Every year Populus carry out a special conference poll which is published over the three weeks of the party conference and covers, amongst other things, party image. The first part of the data – for the Liberal Democrats – is published today. Previous years’ data is here and here.

The poll contains what should be worrying trends for the Liberal Democrats. The most positive finding in the poll is that that 51% of people agree that their redistribute and green policies mean that the Liberal Democrats are now a “credible alternative” to Labour. Notably, this includes 43% of people who currently vote Labour, suggesting there are yet more Labour voters who the Lib Dems could pry away. The proportion of people who dismiss the Lib Dems as a protest vote with no chance of winning has fallen slightly at 61%, down from 64% last year.

The percentage of people agreeing with the statement that “the Liberal Democrats are decent people but their policies probably don’t add up” is broadly static at 66% (up from 64%). The question unfortunately includes two separate concepts – whether the Lib Dems are decent people, and whether their policies add up or not. Hence it would be impossible to say if any movement was the result of people changing their opinion on Lib Dem policies or how nice they were. Personally I think the fact that is hasn’t fallen is probably a good thing for the Lib Dems, being seen as “decent people” is one of the party’s strongest cards, and the removal of Charles Kennedy did have the potential to damage it.

Elsewhere there are more negative findings. 47% of people agree that “the Lib Dems made a big mistake in choosing Menzies Campbell”, including 51% of Liberal Democrat voters. Questions on party image all show that the Lib Dems still have a very strong and positive party image, but that it is in decline. 43% of people “think they understand the way people live their lives in today’s Britain”, most than both the Tories and Labour (both on 35%), but the figure is falling, down from 55% in 2005 and 56% in 2004. 50% of people think the Liberal Democrats care “about the problems ordinary people have to deal with”, more than Labour on 40% and the Conservatives on 36%…but the figure is down from 57% in 2005 and 66% in 2004. Looking at Labour and the Conservatives, Labour too are down – as might be expected given their troubles – and there is little movement for the Conservatives, with the slight rises in both their figures not large enough to be significant.

The changes are sharpest on whether the Lib Dems are a united party – 46% agree, down from 71% last year. Of course during last year’s conference season the Conservatives were undergoing a leadership contest and Labour were, as ever, in a fit of the TB-GBs – it is hardly surprising that the Lib Dems scored so highly on unity when compared to the state the other two parties were in. However, the change is probably also a result of Charles Kennedy’s removal. Labour and the Conservatives have also seen sharp changes, 49% of people now think the Tories are united (up from 28% last year) and only 14% of people think Labour are (down from 46% last year).

In previous years Populus have asked a wider range of questions on party image, including honesty, competence, shared values and leadership. I have no idea if the other questions were included this time, if so I expect the Times are saving them for their reports on the findings about Labour and Conservative parties. Until then we can’t tell if these trends are present across all the measures of party image. For the moment it appears that, while the Liberal Democrats’ image is still a strong asset and they are still perceived the most positively of the three main parties, their reputation of being more understanding, caring and united than the other parties is slowly draining away…

UPDATE: Populus’s website has the full questions on party image, the sharp fall in perceptions of the Liberal Democrats is indeed across the board. I had expected that the Times had taken only the most dramatic figures, and that I’d find much less drastic falls amongst the other measures, but the image of the Lib Dems really has plummetted. The proportion of people thinking they are “honest and principled” has dropped 11 points to 41% (though this is still higher than the other two parties), competence has dropped 14 points to 32% (Labour had an even sharper fall – down 15 points to 36%. The Conservatives are now seen as the most competent party), the proportion of people thinking the Lib Dems share their values is down 12 points to 38% (now equal with the Tories) and the proportion of people thinking the Lib Dems have a good team of leaders is down 20 points on 32% (the Conservatives meanwhile are up 21 points on 41%, though last year’s figure was obviously during their leadership contest).

During the last conference season, the Lib Dems came top on six of the eight measures used by Populus, Labour two and the Conservatives none. In this conference season, the Lib Dems came top on four of the eight measures, the Conservatives three, Labour none (one measure was equal between the Lib Dems and Conservatives).

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