"Would the Lib Dems prop up a government that had come third in the popular vote? Now, there’s a question many of us didn’t think we’d be asking when this campaign began..."
Three things have changed as a result of the Lib Dems poll surge following Thursday’s debate. Two are (fairly) obvious, the third less so.
Starting with the most obvious: the Lib Dem vote has increased dramatically. Today’s YouGov poll for the Sun puts them on 33. The last YouGov poll before the debate had them on 22. In other words, the party has increased its support by 50% in the space of just four days.
Today’s poll puts them in the lead, as did a bpix poll on Sunday. We’ve seen third party surges before, but not this close to a general election. No one knows whether the Lib Dems will manage to sustain this level of support, or whether it will fade (or even increase yet further). Anyone who does tell you they know is fibbing, for we are in unchartered waters here.
Second, and as a result, both the other two parties have lost support. Prior to the debates, every opinion poll during the campaign put the Conservatives on 38+/-3, every poll put Labour on 30+/-3. That is no longer true. The Conservatives have been on 31 in two of the post-debate polls. Labour have dropped as low as 26. The two-party share of the vote in today’s poll – in what used to be seen as the archetypical two-party system – is just 58%.
The third consequence is the least obvious. When I was growing up, and used to complain that something wasn’t fair, my Dad would reply: life’s not fair, son. That applies in spade to the British electoral system. Projections of seats from votes should always be treated with caution – especially now – but most projections of seats based on recent polls would put Labour third in votes but first in seats. And the Lib Dems, first in votes, would come third in seats.
Prior to the debates, whilst most polls pointed to a hung parliament it was one in which the Conservatives would most likely have emerged with most seats. No longer. On most projections from the post-debate polls (and the precise details differ depending how you make that projection), we will have a hung parliament but with Labour as the largest party in terms of seats. And that is the real game changer from Thursday.
If they can push on, and increase support, then the Lib Dems might break through this barrier, and begin to be properly rewarded in seats. But they need around 37/38% to become the largest single party, and around the 40% mark to form a majority. And short of that, the Lib Dem surge hurts the Conservatives more than it hurts Labour.
This does, however, pose a problem for Nick Clegg. The Lib Dem position is that, in the event of a hung parliament, they are prepared to reach agreement with whichever party has the most obvious ‘mandate’ from the voters.
Nick Clegg, has, however always been very careful not to specify whether mandate means votes or seats, arguing that this is a hypothetical discussion, the sort of thing that nerdy academics worry about but which didn’t worry normal folk much.
In fact, it has always been a real possibility that Labour might emerge with more seats but with fewer votes. And on today’s poll is looks even less hypothetical.
Would the Lib Dems prop up a government that had come third in the popular vote? Now, there’s a question many of us didn’t think we’d be asking when this campaign began.
Professor Philip Cowley