Inside Story

Could the Lib Dems win outright?

Suddenly there are five potential post-election prime ministers in Britain

Peter Kellner 24 April 2010 874 words

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg during the televised election debate on 15 April 2010. Ken McKay/EPA

SOMETHING strange has happened to British politics. Normally election campaigns are essentially contests between two parties; just one of two people could emerge as prime minister. This time, some polls have indicated that the election has been blown open, with any one of five people ending up leading the country, and Britain’s whole political system changed forever. As well as Gordon Brown, the incumbent Labour prime minister, and David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives, three other possible names have emerged: Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, and the two Miliband brothers, Ed and David, who are currently Labour cabinet ministers.

How come? The immediate reason is that the first-ever TV debate between the three main party leaders, on 15 April, led to a surge for the third-party Liberal Democrats. Before the debate, the polls were fairly consistent, with the Conservatives averaging 39 per cent, Labour 31 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 19 per cent.

Under Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system, this would have led to a Conservative government. David Cameron would either have a narrow overall majority or lead easily the largest party, coming close to the 326 seats any party needs to achieve a majority in the 650-seat House of Commons. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats would struggle to keep the sixty-two seats they won in 2005: with around one-fifth of the vote, they would win less than one-tenth of the seats.

In the days after the first TV debate, however, the Lib Dems surged to 30 per cent; in some polls they even came first in popular support. Suddenly, a novel question had to be asked: could Clegg’s party actually win power? The answer is probably no – I’d put the odds at 10–1 against – but longer-odds horses have won big races in the past.

But to become the largest party the Lib Dems must win around 38 per cent support. The equivalent target for the other parties is lower: it varies depending on how they divide up the rest of the vote, but unless the Lib Dems lose support as quickly they have gained it since last week, the winning post could be as low as 35 per cent for the Conservatives and 30 per cent for Labour. This inequality has prompted much discussion in the British media about the way the country’s voting system is biased against the Lib Dems: they could end up with more votes than Labour or the Conservatives, but win half as many seats.

And yet, and yet. What is not appreciated is that the reason why this is so is also the reason why, once the party passed its 38 per cent threshold, it would start to garner seats in massive numbers. With 40 per cent it would probably have an outright majority; with 42 per cent it would win by a landslide. The main reason is that if it gains, say, 30–35 per cent, it comes second in a vast number of seats but first in only 100 or so. But as it approaches 40 per cent these second places start converting into first places; each extra percentage point yields it a barrow-load of seats.

One reason why the Lib Dems could, just possibly, achieve this is revealed by one YouGov poll earlier this week. We asked: “How would you vote on May 6 if you thought the Liberal Democrats had a significant chance of winning the election?” The responses: Lib Dem 49 per cent, Conservative 25 per cent, Labour 19 per cent. On the – admittedly unrealistic – assumption of a uniform national swing, this would mean 548 Lib Dem MPs, forty-one Labour MPs and just twenty-five Tories.

It won’t happen. But this question does show that if Nick Clegg continues to perform well in TV debates and voters regard him as a serious challenger then Lib Dem support could rise further from the 30 per cent or so that, all pollsters agree, it has achieved since 16 April. He did not do quite as well in the second debate, this week, as he did in the first; but neither was he forced to the margins, and he remains a popular rider in a three-horse race.

What is more, far fewer people are deterred by the prospect of a Lib Dem government. We asked people whether they would be delighted or dismayed by different election outcomes – or whether they wouldn’t mind. Fully 67 per cent said they would be delighted (29 per cent) by a Lib Dem government or wouldn’t mind (38 per cent). That 67 per cent compares with just 45 per cent for a Conservative government and 41 per cent for a Labour government

That said, I expect the Lib Dems still to end up in third place in both the popular vote and seats won. Their new support looks soft and fickle. But even if that is what happens, they may well do well enough to deprive the Conservatives of an outright victory. And there is an outside chance that the Lib Dems will increase their representation at Westminster to 100 seats or more, in which case Britain’s political system could face a real upheaval, with changes in our voting system and radical reform of the House of Lords. And one possible outcome could be Labour remaining in office, with Lib Dem support, and one of the Miliband brothers as prime minister. •