The Liberal Democrats may be facing a greater wipeout than previously predicted, leaving them with fewer than 20 MPs after the next election, research based on the British Election Study has suggested.
A conference in London on Tuesday will feature an analysis from Dr Steve Fisher of Oxford University, which concludes that Nick Clegg’s party appears to be losing votes more heavily in seats it currently holds than it is nationally.
The study casts doubt on the party’s argument that its incumbent MPs will buck the national trend because of local popularity. The data suggests its parliamentary representation could more than halve from the 57 MPs who won seats at the last election.
The performance of the Lib Dems is crucial to the outcome of the next election because the party has so many marginal seats that could fall to either Labour or the Conservatives, potentially making the difference between which is the largest party or has a majority.
“The result is very strong, so if the pattern in the British Election Survey were replicated at the election then it would not be a surprise if the Liberal Democrats were below 20 seats after the election,” Fisher said.
In a blog, Fisher wrote: “If they are indeed losing most heavily in the seats they are defending, they are set to lose several more seats than national polls with uniform swing would predict … for many Liberal Democrat MPs to hold on to their seats they will need to become even more personally popular than they were in 2010: a tough task under the circumstances.”
The academic said Labour were the clear beneficiaries of this pattern of decline in support for the Lib Dems. However, he said, this particular constituency pattern was not hugely advantageous for Ed Miliband’s party because “most Liberal Democrat seats have the Conservatives in second place and it will be tough for Labour to come from third to win”.
Separate research from Prof Geoff Evans and Jon Mellon of Oxford University suggests Ukip will pose twice as much of a threat to the Conservatives as it will to Labour in terms of the number of seats potentially lost.
Despite Nigel Farage trying to challenge Miliband’s party by appealing to working-class former leftwingers, their analysis has found that Ukip is still much more likely to win over former Conservative voters from 2010.
Looking at Ukip supporters in Labour seats, only 18% voted Labour in 2010, whereas 39% were Conservative voters – compared with 30% having supported Labour in 2005, while only 31% were Tory supporters in that year.
Evans said: “BES data shows quite clearly that it’s the Conservative party who need to worry most about the threat of Ukip – because those people who supported Labour have, in the main, already made the switch.
“New Labour’s move to the liberal consensus on the EU and immigration in 2001, 2005 and 2010 left many of their core voters out in the cold a long time before Ukip were around.”
Labour has become more serious about combating Ukip since Farage’s party came second to the party in the Heywood & Middleton byelection, which was triggered by the death of Labour MP Jim Dobbin.
Those former Labour voters who have made their way to Ukip tended to have last voted for the party in 2005, and to be working class and anti-European Union.
Evans added: “In October, Labour narrowly held Heywood and Middleton in a strongly contested byelection, which showed high levels of Ukip support in a traditionally Labour voting constituency.
“But BES data shows how Labour had lost these voters some time ago. Most Ukip voters who had voted Labour in 2005 had not voted for them in 2010.
“Ukip support in Labour constituencies is more likely to be taken from disaffected former Labour voters, and these are far more likely to be manual workers than the middle classes that New Labour appealed to.”
A further paper from Prof Jane Green of Manchester University produces data to debunk the idea that Ukip is attracting the politically disengaged, despite Farage’s claims to be appealing to long-term non-voters.
She found Ukip was gaining the support of only 1.4% of the politically disengaged, while the Conservatives were winning 2.2% and Labour 2.7%. Ukip was, however, doing well among politically engaged but disillusioned voters who may have voted for other parties in the past.
“Political distrust and disaffection is an important part of Ukip’s success. However, to assume that Ukip is outperforming all other parties in reaching those disengaged from politics is either premature or simply incorrect,” she said.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010