In the Eye of a Perfect Storm: Why the Lib Dems could Win Nothing on Thursday

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It’s all gone very quiet for Tim Farron’s party. When Theresa May made her nine-minute-early announcement that we were to have a three-year-early general election, Lib Dem eyes will have lit up with cautious optimism across the country. They wasted no time in pushing their message that theirs was the only anti-Brexit party and that they are the natural home for the 48%. However, just days away from the big day, their campaign has been drowned out by the ever-tighter battle for number 10 between red and blue.

No matter, though. The Lib Dems were decimated in 2015 after the public turned on them for their role in the Coalition, meaning that things could hardly get worse. Even if they only won a couple of extra seats this year, at least they can keep plugging away at rebuilding towards replicating their impressive showing in 2010. Right?

Well, maybe not. Polling numbers for the Lib Dems have been poor but not catastrophic, but they’re only the headline figures. There is a perfect storm brewing for Britain’s pro-EU centrists and the result could be a complete wipeout.

Let me just acknowledge that this could well be one of the multitude of articles that are consigned to the trashcan of humiliatingly wrong election predictions on June 9th. But, hey – if professional pollsters can get it completely wrong, why can’t I. I should also point out that these aren’t, in fact, reflective of my own opinions, but merely what the numbers are telling me. Allow me to explain.

The model

I’m no expert, but I like politics, I really like numbers and I bloody love Microsoft Excel. This combination led me to – and let me promise you that I do have a social life…honestly – design my own spreadsheet that projects national polling figures onto each constituency in England, Wales and Scotland. As well as voting intention, I also took into account constituency-level EU referendum estimates and YouGov’s findings on how 2015 votes are migrating. My assertion about my social life is falling apart before my eyes, I know.

So, I plugged in the numbers, and was rather taken aback when my neat little table showed a ‘0’ next to ‘LD’. Well, that can’t be right; I’ve clearly missed something, relied too heavily on a particular effect or – heaven forbid – there’s an error in my spreadsheet. But, the more I delved into the polling data, the more I realised what a predicament the centrists could be sleepwalking in to.

Lib Dem voters are leaving in droves

According to YouGov’s landmark poll on May 31st, only 51% of 2015 Lib Dem voters plan on voting for them this time round. Astonishingly, 31% of them are likely to vote for Labour on Thursday. Any party would struggle with such an exodus, but the Lib Dems have been hanging their hat on appealing to those who may have voted Tory or Labour last time and want to oppose a hard Brexit or prevent us leaving the EU altogether. However…

The Remainers are voting Labour

Tim Farron will have been licking his lips at the prospect of 48% of the country being tempted by his party after Labour refused to oppose Article 50. In reality, for whatever reason, we haven’t seen anything like that materialise. Only 13% of those who voted Remain last year plan to vote Lib Dem this year and, in stark contrast, 53% plan to vote Labour.

Constituency level

Pollsters have acknowledged that this election cannot be predicted on uniform swing as it has been before, mostly due to the sizable spanner in the works that Brexit has provided. So, I had a look at the seats the Lib Dems currently hold to figure out whether each one of them really is under threat. Below I’ll share what I found; I’ll warn you that it’s a long read, but I’d say it’s only fair to hold back your scepticism until you’ve given it a chance. I’ll also happily admit that I’m not personally acquainted with any of the constituencies and therefore I can’t comment on local factors that I’m entirely ignorant of.

Orkney and Shetland 2015 majority 817
‘Leave’ vote 40% Under threat from SNP

A nice easy one to start even with the high-profile Alistair Carmichael as the incumbent – a razor-thin majority that could be under serious threat from the SNP, particularly if the unionist vote is split by an improvement for Labour and the Conservatives.

Ceredigion 2015 majority 3067
‘Leave’ vote 45% Under threat from Plaid Cymru

A slightly more comfortable majority for the Lib Dems, but still small enough to be affected by an exodus to Labour that can allow Plaid in.

Southport 2015 majority 1322
‘Leave’ vote 46% Under threat from Conservatives

In the absence of much of a Remainer effect, Southport can easily be captured by the kind of swing that pollsters are expecting nationwide towards the Tories.

Leeds North West 2015 majority 2907
‘Leave’ vote 35% Under threat from Labour

In theory, one would imagine that a heavily Remain constituency with a few-thousand majority would be a shoo-in for the incumbent, but as I’ve discussed above, the polling numbers don’t look so promising.

Carshalton and Wallington 2015 majority 1510
‘Leave’ vote 56% Under threat from Conservatives

A small majority against the high-polling Tories in a Leave-voting constituency – this one doesn’t look good.

North Norfolk 2015 majority 4043
‘Leave’ vote 58% Under threat from Conservatives

A sizable – though far from enormous – majority, but the 42% who voted Remain would have to avoid the predicted vote-split with Labour to keep the Tories at bay.

Sheffield, Hallam 2015 majority 2353
‘Leave’ vote 34% Under threat from Labour

Goodness me, wouldn’t this be a headline. The student population of Nick Clegg’s constituency were angry enough about his tuition fee U-turn that they caused him a serious scare, and it’s possible that they could complete the job two years later.

Westmorland and Lonsdale 2015 majority 8949
‘Leave’ vote 47% Under threat from Conservatives

Needless to say, having the party leader unseated would be a crushing blow. The majority looks safe enough, but even the bookies are anticipating a close race in Tim Farron’s backyard.

Richmond Park (by-election) 2016 majority 1872
‘Leave’ vote 29% Under threat from Conservatives

Zac Goldsmith lost his seat in what became a Brexit by-election last year, but if Labour’s high national polling translates to Richmond and they actually win more votes than they have local members, the Remainers could be split and Sarah Olney’s time in parliament could be brought to a premature end.

Target seats and the Richmond Park effect

I was among those predicting dozens of seats for the Lib Dems just a few weeks ago, assuming that constituents in affluent pro-EU areas would see orange as the only option. But a closer inspection of those imagined constituencies could be telling a different story. There are only five constituencies in the country held by the Conservatives or Labour with a Remain vote of 60% or higher that the Lib Dems were within 5,000 votes of in 2015. Only one of those – the Labour-held Cambridge – is within the reach of a 2,000-vote swing. With the national vote share of the two main parties set to be sky-high on Thursday, there’s no reason to be sure of any gains whatsoever.

But then, what do I know?

I don’t work for YouGov, ICM or Survation, I’m just a bloke with a spreadsheet. I can only find one bookie even offering odds on the Lib Dems failing to win a seat. For what it’s worth, I still haven’t even managed to convince myself that there is any chance of this happening. But, maybe it’s worthy of some serious thought that as the contest to be the country’s biggest party gets ever more interesting, a storm could be gathering around the beleaguered former third party, a storm from which they may never rebuild. A storm that no-one has really noticed.

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