The 650 | 22nd May 2017

Anatomy of a collapse: What explains the decline of the Lib Dems and Ukip?


New analysis by Populus reveals the Lib Dems are struggling to win back young voters and Tory Remainers– while Ukip’s support is plummeting across the board.

This, supposedly, is a Brexit election. Theresa May says she needs a larger majority to strengthen her negotiating position. Ipsos MORI’s respected long-running issues tracker shows voters think Brexit is the most important issue facing the country, alongside the NHS. Yet the two parties with the strongest positions on Brexit – the Liberal Democrats and UKIP – are faring poorly. Why?

The latest June2017 poll of polls puts the Liberal Democrats on 8%, barely changed from their 2015 collapse. Ukip linger at around 5%, a significant decline since the last general election. Local elections are imperfect guides to general elections, but the lacklustre Lib Dem performance and Ukip’s solitary win earlier this month are broadly in line with the polling.

Even declining parties, however, still find votes from core supporters. We’ve used the same approach as last week’s analysis of Conservative and Labour support to understand who is still voting for the Liberal Democrats and Ukip.

In our analysis, support for parties has been indexed with a score of 100 showing the group is no more or less likely than average to vote for that party. Scores above 100 indicate a greater level of support, and scores below 100 a lower than average level of support. As an example, a party polling 10 per cent nationally but 15 per cent amongst a particular demographic group would have a score of 150 amongst that cohort.

The Liberal Democrats and Tim Farron

The Liberal Democrats have largely become a party of southern England, with the party over-indexing in the East of England, the South East, in London, and especially its traditional heartland of the South West. Many of the Liberal Democrats most likely gains are in constituencies like Cambridge, Twickenham, and Kingston & Surbiton. These are areas where the party finished a close second in 2010, often with a high remain vote, and in many cases previous Liberal Democrat MPs defeated in 2015 are standing again. Party support outside southern England, however, is scant indeed.

The Liberal Democrats, like their former Conservative coalition partners, heavily over-index in support amongst those on higher incomes and working in professional or managerial roles. The party struggles to find support amongst those in manual or semi-skilled roles.

Noticeable is the party’s underperformance amongst younger voters. Students and young people were once a dependable part of the Lib Dem bloc. But Labour MPs facing a close Liberal Democrat challenge certainly believe the party remains vulnerable to the charge that it betrayed students and young people while in government by supporting tuition fee changes, and continue to feature this claim in their campaign materials.

Ukip and Paul Nuttall

The decline in Ukip support has been swift: from topping the popular vote at the 2014 European Elections to now regularly polling numbers as low as the Green party’s. Ukip’s index of support has changed little since we ran similar analysis in 2015, meaning that the party is losing ground roughly equally regardless of gender, age, socio-economic group, or region.

Ukip continue to struggle with younger voters who, on Ukip’s flagship issue, tended to vote to remain rather than leave the EU. The party still does best amongst those working in clerical, semi-skilled, or manual roles.

The East of England, home to leave voting hot spots like Castle Point, Clacton, and Thurrock, remains Ukip’s fertile ground, as does the North East. While the party’s popularity has diminished in the midlands and Yorkshire and the Humberside, it continues to perform more strongly here than elsewhere. Scotland, however, remains intensely hostile to Ukip.

Composition of Party Support

The Liberal Democrats have succeeded in gaining support from some who voted for the Conservatives or Labour in 2015. Around half its likely 2017 support comes from existing supporters and around half from new supporters.

However, almost a year on from the EU Referendum, polling increasingly suggests that most who voted to remain, while not having changed their own minds, begrudgingly or willingly accept that Brexit has a democratic mandate. In other words: there are simply too few willing to support the core Liberal Democrat policy of a second referendum. Those who have switched to the Liberal Democrats are about enough to offset those 2015 supporters who have drifted away but no more, leaving Tim Farron’s party about where it was two years ago.

Ukip’s much diminished voting bloc is overwhelmingly those who voted for the party in May 2015. It has gained support from just a small number of Conservative and Labour leave voters, and nowhere near enough to balance the departure of large numbers of Ukip supporters who view its mission as accomplished and now feel comfortable voting for Theresa May’s Conservatives.