How the Lib Dems might double their seats despite fewer votes – visualised

<span>Ed Davey’s target map for the Liberal Democrats. ‘The national swing against the Conservatives, to the benefit of the Lib Dems, is not the full story,’ says one expert.</span><span>Composite: Getty/Guardian Design Team</span>
Ed Davey’s target map for the Liberal Democrats. ‘The national swing against the Conservatives, to the benefit of the Lib Dems, is not the full story,’ says one expert.Composite: Getty/Guardian Design Team

The Liberal Democrats could increase their total seats in the new parliament owing to a more efficient vote distribution across the UK, say experts, despite the party polling a lower national vote share than in 2019.

The Lib Dems are polling at an average of 10-11%, slightly lower than the 11.6% they won in 2019, which led to 11 seats in parliament.

Despite this, a combination of decline in support for the Conservatives, more openness to tactical voting and a more efficient Lib Dem vote means Ed Davey may be able to double or even triple the party’s current seat total.

This is largely expected to come from gains from the Conservatives in southern England – via those who previously backed the Lib Dems and those who have voted for the Tories for decades.

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There are 75 constituencies where Lib Dems were in second place in the 2019 general election and had more than 20% of the vote. Sixteen of these had the 2019 winning party – either the Conservatives, the Scottish National party or Labour – holding by a majority of less than 10%.

These include Conservative-held seats such as Carshalton and Wallington, Wimbledon, and South Cambridgeshire, as well as the SNP-held North East Fife and Labour-held Sheffield Hallam.

Edward Fieldhouse, a professor of social and political science at the University of Manchester and director of the British Election Study, said the Liberal Democrats were “likely to improve on the 11 seats won in 2019 because they have improved their [projected] vote share where it counts most – in areas where they are already stronger.

“Their vote is more efficiently distributed, meaning they will waste less votes in places they are unlikely to win. This efficiency will very likely be improved even more by tactical voting.”

The latest YouGov MRP polling, conducted from 24 May to 1 June, estimated that the Lib Dems could end up with 48 seats in the general election. Although experts have advised measured reading when looking at these figures, 40 of these seats would be gains from the Conservatives, and even if only half of these swung to the Lib Dems it would be seen as disastrous for the governing party.

Among these seats are two that are being defended by cabinet ministers: Alex Chalk in Cheltenham and Jeremy Hunt in Godalming and Ash.

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These seats include two that the Liberal Democrats won their ancestor constituencies in byelections in 2021: North Shropshire and Chesham and Amersham. Honiton and Sidmouth also overlaps partly with the old seat of Tiverton and Honiton, which the Lib Dems won in a 2022 byelection.

While urging caution towards current MRP models predicting a very high number of seats for the Lib Dems, David Cutts, a political science professor at the University of Birmingham and co-author of The Liberal Democrats: From Hope to Despair to Where?, said these seats included two types of Lib Dem target. These were “blue wall” seats that have reliably backed the Conservatives, such as Chichester and Surrey Heath, and also southern seats where the Lib Dems were previously successful, such as St Ives and Yeovil.

Cutts added: “You have the potential of a Lib Dem advance based on multiple factors: dissatisfied Tories who are OK with a Labour government; Labour voters who lend support to the Lib Dems to get the Tories out; and higher support in areas where the Lib Dems have a ground campaign, history of success and a local champion. This can be very effective at winning seats.”

When comparing these Lib Dem target seats with the average seat in England and Wales, they tend to be more rural. They have a lower level of deprivation, with more people with a higher level of education and more professional jobs.

Home ownership is also higher than the national average in these seats, and they tended to have a higher than average remain vote in the EU referendum in 2016. Despite this, the seats they currently hold are much more remain-backing.

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Liberal Democrats’ hopes might rely on Labour supporters in Lib Dem-Conservative marginals. Polling data from Ipsos suggests 30% of Labour voters who might change their minds named the Lib Dems as their potential alternative vote.

This polling suggests the role of tactical voting might be key, with the Lib Dems potentially relying on Labour voters in key Conservative-held targets to get them across the line.

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Pointing to the fact that, historically, there was more tactical voting between Labour and Lib Dem supporters, Fieldhouse said: “We should expect a fair amount of tactical switching between Labour and the Lib Dems, with the latter being the beneficiary in places that they can make a reasonable case that they are (notionally) in second place or which they have won in historically – especially in the south-west and parts of the south-east.”

As of 16 June, the Liberal Democrats had an average of 10.3% in the Guardian’s poll tracker. But experts have said local support, the major parties’ stances and historic representation were important factors in looking at the Lib Dems’ fortunes.

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Chris Prosser, a senior lecturer in politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, and co-director of the British Election Study, reinforced how localised Lib Dem support could be, where left-leaning voters were more inclined to vote Lib Dem if the party had a history of winning in their area.

He said: “The national swing against the Conservatives, to the benefit of the Lib Dems, is not the full story. British Election Study data suggests that although overall the Conservatives are losing many more voters to Labour than to the Lib Dems, there are important geographic differences to this pattern.

“The better the Lib Dems did in 2019, the more likely 2019 Conservative voters are to switch to the Lib Dems rather than Labour. Whether tactically or otherwise, 2019 Labour voters are also much more likely to have switched to the Liberal Democrats in places the Lib Dems did well last time.”

Cutts added that the Lib Dems could benefit from the Labour and Conservative stances.

“The Lib Dems are not masters of their own fate. They become more credible particularly when the incumbent government is faring badly. At the same time, Starmer has detoxified the Labour brand and therefore potential Conservative switchers – disillusioned with the Conservatives – feel satisfied supporting the Liberal Democrats … without worrying about a future Labour government as they did in 2019.

“Davey has moved to a clear anti-Conservative stance. Labour not attacking the Lib Dems means that it has given the green light for Labour voters to lend their support to Lib Dems to defeat the Tories where they are in second place.”

A spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats said: “We have the biggest opportunity in a generation to win seats from the Conservatives at this election. More seats are now within our reach, but we can only win if Labour and other progressive voters lend us their vote.

“In seats we have held in the past, people remember what it’s like having a Liberal Democrat MP as their local champion, standing up for them in parliament. We are promoting the strong record of our candidates and their positive plans to deliver change for communities taken for granted for years by the Conservatives.

“In former Conservative heartlands like Surrey, Oxfordshire or Cambridgeshire – places that have almost only ever had a Conservative MP – it is becoming increasingly clear that only the Liberal Democrats can beat the Conservatives. We’re telling voters about our big local election wins, and our historic byelection victories in places very much like their own.”