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Why the Lib Dems are in pole position to drive policy in coalition negotiations

Wednesday 6 May 2015


2015 General Election Commentary at QMUL Mile End Institute

From March until 7 May, the Mile End Institute will invite experts from QMUL and beyond to contribute ideas, analysis and commentary on the 2015 UK General Election. In this post, Professor Tim Bale - along with colleagues from QUB and University of Zurich - analyses the second round of data from our voting advice application.

If the economy were all that mattered to voters, then it would be quite easy for the Lib Dems and Ukip to strike a post-election deal not only with both Labour and the Conservatives, but also with each other.

That’s because, as we have previously shown, when we look at attitudes on the economy, specifically spending and taxation, we find that while Conservative voters take a consistently right-wing position on these matters and Labour, Green and SNP voters take a left-wing position, Ukip and Lib Dem voters both take a fairly centrist position.

But it’s not just the economy, stupid. Our data has already shown us that Ukip voters appear to have a different worldview to both Lib Dem and Labour voters, strongly disagreeing on cultural matters such as gay marriage and the role of Christianity in society. So what happens if we probe more deeply into such issues?

Us and them

Instead of trying to gauge the position of party voters on an economic left-right scale, we can look at where they stand on issues that belong to what may be termed a cosmopolitan-communitarian divide.

By “communitarians” we mean those who believe that charity begins at home, in contrast to “cosmopolitans”, who believe we should have the same responsibilities towards others as we do to “our own”. The issues that define this type of view include immigration, foreign aid and Europe. As before, we can draw on the responses from users from our voting advice application WhoGetsMyVoteUK to see how party supporters divide on these issues.

From the responses of party voters, we see that Ukip voters very strongly take the communitarian side of the argument. They are vehemently Eurosceptic, calling for withdrawal from both the EU and the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), oppose foreign aid, want to limit the number of EU immigrants coming to the UK and agree that immigrants should have to wait at least five years before receiving state benefits. They also believe that local people should get priority when it comes to social housing.

Diametrically opposed to this point of view on the EU, the ECHR, foreign aid and social housing are voters for the seven left and liberal parties: the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the SNP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance.

Splits on the left

On EU immigration and benefit entitlements for migrants, voters of the left-liberal parties are rather divided. On whether to make benefits only available to those who have lived in the UK for at least five years, only Green and Labour voters were (slightly) against, Lib Dems and SNP voters were split, while those intending to vote for the Alliance, Sinn Féin and the SDLP were slightly in favour.

Similarly, on whether EU immigration should be restricted, while Green, Lib Dem, SNP, Sinn Féin and Labour voters tend to disagree, Alliance and SDLP voters just split in favour of the “agree” side. We should note that on both issues Ukip voters are virtually unanimously in favour.

The positions of Conservative voters are for all issues roughly equidistant from Ukip on the one hand, and the seven left-liberal parties on the other. They oppose withdrawal from the EU and the ECHR, support foreign aid and are split down the middle on the housing issue.

Of course, this may be partly due to our sample; voting app users tend to be younger and better educated than the norm, so even Conservative voters in our sample make take a more “cosmopolitan” position than older, less well-educated Tories.

UKIP-lite

Finally, on a number of issues, especially on benefits for immigrants, EU immigration and social housing, DUP voters tend to take a kind of UKIP-lite position, sharing similar positions to UKIP voters, if not quite as strong. UUP voters tend to take a similar, if slightly more communitarian position to Conservative voters.

On tax and spending, Conservative voters position themselves near the pole of continued cuts and fiscal probity, while Labour, Green and SNP voters take an anti-austerity position. On this cultural set of issues, it is UKIP voters that are close to the communitarian pole while Labour, SNP, Green and Lib Dem voters are closer to the cosmopolitan pole, with the Conservatives in between.

The role of the SNP

Much of the discussion of post-election government focuses on the role of the SNP and its possible role in supporting, formally or informally, a Labour government. What is striking from our analysis is the similarity in policy terms between voters of the two parties both on economics and also on non-economic cultural matters.

In many coalition systems it would seem the blindingly obvious choice, although such an option seems totally off the political agenda. On the other side of the fence, Ukip and the DUP seem culturally comfortable with the Conservatives and any conversation with Labour would be rather stilted.

All this puts the Lib Dems in a very powerful position: their voters are closer in policy terms to Labour voters than Conservatives but they are demonstrably able to do a deal with the latter. Losing seats but gaining power is likely to be an apt title for any book written about the Lib Dems 2015 election experience.

  • We define as party voters those respondents of WhoGetsMyVoteUK who enter information that they intend to vote for a given party on May 7. Unfortunately we do not have a sufficient number of responses from Wales to include Plaid Cymru voters in this analysis.
  • This article first appeared in The Conversation

About the author

Tim Bale is Professor Politics at Queen Mary University of London.  He is the author of two books on the Tories 'The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron' (Polity, 2011) and 'The Conservatives since 1945: the Drivers of Party Change' (OUP, 2012).  His latest book is the third edition of his 'European Politics: a Comparative Introduction' (Palgrave, 2013). He tweets @ProfTimBale. He is also course director of the new MA in British Politics.

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