How different are current Liberal Democrats and centrists?

After yesterday’s post — and thanks to everyone who’s shared and commented on it, the feedback has been really useful — it occurred to me that the one thing I’d not looked at in it was where people who currently identify as Liberal Democrats or vote for the party position themselves. So I went and crunched a few more numbers from the British Election Study to see.

(For this post, I stuck to data solely from Wave 14 of the current BES, all of whom were surveyed in May 2017, in the run up to last year’s election, so a few of the numbers are slightly, but not significantly, different from the ones I used yesterday)

There are three different questions we can use to identify people as Liberal Democrats in the BES. The first is to use the voting intention question — ‘if there was a general election tomorrow which way would you vote?’ — while the other two are questions about which party a voter identifies with. First voters are asked “Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or what?” and then those who answer no or don’t know to asked get asked a second question: “Do you generally think of yourself as a little closer to one of the parties than the others? If yes, which party?”. So, we have three pools that are broadly similar but not identical — one of Liberal Democrat voters, one of people who think of themselves as Liberal Democrats, and one of people who think of themselves as closer to the Liberal Democrats than any other party.

To give you an idea of the numbers we’re looking at here, the total sample size of BES Wave 14 is 31,063 people. 2,250 people (7.2%) said they were intending to vote Liberal Democrat, 2,131 said they identified most with the Liberal Democrats with a further 458 saying they were closest to the party after giving no answer to the first question. (And yes, 2131+458 is higher than 2250. Welcome to the world of People’s Voting Decisions Are A Lot Harder To Understand And Explain Than You’d Think)

Let’s take a look at how these Liberal Democrat voters think in comparison to the wider population and to the group of ‘centrists’ I looked at yesterday. In this wave, the average self-defined left-right position is 5.04 and and 41.9% of people put themselves in 4, 5, or 6. For the wave as a whole, average position on the left-right scale was 3.13, and 6.48 on the liberal-authoritarian scale. The ‘centrists’ were in roughly the same location, scoring an average of 3.21 on the left-right scale and 6.56 on the liberal-authoritarian scale.

Now, let’s take a look at our different groups of Liberal Democrats. First, those who intended to vote Lib Dem:

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They come somewhat to the left of the general public and centrists in self-id, slightly to the left of them on the left-right scale, but quite strongly more liberal.

We get similar figures for those who identify as Liberal Democrats, though the difference from the general population is not quite as strong:

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And similarly for those who feel close to the party (though with a small sample size here):

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To give a point of comparison on these, I ran the same numbers for supporters of other parties (excluding Plaid Cymru, because the sample size for them was too small), using the simple (unsqueezed) party ID question. For the sake of space I won’t post the full graphs, but Conservatives come out with an average of 7.05 on the left-right self identification, 4.44 on the left-right questions scale and 7.34 on the liberal-authoritarian scale. Labour identifiers scored 3.18 on left-right self-identification, 2.14 on the left-right questions scale, and 5.83 on the liberal-authoritarian scale. SNP identifiers were 3.68 on left-right self-identification, 1.91 on the left-right scale and 5.71 on liberal-authoritarian. UKIP supporters were 6.95 on left-right self identification, 2.77 on left-right questions and 8.04 on liberal-authoritarian ones. Finally, Greens identified at 3.01 on the left-right scale, scored 2.07 on the left-right questions and 4.49 on liberal-authoritarian. (And I now really wish Medium had a way to do tables easily) If we plot all those on a graph, we find this:

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And what we see there is an interesting position where four parties are all circling the centrists and the population as a whole, but none of them are quite there. Remember that these aren’t where the parties place themselves but rather they represent the average views of their supporters — Lib Dem supporters are more liberal than the country as a whole while UKIP ones are more authoritarian, Labour supporters are more to the left and slightly more liberal than the average, while Tories are more to the right and a bit more authoritarian.You can also see from the acres of space to the right and along the bottom where voters aren’t. (With a bit more time, and a bit more skill in producing graphs, I would add on some more specific information here about the density of voter positioning)

UPDATE: I produced a simple heatmap of the data so you can see how voters cluster towards the top left (left-authoritarian) corner of the diagram.

‘Moving to the centre’ in this graph is not something a party leadership can necessarily do, as trying to move towards that point would involve bringing in a supporter base significantly different from those your party already has. To place the average Lib Dem supporter at or near the centre, the party would have to attract a number of new supporters who are significantly more authoritarian than the average centrist (and in the same way, UKIP would have to bring in more liberals, the Tories more left-liberals and Labour more right-authoritarians). The question for any party is how could it do that while still retaining their existing supporters?

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