The Times today has the first installment of its Populus Conference poll, this week covering the Liberal Democrats. There was also a small ICM poll on the Liberal Democrats on yesterday’s Politics Show, and a more extensive ICM poll in today’s Guardian.

Populus’s poll shows, as usual, that in terms of party image the Liberal Democrats are very, very strong. Asked about whether various positive comments are true of each party, the Liberal Democrats beat the Conservatives on every count, and are only marginally behind Labour when it comes to being seen as competent and having a good team of leaders. The Liberal Democrats the party who the largest proportion of the country think understands they way they live their lives, shares their values, are honest and principled, have clear ideas for the issues facing the country and (by a huge margin) are seen as the most united party.

So, with an image this good how come more people aren’t voting for them? Populus asked people if they agreed with various statements about the Liberal Democrats – just under half of respondents thought that the Lib Dems would do a good job if they did win power and thought they were a better opposition than the Conservatives, but it was the negative comments that were more telling: almost two-thirds of respondents agreed with the statements that the Liberals Democrats were “basically a protest vote party, because they have no real chance of winning” and “Lib Dems seem decent people but their policies probably don’t really add up.” Worrying for the Liberal Democrats, those agreeing with these statements included almost four out of ten Liberal Democrat voters. Almost of third of those who did vote Lib Dem in May 2005, said that they might not have voted for them if there had been a risk of them actually winning.

Populus also offered respondents a list of possibilites and asked them which would make them more likely to vote Liberal Democrat. Tougher crime policies was the most popular option – 65% of people said this would make them more likely to vote Lib Dem, including an overwhelming 80% of Lib Dem voters. Around half of respondents said that opposing ID cards and replacing council tax with a local income tax, both of which were actually already Lib Dem policy at the last election, would have made them more likely to vote Lib Dem suggesting these are more popular solutions than the direction proposed by “orange book” Lib Dems – only 32% of respondents thought that proposed radical reform of public services with more private sector involvement would make them more likely to vote Lib Dem.

ICM’s poll gave respondents another list of statements about the Lib Dems, and found similar results – a majority of people (56%) thought they were a serious alternative to Labour and the Tories, 59% of people thought they were right to oppose the war in Iraq, but after that it began to turn bad – 60% thought it was hard to know what they really stood for, 58% thought the Lib Dems would tax people like themselves more, and 57% thought they were more concerned about criminals than victims of crime. While almost half of people thought Britain would be better run with the Lib Dems in government, 69% thought people they knew who voted for them were just making a protest vote.

So, the Lib Dems have a wonderfully positive image, but people really know what they stand more, are wary about their policies on tax and crime and don’t take them seriously as a potential government – they are seen as just a particularly pleasant vehicle for protest votes. What to do about it is the task facing the Lib Dems at conference – to be seen as anything other than a protest party, it appears they need to be more clearly defined, the question the Liberal Democrats seem to be asking is what sort of party they want to define themselves as. Are they happy to continue to be seen as a party of the left, or will they pursue the more right-wing agenda suggested by the “orange book” Liberals?

The ICM poll for the Politics showed asked people if they thought the Lib dems were positioned closer to Labour or the Conservatives – people overwhelmingly put them closer to Labour. The Guardian’s ICM poll asked people to put the Lib Dems on a scale from left to right. 35% put them at the centre, but 30% put them to the left-of-centre, compared to only 10% who put them to the right-of-centre (25% didn’t know). The Lib Dems were closely aligned with their own voters, 51% of whom placed themselves at the same place as the Lib dems. They also seem well placed to take disillusioned Labour voters; 29% of them place the Lib Dems at the same place on the left-right scale as themselves.

If they want to target disillusioned Conservative voters, they face a more difficult task – 40% of Conservative voters categorise the Lib Dems as being left of centre and 61% place them to the left of their own position. If the Lib Dem strategy is to continue to target the Conservatives, then they may need to address a perceived drift to the left.

Finally there is the Charlie Kennedy question. In Populus’s poll 33% of people thought that replacing Kennedy with a “more credible” figure would make them more likely to vote Lib Dem, Lib Dem voters themselves were just as likely to agree with this. The ICM/Guardian poll asked respondents straight out if, after 6 years as leader, it was time for Kennedy to stand down. 30% thought he should go, 58% thought he should stay. Amongst Lib Dem voters there was still very strong support for Kennedy, but a substantial minority thought it was time he went – 77% said stay, 20% said go.

(I know I have also promised you all a look at Peter Kellner’s paper from the Political Quarterly – don’t worry, that too is on its way)

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