The Lib Dems are down, but they’re not out

by Kevin Meagher

As the Lib Dems try to put their best foot forward during their annual conference next week they grapple with two pretty fixed opinions about them nowadays.

The first is, of course, that they are a dead duck electorally. An analysis of 28 opinion polls taken last month from the venerable UK Polling Report website shows an average level of support of just 9.5%. In comparison 10 opinion polls taken in August 2007 (again, two years into the 2005 parliament) shows a figure of 15.6%.

A biggish 6-point gap then, hence the commentary of the Lib Dems’ perpetual, irredeemable decline. But the same analysis of just ICM polls gives pause for thought. As Mike Smithson from UK Polling Report explains: “ICM…make an educated guess as to how the don’t knows would vote, assuming that 50% of them will vote for the party they voted for in 2010.

This normally gives the Liberal Democrats a significant boost.” Between June and August 2007 the Lib Dems averaged 18.3% in ICM’s polls. June to August this year shows them averaging 14.3%. Now take out the usual margin of error of plus/minus 3% and that leaves a potential 1% gap from where they were at the same stage in the last parliament. None of this is to say things are looking rosy for the Lib Dems; perhaps just less bad than it sometimes appears. All these figures are a long way short of the 23% they achieved in the 2010 general election. Of course the Lib Dems’ support traditionally climbs in the run-in to polling day. Their message of “a plague on both your houses” cuts through with weary voters turned off by Labour and the Tories. But it’s much harder next time for the Lib Dems to piously nestle between the other two parties.

They have a record to defend in 2015 and no-one can predict how that will play out with any assurance. Which brings me to the second fixed opinion about the Lib Dems.

Some think their problem is more to do with the leader than the party. Nick Clegg is so utterly repulsive to voters, the theory goes, that the Lib Dems cannot avoid electoral annihilation while he remains at the helm. But a recent ComRes poll which suggested the party leaders’ names had an interesting finding. While Ed Miliband was 3% less popular that Labour and David Cameron was level-pegging with the Tories’, Nick Clegg was actually 2% more popular than the Lib Dems.

For someone so regularly pilloried this is at the very least counter-intuitive. (the Independent’s John Rentoul has some further analysis of this phenomenon here). Granted, replacing Clegg with Vince Cable added 4% to their support, but, again the gap is just outside the usual margin of error.

Among the three main party leaders, Clegg is alone in being more popular than his party. At this stage of the parliament, there are too many variables we cannot predict, too may polls that tell us subtlety different tales; and while the Lib Dems’ may be in extremis, only time will tell. At the moment though, Labour needs to be careful that casual assumptions, wishful thinking and political enmity don’t lull the party into a false sense of security. The Lib Dems are down, but they are not out yet.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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6 Responses to “The Lib Dems are down, but they’re not out”

  1. john problem says:

    Nick needs to be a lot more tough on Dave. As he can be, because Dave can’t fire him. He needs to push an agenda of policies the voters will like – tax the non-doms, create jobs, render Westminster less contemptible by fewer ‘apologies’ and more firing when a Minister screws up, sort out the sickies who are not sick, cut right back the aid overseas, and so on. Every poll tells us what the voters think – it’s not difficult, is it?

  2. swatantra says:

    The Lib Dems have always been a ragbag or repository of protest voters who didn’t like the Facist Parties all that much so threw in their lot with them.
    In future Lib Dems will have to be satisfied with maybe around 30 Parliamentary seats, just enough to hold the balance of power, and exert some degree of influence and rein in the other major Parties who may happen to form the Govt. They may be fortunate to actually be part of that Govt like now, or they may not.
    But its all swings and roundabouts for them; and they shouldn’t be too disappointed that thety are not listened to in Govt because as Clegg said they only have less than 10% of the popular vote, on a good day. Like a bad penny, they will always be around.

  3. Robert says:

    I agree. The main challengers for most Lib Dem MPs will be Tories at the next General Election. Some Labour voters might decide to hold their nose and vote Lib Dem, while some moderate Tory voters might prefer a Lib-Con coalition to a majority Conservative government. However, Lib Dem MPs challenged by Labour are probably doomed.

    My guess is that the Lib Dems will get about 15% of the vote and 30 seats at the next General Election.

  4. james says:

    Nick needs to be a lot more tough on Dave. As he can be, because Dave can’t fire him. He needs to push an agenda of policies the voters will like – tax the non-doms, create jobs, render Westminster less contemptible by fewer ‘apologies’ and more firing when a Minister screws up, sort out the sickies who are not sick, cut right back the aid overseas, and so on. Every poll tells us what the voters think – it’s not difficult, is it?

    I know just like Labour are planning right now – oh, errr

  5. Mike Homfray says:

    The problem the LD’s have is that so much of their vote was a protest one based on not being in Government. Now they have lost that element of their vote, plus those who didn’t like them going into coalition with the Tories, there remains the core Liberal vote which always votes Liberal, which may keep them some seats where the Liberal tradition is strong. I can’t really see them getting the dustbin vote next time, and the core vote for the two main parties is pretty resiliant

  6. uglyfatbloke says:

    I think we are easily misled when we relate opinion polls to results in terms of seats. We have to think about the distribution of the vote and the current distribution of Glib-Dumb MPs. There are currently 11 lib-dems in Scotland, but their party polling in Scotland is so low that it is difficult to judge. Given a 3% margin of error it could be as much as 6% or it could be as little as zero….which would be quite funny.
    Joining the Tories was bad enough, but by abandoning federalism/devo-max/FFA they have seriously alienated their own activists, let alone the electorate. Campbell will keep his seat if he stands, but he will be in his mid-70s and may well retire. Carmichael is seen as being a genuine ‘maximum home rule’ liberal and is very popular locally so he’s pretty safe. The others are going to lose. Simple as that.
    At the last Scottish GE the Lib-Dems (and the Tories and to a considerable degree Labour too) were only saved by a system of proportional representation that was specifically designed to keep the gnats out of power and that avenue won’t be available under FPTP. If the Lib-Dems have anything more than 20 MPs they will be very lucky indeed and are very likely to be the fourth party at Westminster with fewer MPs than the gnats.
    If so, it will be very difficult for them to ever recover. They won’t get the same amount of TV time that they have been accustomed to for a start. How would their ‘share’ of airtime be justified if they are not the third party in the Commons?
    Of course they could turn things around by adopting better policies …opposing trident, full no-compensation nationalization of the failed banks, demanding proper jail-time for MPs who steal, increase income tax for big earners (over £50,000 perhaps) reduce income tax for those under £20,000, liberate sex-workers, legalise cannabis, ensure proper Trade Union representation on boards, reduce MPs salaries, end NHS privatisation, improve civil liberties…..
    There’s loads of scope for a party that offers policies that people would like, but it won’t be Glib-Dumbs that do so.
    It won’t be Labour either. The economy will be starting to look better before the next GE (although personally I think that it will be pretty superficial) and Ed’s economic credibility will obviously be hampered by having Balls on board, so if Labour don’t adopt some popular policies (and I don’t mean immigrant-bashing) then we’ can all look forward to another Tory government.
    It’s not a cheerful thought is it?

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