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Why the Performance of the Liberal Democrats Could Determine the General Election

05/05/2015 16:28 BST | Updated 04/05/2016 10:12 BST

It has taken a long time but we're nearly there. As we enter the final furlong of probably the longest election campaign in British political history, the polls still have the major protagonists neck and neck. But while uncertainty exists on whether the Conservatives or Labour will gain the most seats, there is notable polling trends on which a broad consensus has emerged.

Generally speaking, it is clear that there will be a swing from Conservative to Labour across England and Wales, perhaps garnering the latter forty seats. The Conservatives could also suffer a handful of losses to UKIP in a number of constituencies in Essex and perhaps Kent. But the UKIP threat to Labour in its Northern heartlands seems to have receded thanks in part to the strong Labour ground campaign. The narrative in the immediate aftermath of the European Elections that UKIP could win as many as twenty seats seems to be somewhat wide of the mark. But any Labour gains are likely to be offset by its collapse in Scotland.

It's worth drawing breath to consider the sheer scale of the likely political realignment in Scotland. Labour along with the other pro-Union parties could be wiped off the political map by Sturgeon's SNP. The 'I agree with Nicola' bandwagon has not only dominated the political discourse of this election campaign, but has undoubtedly scuppered any hope of Labour forming the next administration alone. Yet with these scenarios increasingly looking like they will become reality, attention is now focussed on which party, Labour or the Conservatives, will gain the most seats. Enter the somewhat forgotten factor in this electoral calculation. Just how well or badly will the Liberal Democrats do on May 7th?

Dramatic fall in support, but could they buck the trend?

Since entering coalition with the Conservatives, support for the Liberal Democrats has fallen off a cliff. The party has barely polled double figures in national polls for a consistent length of time for nigh on four years. Against this backdrop, the party's likely performance on May 7th has provoked much debate. Two schools of thought have emerged.

The first, using British Election Survey (BES) data provides strong evidence that the Liberal Democrats will lose most of its support in seats where they start from a strong position and lose least in their weaker seats - in other words mirroring changes in other elections over the cycle where their drop in support has been broadly proportional to prior strength.

The second school of thought stresses the importance of three factors: the incumbent candidate and his or her ability to build a personal vote; the local platform in sustaining party activity over the non-regulatory campaign period (the four and half years prior to the regulated election campaign); and the effectiveness of the local ground campaign. Where these factors occur in unison, it is argued that the Liberal Democrats will buck the current national swing against them and therefore hold onto a larger number of seats than expected. But who's right?

The simple truth is they're both right. A key weapon in the Liberal Democrats armoury is the personal popularity of the incumbent candidate in party held seats. Previous research has shown that through building a strong local and personal profile, party incumbents can boost their support by as much as 8%. But when the incumbent retires, this can pose problems for the Liberal Democrats, because the personal vote is lost and it is difficult to recover. Of the 57 party held seats, eleven incumbents are retiring. And in these seats, whether they are safe on paper or not, the Liberal Democrats are struggling to hold onto their vote.

Preserving the voter base

But incumbency alone will not save some Liberal Democrat MPs. Over the course of the electoral cycle, the Liberal Democrats have struggled to maintain their local base of support. Losses in local elections has reduced their councillor base and severely hampered attempts to sustain a presence on the ground during the non-regulatory campaign period. This has been most evident in those seats where Labour is the main opposition. Here their local councillor base has halved. The decline is around a fifth where they are defending seats from the Conservatives.

It is worth remembering just how important the local platform is to the continued success of the Liberal Democrats. Given their weak social and partisan base, it is imperative for the party to work 'all year round' in incumbent seats to preserve their vote. In the four and half year period before the regulatory election campaign period, the party invariably uses 'Focus' leaflets (and lots of them!) as the main tool of choice to retain that link between the local incumbent/party and the electorate. By preserving their voter base of core identifiers, the party can then spend more resources on waverers and tactical switchers to secure the coalition of voters it needs to hold or win parliamentary seats.

This time around it is clear that reductions in their councillor and activist base have had a severe effect in its key battlegrounds. And although local campaigns are now in full swing, the party has had to play catch-up in some seats to build up this baseline of support due to the patchy nature of activity in the non-regulatory period.

Even those seats where the party has been well resourced and maintained a strong local presence have run into problems. Morale has been a big factor. Coalition with the Conservatives has prompted verbal volleys from some electors in party held seats angry at what they see as betrayal. And in a sea of heavy local election losses and lost by-election deposits, it is not surprising that the desire to pound the streets during the electoral cycle for some has just ebbed away. Put it this way, it isn't much fun going to watch your favourite football team getting thumped 5-0 one game after another over a four year period. Even the most loyal fan would be tempted to stay at home.

Historically, the Liberal Democrats ground campaign has also been a source of strength with previous evidence always suggesting that it is the most potent of all the parties. But question marks exist here too. There is evidence of innovation in the form of 'slow canvasses', micro targeting of different voters and much more personalised contact. But all parties are taking heed from the Obama legacy of personal contact driven campaigns. Indeed it is questionable whether the Liberal Democrats have done enough to maintain this competitive edge. Moreover, it will be interesting to see just how effective their grassroots campaign is where the party is in defensive mode.

Why the Lib Dems hold the key to the General Election

Yet despite these concerns, the Liberal Democrats hold the key to the election. Bar a few exceptions, the party faces an uphill task in seats where they are facing Labour. Where the party has a candidate with a strong personal vote, have preserved their local platform and have a well oiled campaign, then they are more likely to hold on. But it is in the 37 Liberal Democrat-Conservative battlegrounds where the election could be won or lost.

If the Liberal Democrat vote holds up in these battlegrounds then this could severely dent the chances of the Conservatives winning the largest number of seats. Unsurprisingly, the Liberal Democrats are frantically courting Labour and Green sympathisers in these key battlegrounds to preserve the 2010 anti-Conservative alliance. And the party has posed these electors a clear question: Is your dislike for the Liberal Democrats really so strong that you would prefer a Conservative MP?

Whisper it carefully but a healthy number of Liberal Democrat MPs in combination with the Conservatives just squeaking over the line ahead of Labour could mean that the Dave and Nick show is back on the road. But the Liberal Democrats won't tell you that on the doorstep!

Local campaigning skills could save the Lib Dems from University of Bath on Vimeo.

Dr David Cutts is a researcher within the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies at the University of Bath.