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