Whose voters are the Lib Dems stealing?

Whose voters are the Lib Dems stealing?

When Tim Farron was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in July 2015, he inherited a husk of a party.  After five years of being the minor party in a coalition government, the Lib Dems were rewarded by losing 49 of its 57 seats - in those five years, too, it lost about twenty thousand members.  When Farron declared his intention to start his party's 'fightback', he was met with derision.  

And the derision wasn't without grounds.  For a long time after the election, the Lib Dems were failing to gain any traction: the media weren't interested in anything they had to say, and the public barely even knew who Tim Farron was.

But then the EU referendum came along.

The result of the referendum on our place in the European Union has opened up a gap in the market for the Liberal Democrats.  And Tim Farron has positioned his party very well in order to scoop up voters who feel left out by the two major parties in their pursuit of Theresa May's hard Brexit.

It would certainly explain the slow but steady rise of the party in the polls since June. While the party sat at around 7 percent in our model at the time of the referendum, it currently sits at just shy of 11 percent.

But is this an exhaustive explanation? Is it the case that the Lib Dem's undeniable rise in the polls over the past months has been solely due to the party's capturing of Labour and Conservative Remainers?

Not quite.

Firstly, it seems that quite a lot of the party's post-Brexit bump has come from its own 2015 voters coming back to its fold.  After the election, faced with the routing and subsequent irrelevance of their party, 2015 Liberal Democrat voters deserted and went elsewhere - usually to both the Tories and Labour.  By the end of April 2016, only 44% of the party's 2015 voters were planning on voting Lib Dem at the next election.  Since the referendum, though, with the party's new, clear direction, the party's voters have started to come back.  Take a look at the graphic below which shows the percentages of each party's 2015 voters who have switched to the Liberal Democrats.  The yellow line - indicating the percentage of 2015 Lib Dem voters who still intend to vote Lib Dem - shows a clear upward trend since the referendum.  Indeed, for a couple of months now, the party's voter retention has been steady between 58% and 68%.  This is way below the retention rates for both Labour and the Conservatives, who tend to keep between 80% and 95% of their 2015 voters on board, but it is still a big improvement on the 44% in April of last year.

There's a second thing to note from this graph, too: the Lib Dems seem to be quite a lot better at stealing Labour's 2015 voters than they are at stealing the Tories' 2015 voters.  The graphic below shows that although both major parties had few defectors to the Lib Dems for the post-election part of 2015, Labour voters started to defect in greater numbers after 23rd June; since the start of 2017, around 10% of Labour's 2015 voters plan to vote Lib Dem at the next election.  While the percentage of Tory 2015 voters who intend to vote for the Liberals has increased since the referendum, it has only gone up by a couple of points, and still only stands at around 5 or 6 per cent.

There may be a simple explanation as to why the Liberals are better at getting Labour's voters than the Tories' voters.  Plainly, there are more 2015 Labour voters looking for another place to put their vote next time around than there are 2015 Tory voters intending to do the same.  Why? Because Labour is in such a huge mess, being seen as divided and being lead by the massively unpopular Jeremy Corbyn.  There's another possible explanation, too, and it's just as simple: a greater proportion of Labour's 2015 voters are Remainers than Tory 2015 voters - 63% to 42%.  Thus more Labour voters are susceptible to Tim Farron's overtly pro-EU stance than are Tory voters.

It's clear, then, the narrative that the Lib Dems are collecting Labour and Tory Remainers alike leaves out a lot of detail.  A good chunk of the #LibDemFighback is actually, it seems, the party's success in winning back more of its own former voters.

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