Populus’s annual conference poll, in which they include questions they can publish before each of the three conferences, is one of the few times we can guarantee to get some questions asked about the Liberal Democrats. This year is no different.

On one front the poll has good news for them. It reveals a very positive party image, more people see them as caring than the other two parties, more people see them understanding the way people live their lives, being honest and principled and sharing people’s values. On other measures like being united, having a good team of leaders and being competent they trail behind the Conservatives, but are ahead of Labour.

Less good, and one reason why the positive image doesn’t translate into more votes, is that 65% of people agreed with the statement that “It doesn’t make any difference what policies the Lib Dems put forward because they have no realistic chance of ever putting them into practice, so ultimately they’ll always be just a protest vote party at national level.”. This included 37% of Lib Dem voters. 32% of people thought that “really strong distinctive policies on important issues, it will have a chance of making a big advance by gaining more MPs at the next election, because neither of the other parties is particularly appealing to most people”.

In considering why such positive perceptions of party aren’t currently translating into more support in the polls, it’s also worth looking back a bit into the past. While these are good figures and in many cases show a large positive shift when compared to the results of the same survey a year ago (particularly in being seen as honest & principled, caring about ordinary people and understanding the way people live their lives) in most cases they are still below the figures the Lib Dems recorded back in 2005 at the end of the Charles Kennedy era – 34% think they have a good team of leaders now, but 52% did in 2005; 50% think they are united now, but 71% did in 2005; 37% think they are competent now, but 46% did in 2005. The Lib Dems have a positive image, but not as positive as it was at the last election.

26 Responses to “Nice party…for a protest vote”

  1. The LibDems always suffer when Labour is unpopular – as occurred in 1979.

  2. “The LibDems always suffer when Labour is unpopular – as occurred in 1979.”

    That hardly explains 1983, or even 1959.

    The Lib Dems most recent period of terrible results, just after the merger, were reflected in an increase in Labour’s ratings. When the Lib Dems recovered, Labour fell back.

  3. I think it tends to be the “eventual” case – when a Labour government ends.

    It is true though that it isn’t the case all the time.

    We had the Alliance in 1983/87 – but that was largely because of a breakaway from Labour itself.

    And they have remained relatively strong under this Labour government, only declining after 2005, but as the Tories improve.

    They tend to do well when one of the other two parties is unusually unpopular.

  4. The LDs do well during periods when they have established a strong, stable and recognisable leadership and they do badly when they go through the eventual periods of transition.

    In the conspicuous absence of media coverage the public requires a figure to identify with, and the facts remain it is extremely difficult to raise the profile of their front bench or leader outside a general election.

    Even the widely respected Vince Cable has long languished in obscurity. This is despite his obvious qualities and he only now gains recognition after producing several barnstorming performances where he effectively grabbed attention of the media to build on an extensive, successful and consistent track record in his field.

    The third party will always struggle because it is faced with a unique challenge between surviving as a seperate entity and showing continual growth to maintain their credibility. This challenge is entirely bound up with the perception (or otherwise) of public support for the establishment – when the establishment is popular any ‘alternative’ is irrelevant, but when the establishment is unpopular their particular ‘alternative’ can be indstinguishable from the official opposition.

    Strikingly they are most successful when they are identified with the ability to articulate a distinctive position, so the current ‘Make it Happen’ strategy outlined by their new leader could enable them to buck the trends of uniform-swing predictions.

  5. Despite all the speculation about a challenge this poll shows yet again that GB is far more popular in Scotland than anywhere else.

    It would be interesting to see what happens to Labour support in Scotland if Brown was replaced, I certainly wouldn’t expect it to boost their support especially if it’s seen as unjust or messy.

    Just think, a Blairite replacing a Scot and a Tory Government in the run up to an Independence referendum.


  6. Just think, Peter, when you read the comments policy and stop posting myopic partisan posts you may have something less objectionable to say.

  7. The poll reports generally positive attitudes towards the Liberal Democrats, But how well informed are the voters polled? Perhaps they just want to be nice about a party they know little about.

    I wonder if many other voters share my image of the Liberals as a kindly but rather ineffective middle aged relative. We want to be nice to them, but they are not the people we would rely on to get us out of a major crisis. And there is an economic crisis.

    Vince Cable came across positively on the economy last Autumn but one wonders whether he is making less spontaneous impact, as opposed to image when people are probed for comments. In particular, he made his hit on Northern Rock, which has been overtaken by even larger United States crises.

    It is increasingly clear that the economy is going to be everything at the next general election. It is not clear what the LibDems will have to offer. I doubt if tax cuts will do: people are not fools – they know that North Sea Oil is running out, that the Government is saddled by unavoidable interest payments and that a recession is likely to increase the burden of benefit payments. Also, while voters may know little of history, the closeness of the free trade economics which are now failing worldwide to Liberal ideology makes it hard for the LibDems to generate credible policies.

    It will be intersting to see the next set of polls, but my impression if that the LibDem Conference is making little impact, not least because of lack of media coverage (I agree with thomas). I wonder how much psephological pundits should concentrate on party conference this year, when there is no general election in the offing and when the media as well as voters appear to have rumbled that Conference are no longer about real decisions, as opposed to spin. Labour’s leadership crisis excepted, of course.

  8. The Liberals are a party of protest and are generally seen as that / they are known to look for any policy that is current and popular to boost them – the latest tax reduction rather than the ridiculous 10p on the pound tax talk a while back.

    Who really knows what they stand for !! I find it incredible that so many people find them honest etc etc . I think back to their leaders alone like Jeremy Thorpe (gay love affairs with a hired killers thrown in) , Paddy “pants down” Ashdown & Kennedy (who liked a bevvy or two).

    Does anyone on here or anywhere really know what the Liberals stand for ? But they are lucky , because once Labour disappear for good in 20 months – they will get the 2nd party slot out of default.

  9. Thomas,

    Gordon Brown is more popular in Scotland than anywhere else.
    Gordon Brown is leader of the Labour party.
    Gordon Brown may soon be replaced.
    Gordon Brown being replaced may well effect labours Vote in Scotland.

    I am not claiming cause and effect, but the prospect of Gordon Browns departure having a negative effect on Labour support in Scotland is a real one.

    The fact that that and as polls have shown, a Tory government may have a positive ( all be it marginal ) effect on the yes vote, is good news for the SNP but that doesn’t make it a partisan comment.

    A partisan comment is one prejudiced in favour of a particular cause and for there to be prejudice I would need to be claiming that Gordon Browns departure would hurt Labour without evidence or by distorting it, and I’ve done neither.

    Highlighting that current poll figures indicate that a current leader who is under pressure is popular in an area and that his party’s support may suffer in that area if he is removed is fair comment.

    I’d have no probelm with someone suggesting that if Alex Salmond got hit by a bus tomorrow SNP support would fall, as give his high profile and personal popularity (above the SNP in general) that would be a legitimate prediction to make.


  10. Does anyone “really know” who the leader of the Liberals is ?? The main spokesman seems to be Vince Cable still – where is Nick Clegg ? He has turned up at the conference – but watching the staged interview he did on stage – he stubled through it like a schoolboy.

    What we need in this country is the same as the USA where the 3 main candidates go head to head on TV – the Tories have been asking fro this since William Hague , but Labour keep avoiding it.

    I think it would stimulate politics in this country to see the 3 main party leaders in verbal battle – i wonder who would come over the best between , Brown , Clegg & Cameron ? I know !

  11. If I was the Liberal Democrat leader at the moment I’d be looking at the gaping hole where left of centre politics used to be.

    Pretty much everyone (including me) is sick of the Labour party at the moment but that doesn’t mean we really want a conservative government.

    If Nick Clegg (I actually had to think a bit then to remember his name) started to come up with some eye-catching progressive policies he could really start to reap the benefits of the dissatisfaction with Labour. Instead they’ve ditched the 50p rate for rich people and seem intent on a three way scrap for the non existant middle ground.

    The Liberals are best when they are radical – I’m no great historian but a quick google has taught me they came up with income tax, the state pension, national insurance, female suffrage (sort of) and didn’t they have something to do with legalising homosexuality? If I thought voting Lib Dems meant the same today I would change my sign-in name to Steve Wheeler (Lib Dem) right now!

    PS Thomas, Either you didn’t read Peter’s comment properly or the comment you’re referring to has been deleted already because Peter didn’t say anything remotely objectionable – chill out! :)

  12. Sorry, I wrote that before Peters post had come up (I took ages to write it). Clearly Peter has spoken for himself so I didn’t need to poke my nose in – my apologies.

  13. Cameron is a leader who is untainted by passed Conservative unpopularity. And the weaknesses of Labour have allowed him the chance to present himself as a strong leader. But how many people would like to see them winning by a landslide?

    If it is seen that the Conservatives are about to win by a massive majoriy I think we may see some tactical voting. And we may see the Lib Dems taking quite a few seats from the Conservatives as well as Labour. But I admit as things stand with the polls presently the Lib Dems will do well to end up with same amount of seats.

  14. Oddly I note Labour voters think Labour is more right-wing than the Conservatives (5.87 to 5.65) – this would bear out why they can’t motivate their own partisan supporters and why only an increasingly unexpected improvement in the economy will save them.

    Can we expect Brown to suddenly get the message and stop triangulating against Labour’s core vote in order to save his skin?

    If he can then all options remain open (even an overall majority can’t be ruled out, though this is still long odds). If he won’t and yet survives to lead the party into the next election (added to ongoing economic turmoil) I will expect Labour to completely implode and fall to third place overall in the number of seats gained. But if he is replaced then it looks like Labour are looking to regroup in the refuge of official opposition.

    I suspect this autumn’s conference is crunch time and sparks will fly as this debate attempts to break out, though I predict no conclusion will be come to and Brown will survive to continue the drift we have seen till now, and the scale of his eventual defeat will be determined by the deal brokered and the concessions he makes. If he is incapable of reaching an adequate settlement and keeping to it the debate will break out again closer to the election and will prove of longer-lasting damage to Labour.

  15. The most interesting aspect of this is that for every party on a scale from 1 to 10 the largest percentage for all three parties is for 5.

    Look at the end of the tables and be it Labour Tory or Libdem voter more of them rate all three parties as 5 than anything else.

    That very much looks like we have a majority of the public who posibly think that all three parties are pretty much the same.


  16. Well, that’s probably because they are.

    I am left-of-centre – not far left by any means, but none of the three main parties are saying anything at all to attract me at present.

  17. “Oddly I note Labour voters think Labour is more right-wing than the Conservatives (5.87 to 5.65) ”

    Thomas, what’s odd about that? The reason Brown isn’t scoring open goals against the Conservatives after FM nationalisation by the Fed, Lehaman, Bear Stearns, ML etc is because he’s the one who’s allowed the City to behave in an un-fettered free regulatory regime. He had to in order to get in in 1997. The movement towards the centre has been from the tories.

    Peter, I think that’s a syllogism – rating the same doesn’t make them the same. My dog is not my cat. Fluffy is not Mike (Probably)

  18. I turned on the TV halfway through an interview yesterday and, not paying too much attention, thought the discussion was with a Conservative. I was genuinely amazed when I realised that it was Nick Clegg!

    Every – but every – statement he said was core Tory policy, or what one might perceive as such. Well, other than the bit at the end when he said he’d never work with a Tory government…

  19. Does one only vote assuming a party will be a chance for power, or does one vote for a party reflecting your principles and hope that one day it might get in power?

    I would suspect that both options apply, so the argument that Liberals are only ‘Protest’ votes is only valid if you think that voters only choose between possible immediately governing parties.

    I would think that a significant amount of an electorate will be voting for principles (but don’t get me wrong I also suspect an enormous amount will vote ‘pragmatically’ even if it’s only how do I keep party x out of my seat?)

  20. ‘What we need in this country is the same as the USA where the 3 main candidates go head to head on TV – the Tories have been asking fro this since William Hague , but Labour keep avoiding it.’

    Wouldn’t every party have been arguing for it when you have easily the best debater with Hague? I don’t think it’s particularly amazing that the Tories wished for it with Hague-basic common sense. Equally it’s quite logical to avoid it if the other side has the better debater. Nothing amazing about any of this ‘Oracle’ it’s just common sense and could easily have been the other way.

    Very rarely in any Western Country does the actual Leader of a Government debate with the Opposition Leader. Why? Symbolically it places the Government on the same footage as the opposition. Why would any governing party give its opponents such a boost? They’d have to be mad. (Although it does suit your prejudices to see it as Labour being useless…)

  21. “I turned on the TV halfway through an interview yesterday and, not paying too much attention, thought the discussion was with a Conservative. I was genuinely amazed when I realised that it was Nick Clegg!”

    Yes fascinating John.

    I had a similar experience watching Vince Cables speech.

    This complete volte face on tax & spend is very interesting.-Is Clegg moving in alongside Conservative themes in the hope that if their majority is slim at the GE he is well placed to be a natural partner?

  22. I’m a bit surprised about these descriptions of Clegg and Cable as spouting conservatism – they may talk tough, but they always leave you with a lingering suspicion that they are are smart and very nice people.

    It’s like when Cameron & Co talk about being friendly and inclusive and fighting for all the nice things you know it’s completely unnatural for them and they are constantly trying to repress an urge to shout “Away vile filth, you are not worthy”.

    All this acting against type is only likely to work politically for the LDs, because as liberals they have a well-established track record on cross-dressing. If you like that sort of thing then you won’t flirt with the Tories because it is a defining characteristic that they are repelled by swingers – except those tory councillors in Wolverhampton who were happy to whore themselves and their principles out.

  23. It would be good if the next election sees a competitive two party election with the Tories taking about 48%, Labour about 41%, and the Lib Dems entirely wiped out.

    I think there will be a sizeable squeeze on the LD vote, however, and the weight of evidence in many polls is people do not trust them with hard economic decisions, or government decisions generally.

  24. joe james B

    it is not realistic that the conservatives and labour will be so close in light of resent polls a picture more like CON 48-50% LAB 24-22% LD 14-16% AND OTHER PARTYS TAKEING A BIG BIT OF THE PIE

  25. I know.
    On current trends it looks like
    C 40-43,
    Lab 31-33.5
    LD 16-18.5
    Oths 10

    Poll 65-68%

  26. I think that’s how it’ll end up, unless we get some extreme, largely unforeseen circumstances either side of it.