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The British and their political parties: The Lib Dems, UKIP and Greens

By Cees van der Eijk and Stuart Fox

In our previous blog post we discussed the electoral potential of the Conservatives and Labour, and emphasised that while both parties could do well tomorrow and potentially hit 40% of the vote with a good campaign, they could lose a great deal of support as well. Here we consider the electoral potential of the parties that might take some of those votes and who are competing throughout Britain: the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens.

Just as in our discussion about the Conservatives and Labour, we have to distinguish between ‘vote intentions’ and ‘electoral preferences’. Vote intentions are gauged by a question about the party one intends to vote for in the general election. Electoral preferences refer to voters’ propensity to vote for a particular party on a scale from 0 (meaning ‘very unlikely’) to 10. A person’s vote intention could change from one day to the next as a result of their exposure to the election campaign and other events – and they are particularly likely to switch from one party to another in this sense if they have a high electoral preference for that party. Similarly, some voters reply ‘don’t know’ to the vote intention question, because they may find two parties equally attractive and cannot decide which one to support.

We can use voters’ electoral preferences to assess political parties’ potential vote share if everything went their way during the campaign. We can also use it break down potential voters for each party into five groups: strong core supporters, who will most likely vote for the party come rain or shine; weak core supporters, who prefer the party to the others but still don’t feel particularly enthused by it and so may not bother voting at all; strong supporters who might shift, because they like the party a lot but also like another one a great deal; weak supporters who might shift, because they have lukewarm feelings for the party but also for another one; and finally the reluctant supporters – people who intend to vote for the party but who do not have particularly strong feelings of support for it (they may, for example, be tactical voters).

The table below shows the breakdown of the British Election Study respondents currently intending to support the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens into these five groups. Looking at the expected vote share of the three parties (based on those people who expect to vote tomorrow), we see the Lib Dems could be in for a rough night – only 7% of voters expect to vote for them.

The table also shows, however, that the Lib Dems are far from ‘down and out’, because their potential share of the vote is double that size: 7% of voters who currently intend to vote for another party have strong preferences for the Lib Dems. This suggests that much of the drop in the popularity of the Lib Dems since 2010 doesn’t reflect a complete abandonment of the party, but rather a weakening of the preferences voters have for them. If the Lib Dems are able to convince these voters that they are still worth voting for – perhaps for tactical reasons to keep out a less popular party, or (as Nick Clegg argues) so that they can act as a brake on the ideological excesses of the Labour and Tory parties – then they could substantially increase their vote share, and have a better-than-expected result tomorrow. It is also worth noting that of the three smaller parties, the Lib Dems have the greatest share of supporters who can be called ‘strong core voters’ (at 31%, compared with 25% for UKIP and 23% for the Greens). There remains a solid and sizeable core of support upon which the Lib Dems can depend to back them.

Liberal Democrats UKIP Green
strong core support
25% 23%
weak core support 4% 5% 9%
strong supporters, may still switch away 24% 36% 28%
weak supporters, may still switch away 10% 6% 7%
reluctant support and others 31% 28% 33%
Total 100% 100% 100%
Share of all with a vote intention 7% 13% 6%
support, may switch from other parties (as percentage of all voting) 7% 6% 6%


Turning to UKIP, they look set to have a good night – they have the largest share of vote intentions, at 13%. They also have the potential to increase that level yet further, with 6% of voters having strong preferences for UKIP despite currently saying they intend to vote for another party. A strong showing from UKIP tomorrow could see them substantially improve their vote share tomorrow. That said, it isn’t all good news for UKIP, as their support is also the most fragile. 36% of UKIP’s current intended voters are strong UKIP supporters, but also strong supporters for another party. This means that if the other party plays their cards right, they could take more than a third of UKIP’s vote share. This makes UKIP, rather than the Liberal Democrats, the most vulnerable to losing support as a consequence of tactical voting considerations as voters ponder whether they’d prefer David Cameron or Ed Miliband in Downing Street.

Finally, we have the Greens. In terms of these strengths and weaknesses, and risks and opportunities, the Greens sit somewhere between the Lib Dems and UKIP. The Greens can expect to pick up something in the area of 6% of the vote, with almost a quarter of that support coming from strong core Green voters. Almost 30% of their support, however, consists of voters who really like the Greens, but who really like another party as well – this group is vulnerable to tactical voting considerations and the campaigning efforts of the larger parties.

When we look at the three smaller parties, therefore, we get a mixed picture. The Liberal Democrats are far from finished, but they could still have a bad night – alternatively, they could confound expectations and outshine UKIP. UKIP look set to do well, but perhaps not as well as some expect given the vulnerability of their support. The Greens look set to continue building on the steady growth of support in the electorate, but are unlikely to confound expectations tomorrow night.

Cees van der Eijk is a Professor of comparative politics, research methods and electoral studies at the Methods and Data Institute at the University of Nottingham. Stuart Fox is a PHD candidate who research focuses on political participation, alienation and apathy of young people in Western democracies.

Published inBritish PoliticsGeneral Election 2015Politics

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