Poll Position? The Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Phony Battle for Third Place

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In mid-April 2012, surveys released by a number of polling organisations suggested that, were a general election to take place, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) would receive more votes than the Liberal Democrats, and take their place as the third party of British politics.[i] Subsequent polling has placed the Liberal Democrats in third place, with their lead over UKIP remaining in the low single digits, suggesting an ongoing ‘battle’ for third place.

In light of these developments, it is tempting to suggest that UKIP could displace the Liberal Democrats as the natural home for the protest vote. Free from the constraints of governance, the Liberals have long presented themselves as an anti-establishment alternative to the Conservative-Labour duopoly. This claim, however, was damaged by the formation of the Coalition, and the collapse in the party’s support since May 2010 can be blamed, at least in part, on the exodus of the protest vote.

Likewise, UKIP have promoted themselves as an anti-establishment party, a position perhaps best illustrated by their controversial ‘sod the lot’ poster, released during the 2010 election.[ii] Unlike the Liberal Democrats, UKIP are still able to promote themselves as political outsiders, and given that support for ‘other’ parties has increased considerably since 2010, it might appear that minor parties are increasingly filling the anti-establishment void vacated by the Liberal Democrats, with UKIP proving the most successful.

Such a conclusion  however, is called into question by the very polls that suggest it. The statistical data for the YouGov poll of 16 April 2012 – the  first poll released by YouGov to show UKIP ahead of the Liberal Democrats – certainly confirms that the Liberal Democrat base has collapsed since 2010: 31% of their then-voters declined to express any voting intention. Of those who did, just 32% said that they would now back the party: a staggering result that suggests that the Liberal Democrats have retained a mere 22% of their 2010 vote.[iii]

While it may prove tempting to attribute this collapse to the loss of the protest vote, a further examination indicates that the largest beneficiary from the Liberal Democrat collapse has been Labour: on the same figures, Labour would gain 27% of the 2010 Liberal Democrat vote. There remains, however, a general sense of disconnection with the party system. 25% of 2010 Liberal Democrat voters claimed they would not know who to vote for in an election. The data suggests that just 4% of the Liberal Democrats’ 2010 vote has switched to UKIP.

Clearly, the roots of UKIP’s rise lie elsewhere. Polling suggests that their recent success comes at the expense of the Conservative Party: only 21% of those who voted Conservative in 2010 continue to have a voting preference, and only 80% of those who do would vote Conservative, a retention rate of 63%.[iv] Significantly, 10% of those who voted Conservative in 2010 would now vote for UKIP. Their recent strength owes far more to the ability to attract disillusioned Conservatives than for its ability to attract protest votes.

Ultimately, the polls suggest that the Liberal Democrats and UKIP should not concern themselves with picking up protest votes. The Liberal Democrats are now a party of government, and would find it nearly impossible to recapture their lost protest voters. Instead, these figures suggest that they would be better off engaging with centre-leaning voters, whether they support other parties or no party in particular. Likewise, while UKIP may find it useful in the short run to attract protest voters, these polls suggest that they should be attracting those who support a right-of-Conservative platform.

Nobody can predict how this situation will develop in the time before the next election: even in an ordinary parliament, this would be a difficult task. However,  as this article is published, a YouGov poll has placed the Conservatives on just 29%, their lowest share of the vote since 2004.[v] For the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, the coming months may prove to be less of a battle for third place and more a battle for votes of a rapidly disintegrating Conservative base.

By Simon Mackley. Edited by Chris Olewicz

Further Reading

[i] YouGov poll of 16 April 2012, http://research.yougov.co.uk/news/2012/04/16/update-labour-lead-11/; YouGov poll of 17 April 2012, http://research.yougov.co.uk/news/2012/04/17/update-results-stable/; Opinium poll of 13 April 2012 (published 17 April), http://news.opinium.co.uk/survey-results/voting-intention-13th-april.

[ii] ‘Gloucester UKIP candidate criticises party’s poster’, BBC News, 15 April 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8622653.stm.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Anthony Wells, UK Polling Report, http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/5267.
  • James

    I doubt UKIP would pick up a significant number of protest voters who are not, at the least, right of center. On the centre and left wings, there are a multitude of smaller parties – Greens, SWP, etc etc. UKIP is the only right wing protest party available; thus they are the natural outlet for disillusioned Conservatives.

  • David Jeffery

    The key difference between the LDs and UKIP is that over a long period of time LDs have managed to gain strong pockets of support in constituencies/wards in contrast to UKIP, who seem to have a more consistent low level of support across the country (this is one of the reasons why UKIP does well in European election, in addition to being the only real anti-EU party).

    The challenge for UKIP (and why it will probably never get into Parliament under the current voting system) is to persuade enough Tory voters to switch to them. In most cases I wager this would just split the ‘right-wing’ vote and allow Labour in. I don’t think UKIP will ever be a real ‘third party’, in the way the LDs were/are.

  • James

    You may be right there – UKIP may function more effectively as a pressure group than as an actual party. If the Tories see large amounts of their support disappearing to UKIP it could persuade them to enact more UKIPish policies in order to sustain their vote.

  • A. Tromans

    To echo david’s comments, albeit in a blunter fashion:

    Come back UKIP when you have some MPs or run a council or two. Then we talk about you being the new third party.

  • Jordan

    Hi, really good article really liked it. But how you read the you gov sun survey results that Labour would gain 27% of the Lib Dem vote. Very keen to learn more about how to read data and finding it hard to do myself so if the process could be explained would really appreicaite it
    Thank you