Why the Lib Dems will suffer and why they still matter

Psephologist UK 2015

On 5 May 2011, a referendum was held on whether we should change the way that we elect MPs in the UK. The push for some form of proportional representation was defeated by a resounding 2:1 margin on a less than impressive 42.2% turnout.

As a result, May’s general election will be fought using the traditional method of ‘first past the post’. And, as usual, the composition of the resulting House of Commons will be starkly different to that suggested by the share of the popular vote.

Election 2015 - Vote and Parliament

Conservative – 34.2% = 290 seats (44.6%)

Labour – 31.9% = 275 seats (42.3%)

Liberal Democrats – 13.6% = 24 seats (3.9%)

UKIP – 10.7% = 1 – 3 seats (0.15% – 0.45%)

Greens – 3.9% = 1 seat (0.15%)

SNP – 3.2% = 39 seats (6%)

Others – 2.5% = 20 seats (3.5%)

Three parties in particular will suffer under first past the post:

  • the Liberal Democrats will do well to get 14% of the vote, but their MPs will make up less than 4% of the new House of Commons;
  • UKIP may not get quite as many votes as the Lib Dems, but can still expect to get over 10% of the vote. This will be turned into one to three seats in the House (0.15% – 0.45%); and
  • the Greens look likely to get more votes in total than the SNP, but their 4% share of vote will only elect one MP (0.15%). The SNP’s 3.2% is concentrated, unsurprisingly, in Scotland, and will see them take a record 35 – 40 seats (or 4.5 – 6%).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all three parties campaigned for a more proportional system for electing MPs.

So why do the Lib Dems still matter? Because this promises to be one of the tightest races in history, rivalling the indecisive elections of the 1970s and producing a myriad of possible and strange coalition options.

And because the Lib Dems occupy the crucial centre position on the political spectrum. Unless either the Conservatives or Labour do considerably better than polling suggests that they will, the Lib Dems will hold the balance of power. They sit in a coalition sweet spot between:

  • a right of centre grouping of the Conservatives, the DUP and possibly UKIP; and
  • a left leaning coalition or minority government led by Labour and possibly including the SDLP, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens.

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