The British Election Study is a mammoth set of research into how voters decide who to vote for and why – tracking people before, during and after the election.It’s the sort of data the fuels excellent studies such as Affluence, Austerity and Electoral Change in Britain (which is well worth a read for its explanation of why politics isn’t about voters choosing between parties based on policies).
Here now is the first slice of what the British Election Study says about the Liberal Democrat general election performance:
The Lib Dems did not lose because they were blamed for unpopular coalition policies.
One of the most common claims … has been that the Liberal Democrats have performed so poorly because they were being blamed for the perceived failures of the Coalition Government, while the Tories were taking the credit for its successes. The BES data, however, suggests that this is not true; rather, the Lib Dems were credited with very little, regardless of whether it was good or bad.
For example, 44% of voters felt that the economy was getting better; but only 19% attributed this to the Lib Dems, compared with 73% who credited the Tories. Two thirds of voters felt that the NHS had deteriorated under the Coalition; but only 19% blamed the Lib Dems for this, compared with 69% who blamed the Conservatives. Finally, 42% of voters felt that education had also deteriorated, and 64% blamed the Conservatives for it, while only 19% pointed to the Liberal Democrats.
Regardless of whether voters considered that things have got better or worse, the majority tend to either blame or credit the Tories; only 1 in 5 are prepared to attributed any responsibility to the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems did not do so badly because they were blamed for the failings of the Coalition; rather, the majority of voters simply seem to have felt that they were an irrelevant component of the last government.
This adds evidence to my argument in Liberal Democrat Newswire #65 that the problem wasn’t Lib Dem policies but rather perceived competence and trust. Read more about that in LDN #65 here, and it builds on the point I made during coalition that stopping the Tories doing something, however substantively worthwhile, rarely achieved sufficient publicity to be politically effective.