrat voters were more likely than other voters to see the cuts as “fair” and to agree that the government was “getting the right balance between tax rises and spending cuts”. (Still, it must be said that Lib Dem voters were evenly spread on these questions). And Lib Dem voters were much more likely than voters to agree that the government’s decisions were putting the economy on a stronger footing for the long term.
Last month, after the VAT rise took effect, YouGov asked if the government’s cuts will be good or bad for the economy. Only 38% of voters thought they would be good, compared to 47% who thought they will be bad. Liberal Democrat voters thought they would be good, by a margin of 46% to 35%.
But Liberal Democrat supporters are swinging against the cuts, albeit more slowly than the electorate as a whole. Between October and December last year, it was roughly even between voters thinking the cuts would be good and those thinking they would be bad. At that time, Liberal Democrat voters backed the cuts, by a two-to-one margin.
In January, 57% of voters said the cuts are being done unfairly, the highest figure that YouGov have shown so far. But Liberal Democrat voters divided evenly on that question. By comparison, in the closing months of 2010, voters tended to say that the cuts were unfair, with a plurality of Liberal Democrat supporters saying the opposite.
Third, YouGov’s surveys have shown for some months that Liberal Democrat voters are more likely than others to see the economy, education and pensions, rather than, say, health, taxes or Afghanistan, as top issues facing the country.
In the past, Liberal Democrat members’ political views have been broadly in tune with those of people who vote for the party. This was especially the case on key issues around taxing and spending. (See, for example, the work of Russell and Fieldhouse). But members and voters now have different narratives about the party.
Some Liberal Democrats will find this shift discomforting and demand a drive to regain support on the “left”. Others will see it as the opportunity to build some kind of tough, new liberal party for the next general election, and beyond. Harder heads will recognise that you can never wind back the clock, especially where voters and their perceptions are concerned. And the agendas of the ‘left of centre’ voters who backed the Lib Dems in 2010 were vague, if not nebulous. [Click here] Yet the party needs to build a bigger, broader electoral coalition than a “centrist rump” if it is to avoid an electoral wipeout. What we’ll surely need is a long, determined push to gain the support of liberal-minded voters of all varieties.