Vince Cable’s decision to raise university tuition fees and the Liberal Democrat decision to turn its back on its election promise to the National Union of Students to oppose any such rise, may cost MPs such as Colchester’s Bob Russell and Leeds North West’s Greg Mulholland their seats in the next General Election. For the Party as a whole, however, the student vote may turn out to be a minor issue. If Nick Clegg does not win the argument in favour of voting reform in the forthcoming referendum, the Lib Dems are in danger of being swallowed up by their Conservative coalition partners at the next election.

In anticipation of the cuts from the spending review, the Liberal Democrats are nervous about how their voters will respond to their alliance with the Tories, and the Labour Party expects to benefit from the disillusionment of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010. However, it is their Conservative coalition partners who stand to gain most from any collapse in Liberal Democrat support.

According to an Ipsos MORI poll in September, only 15% of voters would vote for the Liberal Democrats now, which is 9 points lower than at the general election and a loss of 37.5% of their vote. Of their remaining supporters, 40% are dissatisfied with the way the government is running the country and 43% are fearful of what the Government is about to do in the spending review and beyond.

University students aside, in these circumstances the Lib Dems are vulnerable to two types of defectors: natural Labour voters who voted tactically for them in seats where the Labour Party had no realistic chance of winning and traditional Lib Dem supporters who are deeply disappointed by their party’s support for the Tories.

In constituencies where Conservatives won and the Lib Dems came a close second, where they might have harboured hopes of future victories, the Lib Dems now have no possibility of winning in 2015. In most of these seats, the Labour Party picked up less than 10% of the vote and if the Labour Party’s traditional supporters think that there is no logical reason for tactical voting, on the grounds that voting LibD em gets you a Tory Government anyway, this alone will make these seat unwinnable for the Lib Dems.

In seats that the Lib Dems won in 2010 where the Conservatives came second, the future is even darker for the Lib Dems. We do not know how many of their lost voters are traditional Lib Dem voters or Labour tactical voters, but the desertion of either type will benefit the Conservatives most. If the Lib Dems lose 4,000 votes in these seats, they will lose 17 constituencies to the Tories. In only three of these seats did the Labour Party gain more than 10% of the vote, so there is reason to believe the Lib Dems could not hold them without tactical voting.

Let’s assume that the Lib Dems claw back one third of the 37.5% of their vote they have lost, which means that by the time of the next election they will have lost 25% of their support since 2010. If the Conservatives pick up only 5% of Lib Dem votes in constituencies where the Tories were second in 2010, the Conservative Party will gain 27 of 38 seats. If Conservatives pick up 10% of Lib Dem votes, the Tories will gain 30 seats.

In constituencies where the Labour Party came second to the Lib Dems, there are eight seats that are vulnerable to Labour if a 4,000 majority is needed to survive at the next election. If we assume a loss of 25% of their vote and if Labour draws 5% of the Lib Dem 2010 vote, the Labour Party could gain 10 of 17 seats. If Labour take 10% of the Lib Dem vote, they would gain one additional seat.

In summary, if Lib Dem MPs with majorities of less than 4,000 are vulnerable, the Lib Dems will lose 25 seats at the next election, reducing their parliamentary representation to 32 MPs. Two thirds of their seats will go to their coalition partners.

Alternatively, with a 25% decline in support, a 5% swing from Lib Dems to Conservatives in seats where the Conservatives are second and a 5% swing to Labour in seats where Labour are second, the Liberal Democrats would lose 37 of their 57 seats. The Conservatives would benefit in 73% of these parliamentary constituencies. This is well within the possibility suggested by recent polls.

 Photo: Konrad Summers