Where are the Lib Dems a threat to the Conservatives?

Where are the Lib Dems a threat to the Conservatives?

The 2015 general election was a catastrophe for the Liberal Democrats.  The party lost 49 of its 57 seats and shed just over 15 points off its 2010 vote share.  With Nick Clegg's resignation the next morning, the party entered a period of both introspection and irrelevance.  Even when Tim Farron was elected to its leadership, the party failed to gain any media traction.

The result of the EU referendum, though, while painful for the overwhelming majority of Liberal Democrats, has given the party a renewed sense of purpose.  By taking a firmly pro-Remain position, Farron's party has the opportunity to capture votes from unhappy Tory Remainers, younger voters previously unhappy with the party's record in government, and disaffected Labour voters, too.  Leading a party which polled below 10% at the last election means that, unlike Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, Tim Farron could do well by just focusing on the 48% of voters who wanted to keep Britain inside the EU.

And there's evidence that this strategy - or at least something - is working: since the referendum, the Lib Dems have moved slowly back into the low double digits.  The latest iteration of our poll of polls puts the party at 10.5% - a solid 2.5 points up on their 2015 showing.

It seems, then, that while Theresa May's 'hard Brexit' strategy is giving the party the opportunity to break into new voter groups, there's a distinct possibility that some Tory Remainers have decided to defect to the Lib Dems, instead.  Indeed, the latest ICM poll shows that 5% of Tory Remainers now intend to vote for the Lib Dems.

The yellow threat to the Conservative party is now receiving quite some attention.  The New Statesman yesterday reported that Crosby Textor, the political strategists who lead the Tories' 2015 campaign, have compiled a report for the party on this specific issue.  George Eaton reveals that the Conservatives risk losing many of their South West 2015 gains, as well as all of their gains in South London.  No doubt, Crosby Textor have detailed private polling on all sorts of variables which might turn a blue seat yellow, such as educational qualifications, income levels, age, prominent local issues, and so on.

But what can we tell about the Lib Dems' threat to the Tories based on a seat's Remain-iness alone?  Let's assume the Lib Dems play a strategy of - as they seem to be attempting - appealing clearly to all Remain voters; which seats could be in danger?

In order to investigate this a little, we took data from the House of Commons Library in order to compile a set of all the Conservative seats in which the Liberal Democrats are in second place.  Our analysis, therefore, is based partly on the assumption that if the Lib Dems are to pose a threat to a Conservative MP, they'll already have a strong standing in the constituency and thus have come second at the last election.  This data set covers exhaustively all the seats which were held by the yellows in the 2010-15 Parliament but were subsequently taken by the Tories at the 2015 election.

We then graphed these data points against Chris Hanretty's estimates of how each Parliamentary constituency voted in the EU referendum.  The logic? If the Lib Dems are to be a danger to the Tories' majorities in these constituencies, there probably needs to be some appetite for the party's pro-Remain stance.

The result is the graph below:

Having put together this data set of constituencies with the Tories in first place and the Lib Dems in second place, we superimposed two possible 'danger zones'.  The first possible danger zone is composed of marginal seats - where the Tories have a majority of less than 10 percent -  and thus where the Lib Dems weren't far off their rivals' vote shares at the last general election.  The second danger zone is composed of constituencies in which the majority of votes in the EU referendum were cast for Remain.

There are 10 marginal seats in the graph above.  They listed in the table below.  The nature of a marginal seat is such that the incumbent party always faces a larger-than-usual danger of losing the seat at the next election, and there really are some very tight contests here: Eastbourne, for instance, has a Conservative majority of just 733 votes, and Maria Caulfield, the MP for Lewes, has another tiny majority of 1083 votes, or 2.14% of the votes cast.

So the above 10 seats are all the contenders for 'danger seats' from a simple majority-sorted analysis, but what about Conservative-held constituencies where the Lib Dems are in second place and where the voters chose to remain inside the EU?  They are listed below:

Putting the two lists together and finding the seats which are common to both is shown in the graph by the dark grey box.  The Parliamentary constituencies here are both marginal and voted to Remain.  We think this puts them at fairly significant risk of being taken by the Liberal Democrats at the next election if heavily targeted by a pro-Remain Lib Dem campaign.  These data points are marked in red, and there are four of them.  

The first, on the top left of the dark box, is Lewes.  This seat has a strong Lib Dem ties: Norman Baker, the former Home Office minister in the coalition, had represented the seat from 1997 - when he took it off the previous Tory MP - until 2015 when the Tories took it back with a razor-thin majority of just over 2%.  The seat also voted 53% Remain, making it fertile ground for a pro-Remain ticket, though the reasonably small Remain-majority could make things tighter than the Lib Dems might hope.  

Kingston and Surbiton is a constituency in the South Eastern corner of London, and is represented by the top right red dot in the dark grey box.  Although the Tories' majority here is larger than in Lewes - 4.78% - it is still a very marginal constituency.  Add in the fact that 41.59% voted to Leave while 58.41% voted to Remain, and you might expect an exciting race come the next election.

The third constituency in our danger zone is Bath, represented by the bottom right red dot.  Although this seat is the least marginal in our danger zone, having a Conservative majority of 8.13%, it voted overwhelmingly to remain inside the EU, with only 31.69% voting to leave.  An unashamedly pro-Remain Liberal Democrat campaign could have Ben Howlett, Bath's Conservative MP, in a tight spot.

The fourth and final constituency in the dark grey danger zone is Twickenham, the constituency represented by Vince Cable from 1997 until his defeat by Maria Caulfield in 2015.  This seat is represented by the red dot at the bottom left of the box, and is the most ripe for the Liberal Democrats' picking: it has a tiny Tory majority of just 3.25% - 2017 votes - and also voted heavily for the Remain campaign.  Two thirds - 66.32% - of those who voted in the EU referendum voted to remain, with just 33.68% voting to leave.

But these aren't the only Tory-held seats that could be susceptible to a pro-Remain Lib Dem campaign.  There are a further 3 seats that we think could, possibly, turn yellow (in fact, one of them already has): these are seats which aren't marginal but where less than 40% of its EU referendum voters chose to Leave.  The chances of the Lib Dems taking these seats are fairly small, given the fact that the Tories have majorities of over 10%, but they're still worth considering.  They are Oxford West and Abingdon, Winchester, and Richmond Park.  Of course, Richmond Park famously switched to the yellows in December 2016; but while the trial in Richmond wasn't scientific in the sense that the Tories didn't technically stand a candidate, it still sends a message about how potent a pro-Remain ticket could be in even the safest of Conservative seats.  Sarah Olney managed to overturn Zac Goldsmith's 39% majority by appealing to the 72% of voters in the constituency who voted to Remain.  In Winchester the Leave vote was higher, at 40%, but the Conservative majority is smaller at 31%.  Likewise in Oxford West and Abingdon, the Leave vote was higher than in Richmond (38%), but the Tory majority is much smaller - only 16.74%.

So there we have it: seven seats where a Remain party could really pose quite a large threat to the Conservative incumbents.  Tim Farron is clearly attempting to turn the Lib Dems into the Remain party, and he could see some gains from the Tories at the next election if his party run a series of good local campaigns and if other demographic considerations don't overshadow the effect of the EU referendum.

No matter your party allegiance, we hope you enjoyed reading this analysis.  At Polling Digest, it's our aim to provide you with interesting insights into public opinion, and we like to think we do a pretty good job of it.  We're enormously grateful for all the support from you, dear reader, but there's one think we value more than your love, and that's your money.  By sending us a donation - no matter how small - you can help us keep this enterprise cost-neutral by helping us to cover our hosting fees.  The PayPal button is below and it's super-easy to use.  Thanks for your help!

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