Was pretty much the gist of what Chris Huhne said on the Marr programme yesterday. I rather like that response – I hate it when politicians resort to the cliches of “I never pay attention to polls” (course you don’t, just like all the other politicians don’t) or worse “the only poll that counts is election day”. Huhne’s response rather charmed me since he does at least know about * signifying less than 0.5% but more than 0 in a poll.

Sadly, I can’t actually find any historical incidents of the Lib Dems getting poll ratings of an asterisk. The lowest the Liberal Democrat party has ever polled seems to be 4% in MORI’s polls between June and August 1989, when their support was being split by the continuing SDP. Looking at their predecessor, the lowest Liberal party score I can find in a poll was 1.5% in a Gallup poll in 1955.

Of course, historical polls from before 1997 or so are tricky to find online – MORI and ICM have their archives up, but it’s trickier to find historical polls from companies who no longer regularly conduct them. It could be that at some point in the distant past the Liberal party really was just an asterisk, but I expect Chris Huhne was just exaggerating a bit. Either way, in the past the Lib Dems have indeed had much lower scores than 12%.

UPDATE: Thanks to David Boothroyd in the comments who has managed to find an ICM poll from the Sunday Correspondent in 1989 that had the Lib Dems at 3% (ICM have their Guardian series on their website back into the 80s, but only have polls for other clients back to 1990). Can anyone beat that?

UPDATE2: There is a System Three poll in Scotland in 1988 that had the Lib Dems at just 2% (see here). A Scotland poll isn’t quite the same thing as a GB one, but what the hell. Rob Blackie in the comments reckons there was a Scottish poll (presumably from a different company) that had them even lower. Can anyone track that one down?

441 Responses to “When I were a lad the Lib Dems were just an asterisk…”

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  1. Anthony

    or worse “the only poll that counts is election day”.

    You have just summed up the view on all the LD activist sites (other than grasping onto the ICM 19%).

  2. I saw the Chris Huhne interview and he was just being a politician – if the polls are good for you then you talk them up if the polls are bad for you then you try and give the impression ‘that it’s only a poll, and,well, we know about polls don’t we….’

    The downward trend for the Lib Dems is well and truly established, whether it’s bottmed out we shall see. I think that when the cuts kick in next year we could well see them down to the 4-5% levels of the late 1980s if the coalition hasn’t broken up by then.

    The Lib Dems are undoubtedly between a rock and a hard place and the judgement about whether to stick with the coalition in the hope that it will all come right in the long run or to cut and run before it’s too late will be very hard. There is a strong possibility, in my opinion, that the Lib Dems might leave the coalition almost by default when their party splits into leftish and rightish factions which could happen towards the end of 2011.

    In terms of interest 2011 could be the most interesting year in British Politics for a long time although I fear for people in general it could be quite unpleasant.


    Well if you are right, I reckon there could be an opening for the English Democrats.

    Give us a chance and by 2025 we will all have back the England of our dreams.

  4. Chris Huhne should qualify for the most optimistic man in the Westminster Village. I suppose he has rather a lot of reasons for believing life is on the up but be sure that Lib Dem support is certainly not one of those. I think we will see single digit scores for the yellow vote in the last week of September after the new Labour party leader gives his conference speech.

  5. Rob Sheffield

    Of course it is only the real polls on election day that count .
    Yougov/ST polls Jan and Feb 2009
    Con 44/45 Lab 32/32 LD 14/14

    How accurate were they of predicting the GE result 16 months away .
    Now do we believe Yougov 12% who have changed their methodology with the effect that it reduces the LibDem figure even more or ICM with LD’s at 19% or real local elections where the LD’s polled 25% in 30 real elections in July .

  6. Hello Eoin,
    Time must be flying as I thought you would be away for August. Hope you had a nice time and were not an influence in SB’s recent demise.

    Attlee’s government did indeed change our country radically and so did Thatcher’s but that was a reactionary movement rather than anything (I’m catching up by the way).

    My comment on Lib Dem at 12% is ‘steady as she goes’ but I do wonder if my colleagues have the stiff backbone I possess (despite my new sign-in title).

  7. I wonder what the “Orange” portion versus the “Red” portion of the Liberals is in percentage terms. But say the orange plus the “well lets give a go +it’s nice being in government” percentage represent, say 50% then this coalitian will probably last the course. I think AV is a red herring, not a killer. The population is expecting hard cuts that probably will not “appear” as bad as expected so the chances of blood on the streets is highly unlikely.

    The Unions will scream merry hell at their conference, but will gain little traction.

    I feel the reason to be cheerful are growing. I can almost feel a warm glow.

  8. WollyMindedLiberal…

    If I may say so BackBone and Liberal is an oxymoron.

    It is not necessarily a bad thing. Those (especially post Thatcher) that get the furthest seem to have disposed of their backbone relatively earlier in their young lives.

    Anthony made the point that Ming was a gonner after the 11%, I expect that wont happen this time for two reasons.

    1. Power (it smells, tastes, and feels good). Even the most wolliest of Lib will not want to give it up readily.

    2. Nick Clegg is an asset to the party. The voters like him. his popularity ratings are still reasonably decent. Ming was not an asset for the party.


    I suspect Clegg’s biggest challeng will occur in Sept 2011 when AV fails and yellows are on c.10%. If Charlei Kennedy can keep on the straight and narrow from now until then we may well have a white horse travelling all the way down from Strathpeffer :)

  9. I was also struck by this comment. Huhne has said this before, as have other members of the Liberal Democrats. When I checked the poll returns for the centre party ‘muddle in the middle’ period of 1988-1990, it is surprising (in view of how much was made at the time and subsequently about how poorly they were doing) that they rarely polled below 8%.

    The lowest I could find for the Liberal Democrats was in an ICM poll for the Sunday Correspondent, published on 3 December 1989 and one of the few polls to show the Owenite continuity SDP ahead of the Liberal Democrats: Lab 46, C 38, GP 5, SDP 4, L Dem 3.

  10. EOIN

    I think the Liberal Democrats are going to split. As an enquiring Fabian sort of person I have sent several emails to our dear old friend from Bermondsey, Simon Hughes, firstly about his support for the coalition in general and secondly about his attitude to the budget.

    On the first occasion I had a 6 page(A4) reply and on the second a 4 page(A4) reply – both obviously emailed out to very many enquirers of one sort or the other. Both these documents were desperate defensive with the latter ending with some appallingly anodyne comment along the lines of the British people being able to look forward to much better times ahead!

    There’s going to be further occasions over the next six months or so when this (ex) darling of the left gets thousands of emails along the lines of ‘how can the Liberal democrats go along with this that or the other action’ and there is bound to be a breaking point.

  11. This is an old pattern of how junior partners in coalitions almost always lose support. Look at the FDP in Germany, they took almost 15% in the elections last year – now they are as low as 4% and that means they might not even get any seats in the Bundestag next time. Its similar story with the D66 in the Netherlands – everytime they join the government in a coalition their support almost evaporates and they end up with like 3 seats – then they go into opposition and their support quadruples overnight.

    I’m Canadian and I’m aware of these risks given that the party i support the social-democratic NDP may well form a centre left coalition with the Liberals after the next election. The thing is that when you are a third party – at some point you have to make a decision that being in government and having a chance to actually have a seat at the table and to show that you are capable fo running ministries etc… is IMPORTANT. If all you care about is high poll numbers in the short term – than just vote NO to everything and be totally oppositional (works for the GOP in the US these days) – but ultimately people go into politics in order to have a influence.

    This coalition will probably last if only because the LibDem numbers are so low that LD MPs will do ANYTHING to avoid an early election.

    That being said, when you are a junior partner in a coalition government – what you need to have most of all is an “EXIT STRATEGY” from the coalition. The LibDems will need to find a way to have a schism with the Tories sometime before the next election so that they can run in 2014 as an independent party. If the coalition lasts right to the end – the LDs will be stripped of any distinct identity and people will see voting for them as synonymous with voting Tory.

  12. DavidB,

    I have a lot of experience at disaffected party members towing the party line until breaking point. the message they divulge is barely an ressemblence to what they believe themselves. I regard Simon Hughes as still ‘a darling of the left’ as do I many of the other members of yellows.

    The speel he was forced to email you was probably penned by someone else…

    Philisophically speaking (apoligies to other readers)All parties has a centralising function, a machine for want of a better word. The yellow vanguard has not one iota less of a tendency to act in the regard. For now the hegemony of yellow is a sky blue faction. As long as it remains so every brick in the wall must remain sky blue. That does not mean if the wall was to be dismantled that those bricks could not be refashioned a different colour entirely.

  13. @Glenn Otto

    It’s been said before, but there’s no “Coalition Party” on the ballots.

    It *doesn’t matter* if vote share for Lib Dems and Conservatives combined are 50%+, under FPTP the drop of the Lib Dem share means the “Coalition” will lose seats.

  14. Jay,

    You mean 59% surely?

  15. I can only see the LD’s heading towards asterisk if one of the other parties becomes, in the eyes of voters, liberal.

    This is the trick that DM must perform and it has been to some extent already achieved by DC / OL.

    I think that DM would do well to assemble a team (assuming he wins) that looks even more likely to hug a hoodie than DC or indeed as we now understand it, KC.

  16. Jay

    Sorry, you miss understood my point. I was talking of 50% of Liberal voters. The orange and the red being factions WITHIN the party.

  17. There were polls taken after the first leaders debate, that showed the Lib Dems on 31% and ahead of the Tories.

    The Lib Dems always poll poor during the year, then when theres an election they do better, due to better coverage.

    Im keeping my fingers crossed that we have AV, the sooner the better for the country.

  18. Wolly,

    Yes I agree.

    It shows how out of touch some of us dogmatists are that we fail to see the attraction in striving for thsi ‘liberal label’. It completely bewilders me I must say…

  19. @WML

    I can only see the LD’s heading towards asterisk if one of the other parties becomes, in the eyes of voters, liberal.

    Or when the eyes of the voters decide that- actually- the coalition itself is not liberal in their own personal judgment: perchance when-

    * public and private sector unemployment increases markedly and growth as a result of the Darling strategy is finally strangulated in Q410 and Q111 by Georgie;
    * crime (especially against the person and personal property) increases and the general quality of life/ feeling of well being declines;
    * voters experience of public services (be it schools, hospitals, transport infrastructure, the justice system and policing, the failing or disappearing services that their local council is supposed to provide etc) tells them things are not improving but getting worse.
    * all the above whilst profits and bonuses for bankers and traders who buy and sell money rises into the stratosphere again.

    In the burgeoning individual-family-friends-community-workplace colleagues nexus it is surprising how quickly the narrative develops.

    In such a scenario all the closed down speed cameras, shutdown CCTV monitors, unbuilt prisons, binned ASBO’s and Islamist terrorists not deported (i.e. the panoply of your ‘liberalism’) won’t count for very much at all at the ballot box IMHO.

  20. Looking at the details of the You Gov poll:
    6% would vote for the Lib Dems and approve of the Government’s record to date
    (i.e 51% of 12%)
    3% would vote Lib Dem but neither approve nor disapprove of the Govt’s record
    3% would vote Lib Dem (through gritted teeth?) even though they disapprove of the Govt’s record.

    That doesn’t look to be a solid base of support. How low can they go?

  21. Phil,

    If the fortunes of other minor coalition partners are anything to go by.. electoral obliteration for yellows cannot be ruled out. It has happened before, no less to the yellows themselves.

  22. I never ceases to amaze me how the usual suspects have a crystal ball and can see the coalition parties being decimated or worse. Seemingly the LDs will disappear and the rump of “right wing nutters” that used to be the Conservative party will be troubled by gout and swig their brandy. Meanwhile, Britain will advance up the sunlit uplands of social democratic heaven, where “ordinary people” will enjoy unparalleled wealth and plenty for doing very little.

    Or, maybe it wont be like that.

  23. @ROLAND -“It never ceases to amaze me how the usual suspects have a crystal ball and can see the coalition parties being decimated or worse.”
    We don’t think the coalition parties are going to be decimated. Only the LDs.
    And we don’t need a crystal ball. It’s happening before our very eyes. :)

    Wellcome back chap.Your 5.43 is very true, but they must know their own history. Surely this aspect was discussed by Clegg, Laws, Cable and co when Dave was after their bodies.

  25. Sorry LDs. I should have put a sad smilie at the end of my last post. :(


    Julian, Julian, get with the programme. The Libs perish, the Tories take full flak for the poor dying in the streets and Karabunga, SuperMilliband saves us all.

  27. With a couple of minor adjustments, I’m willing to go along with the programme.
    The Libs perish, the Tories take some flak for the poor dying in the streets and Karabunga, SuperMilliband manages to scrape an overall majority at the next election and save us all.

  28. “Well if you are right, I reckon there could be an opening for the English Democrats.

    Give us a chance and by 2025 we will all have back the England of our dreams.”

    No offence, but if the EDP get the England of their dreams I’ll be emigrating – fortunately, I’m not one of the anti-immigration brigade so I can talk about emigrating without hypocrisy :)

  29. I appear to have been moderated and as I’m relatively new to the board I’ve no idea why.

    I hope the fact that I don’t fit the ‘metrosexual mould’ being from the military, right wing, libertarian, an English Democrat and non-racist has nothing to do with this.

    I gather somebody called Anthony Wells looks after us, so please help me out here.

  30. There are two ways to measure the last 60 or so days of coalition government…

    1. Approval rating
    2. VI polls.

    The approval rating is on a very steady path. That path is in decline. It is by no means unexpected nor is it by any means drastic but it is sure and steady nonetheless….

    The VI for blue is good the VI for yellow is bad.

    In all of this crystal balls are unnecessary. Trends are trends and barring some cataclysmic unepected event they are the best possible gauge of how things will pan out.

    The thing is that we have an unexpected event to follow. If the polls of the Labour leadership are to be believed we will have either David Milliband or Ed Milliband in charge of reds very soon. Anti DM will probably coalesce around Ed M i expect. Either way… it has the potential to offer a boost to reds. A boost is not a foregone conclusion afterall hague and Howard provided no long term sustained jump in blue support.

    There is another uncertainty and that is May 2011. It Brings Holyrood and AV polls. Neither promise to offer much gain for yellow. AV will almost certainly fail (note Ed M has raised the prospect of reds not canvassing for a yes). But above all else Scottish voters are likely to punish yellows very badly indeed.

    Of these 5 points
    1. Gov. Approv
    2. VI poll
    3. Labour Leader
    4. AV
    5. Holyrood

    Nick Clegg is in for a tough 12 months. Nobody needs a crystal ball to figure that one out….


    DC will soon be regarded as the experienced elder statesmen having seen of an AV referendum and the right wing of his party…

    Meanwhile Reds face the potential of looking opporuntistic on AV. They risk looking inexperienced and unprincipled. A vote for DM looks like a very blatant attempt to recreate Blairism. Onlly a good showing in Holyrood will save the following 12 months. But if unemployment inflation and cuts continue to increase… a policy lite centrist might look a poor choice as leader.


  31. @ARCHIE
    Some words trigger automatic moderation.
    I’m sure it’s got nothing to do with being military, right wing, libertarian, an English Democrat, non-racist or indeed not a metrosexual. ;)

  32. Julian , the party that is being more than decinated currently are the Conservatives . They are losing 25% of the seats they are defending in local council byelections more than half they are losing to the LibDems .
    DL mentions that the LibDems should have an exit strategy to leave the Coalition in 2014 . I disagree . I am pretty sur that the current strategy ( it may of course change through unforeseen events ) is roughly .
    To follow through with the Coaltion until 2015 believing that after some pain and unpopularity in 2011/2012 that the economy will have been growing strongly in 2013 -2015 bringing increasing popularity to both Coalition parties . The Conservatives and LibDems will jointly announce sometime in 2014 that although they Coalition government will continue until 2015 , both parties will develop their own policies to put to the voters in 2015 and that the results of the 2015 GE will determine whether a new Coalition government is formed after the GE .

  33. @EOIN
    Welcome back.
    I agree with everything you say except for the very last sentence.
    In terms of popularity, populists tend to be more successful than non-populists. DM has moved up to my first choice (from 3rd a couple of weeks ago), purely on the basis he’s the candidate the Tories least want to see as leader of the Labour party. :)

  34. Julian,


    Who did we least want to see in charge of blues in 1997? or blues in 2001? or blues in 2005?

    i always feared Fox, Davis, and Portillo…

    I certainly never feared David Cameron…

    What you enemies fear might be Sun Tzu’s way of devising tactics but I would caution it. The English electorate are gradually becoming a bit more savy to this media age. The mistake I made was accepting the stereotype of Cameron as the heir to Blair… I think the PR slur contained in that jibe has not one iota of truth in it.

  35. I am with DL that LD MP’s will want to avoid a GE at all costs. One or 2 may swap to LP at some stage in the parliament and a few more will stay LD but object from the back benches to shore up the ‘anti-con element of their constituency support .
    how late to leave re-forging their own identity is a tricky one and may well be in vain anyhow.
    Next GE a 2 horse race in England and Wales, LD down to 25-30UK seats held for individuals contrary to UNS.

  36. LibDems are playing the ostrich at the moment.

    They entered coaltion to achieve PR.

    And they stand to achieve…

    Defeat on an AV referendum.

    NOT a price worth paying.

    They have time to opt out and reform a progressive coalition.

    But if they just carry on playing the ostrich they will lose and lose heavily at the *real* polls.

  37. @EOIN
    You could well be right.
    I always feared Portillo, Heseltine, Clark.
    David Cameron worried me.
    Now he worries me more.

  38. Julian,

    Clarke and Hesaltine I liked too much to fear… Two genuine centrists who would have done an excellent job running Britain.. but tribally and electorally yes you are 100% correct.

  39. @EOIN -“Clarke and Heseltine I liked too much.”
    Oh yes, me too, that’s why I feared them. If a tribal lefty like me likes them, how many Labour votes would they have won?

  40. Personally i never feared any of the above as they could not unite their parties and i think DM is the same.
    when the going gets tough hi less than fulsome loyalty to GB will cost him internally.
    Out of the 2 EM for me but would have preferred AB.

  41. Chris Todd

    No we did not enter coalition to achieve PR .
    We entered a Coalition Government to have some powe and influence on government policy .
    In real polls we are gaining seats

  42. JimJam,

    I agree entirely.

  43. @DAVIDB

    Your view seems to one from quite a distance to the Lib Dems. Perhaps a little wishful thinking? From a little closer in things look quite different. Sure, there is a fair amount of apprehension and opinion is divided whether the best thing to do was go in or stay out of a coalition but now that we’re in it, surveys say the large majority want to try to make it work. There’s no chance of a split, or even a little one. Success is down to Luck, Events and hard work. We’re quite keen on the hard work bit. Luck and Events we’ll have to deal with as they come.

    For me, coalition comes down to this choice. We could have chosen the safe option and let the Conservatives go it alone. No risk to us but no benefit. The other option was to get stuck in, temper the Conservative Right where we can, add a little Liberalism when we can. Big risks for the party but possible rewards for success. If we didn’t choose the latter then there’s no point in being involved in politics. We might as well stop. The voice inside the party is one of cautious optimism, not one of schism.

  44. Eoin – You’re back, yipppppeeeee. (In case you don’t get my yipppppeeeeee on the previous thread)

    I have been attending many hustings! Surprisingly, I now find myself torn between D-Mili and Balls. I do wish you weren’t so sure you know who D-Mili is as I thought I knew who Balls was and it turns out I was quite wrong.

    A question has been bugging me while you were away. Neither of us wanted a Lib/Lab pact during the negotiations. You were keen for a full coalition rather than supply and demand. Was this because it would be better for the country/Libs or worse?

  45. @SUE
    How is EB different to what you thought he was?
    How might DM be different to what Eoin thinks he is?

  46. Sue,

    Excellent question….

    In fairness to Colin Green he does have one aspect of his analysis spot on. Yellows do keep the right wing of blues quiet. That was at the forefront of my mind when they done a deal. I now find myslef querying whether Clegg is actually more to the right than Cameron. Do you know I think he probably is.

    The second reason i wanted yellows in a full coalition is more to do with honesty. You are either backing an administration or you are not. If yellows back blue then good luck to them… in a full coaltion they may well reap rewards… It would have been downright disingenous of them to silently back blues and absolve themselves or any administrative failures…

    Had yellow simply gone along in a supply and demand manner the polls would read a little better for them… the potential dangers would be a little less.

    I honestly wish a centrist blue/yellow gov. all the very best…

    Regarding Balls, the best he can hope for is a good cabinet post… Yvette in 4 years time I think is the brightest hope for that political family…

    Regarding DM, yes I might be wrong… I certainly hope I am. I was wrong about DC and Blair afterall.

  47. Lol. Julian – Balls is twinkly and actually quite charismatic. He is less opportunistic than I thought and left wing in a way that I think would appeal to moderate lefties and women and unions all at once. He’s shown himself to be good at picking up the main points and opposing them, and whether the Blues agree or not, he’s scored the best “hits” of the campaign.

    DM seems much more inclusive, co-operative and mutual than I thought. I don’t think his own programme is what we thought it would be.

  48. I don’t get this about the Tories fearing D Miliband? Have any of them said so? If I was them I’d be quite pleased if he won. Perhaps it’s a double bluff.

    I know we don’t have a presidential system etc, but the appearance and manner of a party leader does influence voters. I’m sorry, but Miliband is a weird geek. This isn’t just my opinion, I’ve asked various people at work, in supermarket queues etc and they all agree. Of course they could just have been humouring me :)

    You might not like Cameron, but at least he comes across as posh-but-normal (or Tim Nice-But-Dim?) rather than weird.

    BTW this is not a partisan attack on the Labour Party. I think Alan Johnson would go down well with the electorate compared to the actual candidates.

    “The other option was to get stuck in, temper the Conservative Right where we can, add a little Liberalism when we can. Big risks for the party but possible rewards for success
    If we didn’t choose the latter then there’s no point in being involved in politics. We might as well stop.”

    That is the most succinct reason for the LibDems decision I have read.

    It is the answer to the Labour criticism of you -because it explains that you were you, and not a proxy Labour Party.

    It took courage in my view. I hope you gain your share of any success this coalition achieves.

    If there is no success we will both be out on our ears.

  50. @SUE
    Very interesting.
    EB being moderate and charismatic is a bit of a surprise. Twinkly a big surprise. :)

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