Short answer: unlikely.
I’ve been contemplating an approach to the sudden rise of the Liberal Democrats while busy trying to consider helping finish this paper I’m scheduled to present in Chicago Saturday morning. I also picked the precise wrong month to leave the new constituency handbook published by our very own Elections Centre at the University of Plymouth behind a cloud of volcanic ash in Plymouth while I’m spending the month in the USA. Of course, while the ‘uniform national swing’ matrix for translating votes into Parliamentary seats has been a help in working out the implications of various electoral scenarios in the UK, I doubt that the matrix includes data for the YouGov poll released on April 18: Tories 32%, Labour 26%, Lib Dems 33%.
It’s still unclear whether or not the surge in Lib Dem support generated by the first ever televised party leader debate last week will hold. My guess is that while it may attenuate a bit, it is real. Key here are the two remaining debates: 22 April on international affairs, and 29 April on economic policy. I anticipate that the changed electoral picture will increase interest and attention in the next debate, and am keen to see how Brown and Cameron change their tactics vis-a-vis Clegg.
Historically, the recent Lib Dem surge in support stands out. They have never done this well during the actual campaign period in the run-in to the election, save for perhaps the days of the SDP-Liberal Alliance during the 1983 election where it appeared that they may drop Labour into third place (they didn’t). The Guardian – ICM poll, which goes back to 1984 (and supplying some data I’m using for my forthcoming MPSA paper) tells us the last time the Lib Dems did this well, they weren’t even the Lib Dems. They had a run between May 1985 and April 1986 where they varied between 30% and 35%, leading the poll twice (May ’85 and again in September). Several British commentators have pointed to this run as a warning to reserve excitement over their current level of support, but I’m skeptical of such skepticism. The 1985 surge was nearly equidistant between two elections (1983, 1987), whereas the current surge is in the midst of a campaign where people are not only paying attention (close or otherwise), but are also in some cases actually voting with the spread of postal voting in the UK.
Another myth I’d like to address is the received wisdom that the Lib Dems always do better in the polls than actually at the polls. There is some political science literature to suggest this: it’s easy to tell a pollster that you support the third party with no chance in hell, but difficult to actually waste that precious vote when confronted with making the final decision. There is no doubt that the relative strength of the Lib Dems as a third party in a Plurality / SMD electoral system leads to a large degree of tactical voting, and that individuals responding to surveys often supply a “socially desirable” response which is different to their sincere attitudes and ultimate actions (indeed, this is largely what caused the 1992 British polling failure), but neither appears to be the case here. Going back to 1987, the final Guardian/ICM poll prior to the election has been remarkably consistent in predicting the Liberal Democrat vote:
The overall deviation between the final poll and the actual result is 0.4% over those five elections. While this is but one poll out of several polling houses working the UK election, and it may not be representative, my hunch is it is, and what this means is that the closer we get to the actual election (17 days off now), the more “hard” these numbers become. Furthermore, at least with this poll, there hasn’t been a lot of volatility in the Lib Dem numbers during the campaigns. But due to the nature of 2010, this year could very well be different.
Accepting these numbers for the time being, what does this mean for the next Parliament? This is anybody’s guess. I’m seeing numbers all over the place, assuming a uniform national swing, based on the various projection models different people use. This predicts Con 319, Lab 226, LD 72; UK Polling Report’s aggregate gives us a Labour plurality in Commons, but 55 seats short of a majority, while A Very British Dude simply holds up his hands and sighs, conceding that there is “no doubt” in his mind that the polls are all likely to be “wrong”, while maintaining ultimate hope and belief in a Tory victory. This is a time where I regret my usual strategy of packing light and wish I had this one particular reference to hand. The Lib Dem surge has been asymmetrically distributed; it’s taken a considerably larger bite out of Tory support than Labour (suggesting that a not insubstantial segment of Tory support has been all along their genius in simply not being Gordon Brown.) If the Tories do win the election by 6% or less, and the swing is uniform(ish), it would leave us with a Labour plurality in the Commons requiring a hell of a lot of Lib Dem support to govern.
This is where it gets interesting. Formal coalition? Very weak minority government? My preference is for the former for a variety of reasons. My instinct is that it would result in the latter.