So to the last of my three start of the year posts (sorry for those you wanted an SNP one, I really don’t want to parade my ignorance of Scottish politics!). What do the polls say about the Lib Dems? Well, the brutal answer is not a lot. To an extent that’s because no one bothers asking, most of the newspapers either actively support or lean towards Labour or the Conservatives and it is they who commission the polls. Hence the Telegraph commonly carries out detailled polls about how the Conservatives are doing and how they are seen, the Guardian will commission polls about Labour as will third party Labour party affiliates like the Fabian Society (and besides, as the governing party everyone in the media is interested in how Labour are seen). There really isn’t anyone out there interested enough in how the Liberal Democrats are seen to cough up the money for a poll.

The only time questions are really asked about them is in Populus’s annual poll for the party conference season, which asks some questions on every party – this year 69% thought the Lib Dems were just a protest vote party, and 68% thought they “seem decent people, but their policies probably don’t really add up”. The polls occassioned by the Lib Dem leadership election underlined why polls don’t have much to say for them – invariably showing that most people didn’t have any opinion whatsoever over whether it should be Huhne or Clegg, and often had no idea who they were.

For the last year the Lib Dems have languished in the polls – though exactly how bad things were differed between pollsters. The level of Liberal Democrat support in the polls is the most variable between the pollsters, while Populus tend to be the most favourable to Labour and ComRes to the Tories the differences aren’t actually that great – everyone had the Tories up around 40% or so, everyone had Labour down to the low 30s. With the Liberal Democrats it’s different, looking at the average of the monthly polls this year from February till November – months when I have comparable figures from 4 pollsters – YouGov had the Lib Dems at 15.2%, Populus at 17%, ComRes at 17.6% and ICM at 19.4% (Ipsos MORI didn’t have their regular monitor for two of these months, but for the record the average in the remaining months was 16.1%). I posted a while back about what I thought some of the reasons might be. In recent months though even ICM have showed them falling to the mid-teens, so while it might be open to debate how bad things got, it’s pretty indisputable that things were bad.

What happened? There is an absence of polling evidence here, so I am afraid what follows is largely my own personal opinion and is far shorter than the other two posts. Having looked at Labour and the Conservatives though, I didn’t want to start the year without also looking at the Lib Dems.

The casuality of the Lib Dems’ poor performance was Sir Menzies Cambpell. To some extent he wasn’t really the problem, at least, he wasn’t a negative for the Liberal Democrats, only the an absence of a positive where they needed one to alleviate a problem that was not their own doing. Polls didn’t show anyone disliking him, and if they did show that people thought he was too old for the job, it probably wasn’t dragging the party down: a Lib Dem leader doesn’t have to be a potential Prime Minister, people know he isn’t going to be one. Ming’s problem was that he didn’t have any impact at all, and he was filling a role that needed to be carried out by someone who did.

In the last post I wrote that the Conservative advance in 2007 was largely down to Labour’s failings, rather than anything they did for themselves. That goes double for the Liberal Democrats. Lib Dems anxiously worrying about ratings and blaming their leader for not doing better should accept that they are not necessarily masters of their own fate – a certain proportion of Lib Dem votes are always going to be negative votes against the two main parties, if the reasons for the protest against the main parties receeds, so will that vote.

A large proportion of people who voted Lib Dem at the last election were people who identify themselves as Labour supporters but who voted Lib Dem either for tactical reasons or in protest over Iraq or something else that Tony Blair has done. While the former may remain, Iraq and Tony Blair as recruiting serjeants for Lib Dem protest votes have faded. Equally, whereas in 2001 and 2005 many people would have wanted to vote against Labour but would have found the Conservatives too toxic to contemplate, as David Cameron improves the Tory image the Liberal Democrats now have to share an anti-Labour vote they would once have been the obvious home for.

One strategy for the Liberal Democrats could be to try to hold back the tide, reblacken the Tory name or fight to keep Brown linked to Iraq and the Blair government. More realistically though they need to adapt to the changed circumstances. Their positioning at the last election was perfectly in tune with the political environment of the time – an unpopular government with an opposition that was distrusted – the Lib Dem slogan was “the Real Alternative”, a narrative that was values and mission free, it didn’t involve standing for anything, just not being the other two parties. It worked well for them and meant they could win on both fronts. With a detoxified Tory party it won’t chime in the same way, not least because in a more competitive election the very real alternative to a Brown government will be a Cameron one.

To prevent themselves being squeezed the Liberal Democrats need to present a new narrative that tells people what their purpose is, they need to differentiate themselves far more clearly as standing for something distinct from the other two parties. Rather than claiming to be the “real alternative”, they need to paint a coherent picture of what a “liberal alternative” is, so they can build more of a positive vote for them, making up for the inevitable loss of some of the negative vote they got last time round. Nick Clegg’s initial comments after being elected leader about Britain being a Liberal country that doesn’t yet vote Liberal perhaps points towards this sort of strategy – a view that while there are people who would vote for liberal politics, the Liberal Democrats haven’t necessarily managed to clearly identify themselves with it in people’s minds.

Nick Clegg appears to be a far more media-savvy and charismatic leader than Ming Campbell. Just by being leader he isn’t going to suddenly make the political environment any friendlier for the Liberal Democrat party, there are tough market conditions out there for them, but he does at least have the potential to be better at keeping them in the public eye and that alone would improve things somewhat. Putting forward a coherent and distinct narrative that gives people a really positive reason to vote Liberal Democrat, rather than them just being the nice people who aren’t one of the other two, will be harder – the other parties will copy popular policies and say ‘me too’ to popular values – but that’s what the Lib Dems need to do to avoid being sidelined in the first really competitive election since 1992.


29 Responses to “New Year round-up: Liberal Democrats”

  1. I can’t help but think that the LDs will be squeezed in the next General Election and it wouldn’t surprise me if they lost half their MPs.

    Their leader in the last elction, Kennedy, was likeable, could talk with authority and, unusally for a politician, had a good sense of humour. Clegg will have to go some to match Kennedy in the leadership stakes.

    If there is some mood for change in the country that leads to a Tory victory the LDs will inevitably be squeezed and could lose most or all of their MPs in the South. Clegg’s own seat isn’t very safe.

    Did the LDs do well in the last election because people voted for them or are many just disaffected Tories that weren’t ready to vote Tory but could never vote Labour?

    The LDs generally benfit from tactical voting and if there is a major mood for change at election time many LD voters in previous elections may vote Tory, particularly with Cameron as leader.

  2. Sorry but I really can’t accept it being stated as fact that they are “nice people”.
    There are some exceptions, on this site aswell,
    but generally they are an unpleasant and unprincipled bunch of smearers.

    As for Clegg’s “charisma”, he sounds petulant, and takes a long time to say very little.

    The crucial point in their favour is that Ming (who is a nicer person) suffered from a drip drip whispering campaign which undermined his standing. The media enjoyed reporting this and kept saying he was a poor leader. So if Nick Clegg gets more sympathetic coverage that could make a marginal difference.

    However, they may retreat against Dr Cable who has given them slightly stronger opinion poll ratings, and of course, we are in a tight two party system all the way to the General Election.

  3. It should be remembered that the Lib Dems made a net loss of seats in the 2005 GE. So the chances of them losing more seats to the Conservatives in 2009/2010 is very high since the Tories have a more liberal and likeable leader, the “brand” has been further detoxified and if people want to remove a 12 year old Labour government there is only one way of doing that.
    Also Charles Kennedy was leader at that time, so even if Clegg is viewed as favourably as he was that won’t help.

  4. Guy Atherton, you are wrong in saying that the Lib-Dems made a net loss of seats at the last election. What they did do, was make a net loss of 2 to the Conservatives.

    Personally, I believe that Clegg will have a modest effect on the party’s poll ratings and will help give the party a reduced 18-19% share of the vote.

    The Conservatives have taken the centre stage on the Environment and Labour has begun withdrawing troops from Iraq. There simply isn’t any hope for the Lib-Dems on policy. Even their 50% income tax will be overshadowed by the Conservatives’ inheritance tax policy.

    The Lib-Dems will do very well just to retain 40 of their current 63 seats!

  5. It is easy to make an analysis of the LibDems for 2007 – basically wasn’t been a vintage year for them. 2008 is hard to speculate upon, as we have only seen one poll so far conducted since Nick Clegg became leader. It remains to be seen what will happen and we have scarcely seen what effect his leadership is beginning to have.

    I personally suspect the LibDems will lose ground at the next election, as a change of government now looks far more likely (if uncertain) than it did five years ago. Labour lost no seats at all to the LibDems in 1997 or even 1992 when it looked as though they might (or would definitely) win. I have pointed out before that the Liberal vote has always declined when Labour governments are ousted, and there seems a fair chance that history will repeat.

  6. “I really don’t want to parade my ignorance of Scottish politics!”

    I’ve never let it stop me……

    Peter.

  7. I don’t think you can underestimate the damage of having three leaders in 2 years is going to have on the Lib-Dem’s. They will have lost a huge amount of support and credibility with the public. Obviously it will take a long time for this protest party to restore credibility with the public. Obviously they are heading for some bad losses in the next election.

  8. JJB – my point is not that Lib Dems are nice people (that would be the sort of partisan argument I’d probably moderate anyway :) ), but that the public’s perception is often that they are a nicer, more decent party than some other politicans. One of the few actual poll findings in the article is the one showing 68% agree with the idea that they seem decent enough people, but lacking in policies.

    Peter – ah, but I have so much more ignorance to parade!

  9. The Libs are seen as nice because they don’t have the associations with extremists that Labour and Conservatives do. IMHO Vince Cable is doing them a lot of good – liked his appearance on Newsnight where he seemed to be aware that most of his potential voters are savers not property speculators.

  10. With respect, I think a few polls actually ask suggestive questions that plant the idea that the LDs are “nice”.

    There are a lot of nice Tory and Labour people who have entered politics for the best of intentions, but rarely does anyone bother to stop and mention that, in the heat of everything else discussed.

    Vince Cable is an exception – a good man, wasted in the Lib Dems, economist and businessman – therefore provided them with much needed gravitas.

    But I notice even he is a bit of a commentator – doesn’t actually appear to have any solutions about what to do about a problem like Northern Rock, but a very convincing analysis of what happened.

  11. Andy D
    “I have pointed out before that the Liberal vote has always declined when Labour governments are ousted,”

    Your comment prompted a look at the history.
    Is there really a significant record to support your thesis?
    Since 1945 the circumstance has only occurred three times ( unless Anthony tells me I’ve screwed up again!)-
    1951, 1970 & 1979 Admittedly the trend does what you describe-6.2% from 12.5%-7.5% from 8.5%-13.8% from 18.3%-but the history highlights what a lot of change the”Liberals” have gone through:-
    Up to 1951 two Parties Liberal & National Liberal.
    Then Liberal getting 5 to 10% or so -till 1974 when they jump to 19% under Thorpe.That seems to be the starting point of any significant presence in GE results.( why did that happen in ’74?)

    Then the Gang of Four & SDLP/LIberal Alliance in 1983 & 1987 getting 25% & 23% respectively-after which the Lib Dems we currently know & love.

    They do seem a bit chameleon like.

    Jo James-re Vince Cable-I share your admiration of him, both as a finance spokesman as an honest politician.Actually in fairness he did have a solution to NR-he advocated Nationalising it early on-and that is emerging as a distinct possibility.

  12. If Clegg has any sense he’ll aim to supplant Labour. But will he ever be able to match Vince Cable’s “Mr Bean” moment?

  13. I think the LibDems trying to supplant anybody is fantasy. Right now they need to hold on to what they’ve got and tell people what they are and stand for.

    Even being defined in terms of their position relative to Labour or the Tories is something they should avoid.

    What could hurt them even more than a loss of seats is them being pushed back in to being seen as a regional party with a few blodges of orange in the South East and Scotland. It could take a long time for them to make inroads nationally again if that happens.

    Oddly enough up here on current polling figures even at only about 12% non of them look particularly vulnerable. A few are long term sitting MP’s with personal vote sand most are in areas where there is traditional strong LibDem support.

    In addition in almost all the cases the challenge is from either the Tories who even if not losing support are pretty static or from labour who have lost ground since the last election as well. The SNP may be the big gainers in Scotland since the last election but we are hardly the direct challenger to the Libdems in a single seat.

    We could come from third to win but it’s a big jump and unlikely. Having said that Jim Mather beat George Lyon in Argyll with a 15% swing in what was seen as a fairly safe seat. But again that was Holyrood not Westminster.

    Peter.

  14. Colin,
    The significance of 1974 is that it was the first year the Liberals contested seats on the same basis as the 2 bigger parties – ie a candidate in almost every constituency. Before that several hundred seats were uncontested resulting in mant straight fights between Labour and the Tories.Indeed, in the 1951 and 1955 General Elections Liberals only fought 109 and 110 seats respectively!As late as the 1960s someting like 50% of constituenies had no Liberal candidate.
    The effect was to artificially depress their underlying share of the national vote – and to inflate the Labour and Tory shares!

  15. Just to follow up on the LibDems in Scotland.

    In 2005 about 2.3m voted in Scotland, some 61% of the electorate, with the LibDems getting about 22%, or 500,000 votes.

    However if you look at the 13 seats they hold they account for almost 215,000 votes which is over 40% of the vote in just over 20% of the seats.

    (I should say that I haven’t looked at the LibDem UK position or indeed the balance for votes in seats held to lost for other parties including my own, although I’d be interested if anyone had and the conclusions drawn).

    Put another way the LibDems average 16,5000 votes in the 13 seats the hold but only 6,000 in the other 46.

    That means that they are in the position that even with the prospect of a halving of their vote they can still look forward to holding most of the dozen or so seats they hold.

    (Damn It…..)

    Peter.

  16. Very rough calculation for the SNP, won six seats with about 82,500 votes or 14.000 each, less than the LibDems per win.

    However at 18% of the vote and just over 410,000 votes they averaged about the same 6,000 votes in the seats they lost. To be honest I am not sure if that tells us that much, although I suppose getting roughly the same average vote in seat lost with nearly 100,000 votes less and 2,000 less in the seats we won shows broader support.

    On current polls we would expect the Libdems to go from 500,000 to 300,000 and the SNP to go from 400,000 to perhaps 600,000.

    However because of the distribution of the votes that shift, even though fundamental in terms of swing, still might not see that many seats changing hands specially straight LibDem to SNP….

    Peter.

  17. There is no chance of the Lib Dems supplanting anyone. The lay of the land does not assist the Lib Dems one jot. More of their target seats are Tory than Labour and they are near certain to lose seats to the Tories, not gain them, at the next election.

    Even if the Lib-Dems won every single Labour target seat (with swings up to 9.35%, an unlikely proposition) and even if they failed to net lose any seats to the Tories (a virtually impossible situation), they’d have a mere 108 seats.

    For them to become bigger than Labour would require the Tories taking 197 seats of Labour while 0 of the Lib Dems.

    It ain’t gonna happen!

    Reality is that the LD’s are going to lose a lot of seats most likely to the Conservatives (not all in the South though, Cornwall is rock solid for them at least) and will stem the losses a bit with a recovery taking seats some from Labour. Their best hope is for consolidation, holding onto as many seats they have and gaining a few of Labour . . . not making leaps and bounds towards becoming a number 2 party.

  18. “For them to become bigger than Labour would require the Tories taking 197 seats of Labour while 0 of the Lib Dems.” – that should perhaps say other parties not just Tories, the SNP can take seats off Labour too, but ehn they could take seats off the LDs. Won’t make up the difference though.

  19. Graham-thanks-I didn’t realise that

    Colin

  20. “Is there really a significant record to support your thesis?
    Since 1945 the circumstance has only occurred three times.”

    Yes Colin, although Labour was only in office three times prior to 1997 after WW2 (1945-1951, 1964-1970 and 1974-1979). In fact the Liberal vote also dropped in 1924 and 1931, when Labour was ousted from office.

  21. Thank you Andy-though in the light of Graham’s information one wonders if any Liberal data prior to 1974 have any relevance for today ?

  22. The Lib/Dems should be trying to surpass Labour and become the official opposition, by defining what is the core believes of the party.

    (Any other European party would be doing there utmost too. Which is why in Europe often a 3rd party does indeed achieve the miracle. Then go on to achieve power. Its not PR that achieves this, it is being honest with the electorate for a protracted amount of time.)

    The Lib/Dems cant be honest because:

    The Liberal Party is the party of the New world Order. This was what it was originally set up to be, and why it continues to attract large amounts of covert financial support. It now has simply become a cheap way of controlling a still, very largely two party system.

    The Lib/Dems due to the Labour Party abandoning clause 4 or workers control of the means of production as surplus to requirement, has now become politically pointless.

    Which means the Lib/Dems cant tell the people what they REALLY stand for because it is exactly the same as New Labour. Tony Blair has done for them.

    Which would not be so terminal if David Cameron had not also done the same by adopting less overtly horrific NWO policies.

    So as must seem obvious to many. If there was little enough room in the middle for 2 NWO party’s, there is none at all for 3.

    Perhaps over time if the Liberal party actually became a liberal party. Or better still a Libertarian one. They might just have a long term future.

    However they will have to do a lot of work, and ditch nearly all of their financial backers. Along with all of their past policies, including an obsession with all this rampantly dishonest environmental CO2=MMGW nonsense.

    Then stick honestly and consistently to actually protecting the environment, instead of just finding new ways to tax people into big government inspired submission.

    If they did I might even vote for them, one day.

  23. Atlas,

    If they shift so much that you’ll vote for them, I have a feeling they might lose more votes than they gain.

    Just a hunch….

    Peter.

  24. Peter

    I disagree strongly

    I consider libertarians to form the majority of the British population. Even if hardly any of them know what a libertarian is. If they started voting with their gut feelings, common sense and common humanity instead of watching to much BBC they would all be libertarians.

    However thats the whole point of politics.

    Which is persuading people to support a dictator or a dictators ideology that is completely NOT in there own personal interests so to do.

  25. Peter Cairns:

    I don’t know why Jim Mather won in Argyll and Bute, even though I live there. I have noticed that LibDems are entrenched in certain constituencies as you say, and that many of these have more sheep than people. Is it possible that the sheep have been voting till now and the ballot paper confused them this time?

    Seriously though,I voted for Jim Mather with whom I have remonstrated in the press for bad behaviour in the Westminster manner instead of for George Lyon, whom I respect and know personally and have voted for previously.

    George Lyon should be remembered for his words in an Education debate in the first session of the parliament about a results debacle. He said “I have spoken to every school in my constituency and …” I think that says everything that needs to be said about the way MSP’s and the Home Rule parliament operate. I was a Health Board Treasurer for seventeen years and we only ever saw the MP or a government minister when an election was expected but before the date was announced and travel expenses would be chargable to party funds. I think there was one letter.

    Ask your Social Work director if the frequency of contacts with an MSP is greater than four times in 17 years.

    So why did I vote for your party? I’m unenthused about independence.

    Before the election I was in email correspondence with Kenny McAskill and the children’s minister about Dawn Raids. I liked Mr McAskill’s contribution to the Green Party debate. He didn’t construct an argument, he just said it’s self evidently wrong and must be stopped.

    I think it is biological. I’m a grandfather and the thought of children like my two grandchildren being abused by agents of the state causes me real distress. My genetic material has a better chance of survival into future generations if there is a favourable environment for my grandchildren than it does on the possibility of success in persuading a fertile woman to make more of my children.

    I’ll vote for independence because I’m ashamed to be British.

    There are bigger “not in my name” issues as you are well aware and the general answer is that on all of these issues the former coalition was perceived to be not sufficiently differentiated from the Westminster New Labour government and in line with Scottish values. Otherwise they would still be in office.

  26. Peter:

    Correction:

    It’s even worse.

    We only saw the MP in the company of a visiting minister or opposition spokesman …. etc.

  27. Third party squeeze is the reason the LibDems always lose and why they always win too.

    David Steel’s record shows how it happened. He stood in a general election and got a surprising number of votes but came second. Before people in the constituency had forgotten about that, there was a bye-election and the new candidate for the government party had no benefit of incumbency. The third party (Labour) vote collapsed. Less than half what they got a few months previously if I remember correctly.

    They used to call it a “protest vote” but they don’t say that now. Thats because there isn’t a general shared expectation that voting is class based and what matters is to ensure that your natural supporters turn out.

    David Steel never looked back, and adjacent constituency Liberals got a boost.

    Most important was that the third party was then so far behind that a vote for Labour was a wasted vote. Elsewhere it is the LibDems.

    I think that demonstrates that FPTP is like a gyroscope – it also works upside down; that elections are lost rather than won; and that not many people are strongly committed to any one of the parties any more. Perhaps the LibDems don’t have many fewer committed, steady supporters than the other parties.

    What this means is that the LibDems will get not many fewer or nor many more votes in the next electon than the last, but whichever way it goes, the effect on seats will be even smaller.

    The Conservatives are bound to improve their position, but it is too big a hill to climb in one go. Next time round, without Scotland, it should be easy.

  28. “The Lib/Dems should be trying to surpass Labour and become the official opposition”

    Sorry to pick, but that would make them the official Government, not the opposition.

    The BBC – I don’t see much difference between their coverage and that of ITN, or C4, Five or Sky or CNN for that matter. They may be partisan,to their discredit, but the main parties will have their rapid-rebuttal units in place to combat double-speak, etc.

    The LibDems do need to break the “wasted vote” spell, but not necessarily in one go. Would an increase of 30 seats next time be a good result? I’d have thought so.