Polling Observatory conference season update #1 – Liberal Democrats

This is the twenty-ninth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

In this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties vote shares have never been lower, a previously marginal party is polling consistently above 10% and the geography of the main parties’ voters is highly polarised, meaning that comparisons with how poll leads have translated into results in previous elections potentially are very misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time insecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.

Lib Dems

One of the polling bookies has put the Liberal Democrats at evens to poll over 14% with YouGov by end of the year. This is a bet that nobody would be advised to take. The last time that the Lib Dems polled 14% with YouGov was in September 2010. They have been flat-lining ever since. Our most recent estimates put the Liberal Democrats at 7.7%. This is down 0.7 points on their support at the end of last August, a dismal position which a strong conference season is unlikely to do much to improve.

In many ways, the electorate’s roller-coaster relationship with Nick Clegg – from the love-in of debate-fuelled Cleggmania to formation of the coalition, the tuition fees betrayal and other policy compromises in government – resembles the rise and fall of Tony Blair on fast forward. Blair’s decline from progressive hero to hate figure – from the flag-waving days of May 1997 to the mass demonstrations of 2003, was six years in the making. Clegg managed to alienate almost as many voters in just five months. There is no sign that these voters are near to returning, and the Liberal Democrats can only hope that their local/personal vote saves them.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest this is simply the cost of doing business in a coalition setting. The Lib Dem’s electoral success from the early 1990s was built on making a pitch to middle class, left of centre voters – unwilling or unable to vote Labour, but turned off by the “nasty” Conservative Party. More recently, since the 2000s, its gains have largely come by positioning it to the left of Labour on key issues – Iraq, Europe and the environment most notably. Indeed, in 2005 the Liberal Democrat’s election platform was to the left of Labour, and in 2010 it was largely level. It can hardly be any surprise, then, that this electoral coalition has been decimated by the steady flow of compromises fashioned with their right wing coalition partners.

There is perhaps too much emphasis among commentators, then, on the degree to which Labour’s hopes for 2015 are ‘heavily reliant on the continued disenchantment of former Liberal Democrats’. Many of these voters are most likely not lifelong Liberal Democrats, but Labour supporters who quit the Labour coalition during the Blair/Brown years, and have returned to the fold under the Coalition government – ending the twenty year experiment of a social democratic Liberal Party. As we can see from the Polling Observatory figures, many of the supporters who left did so immediately after the Coalition was formed, and many soon after. The Liberal Democrats’ bleeding was complete by the end of 2010, and they have not really moved in the polls since. It is not just that British voters are not particularly keen on coalition government. Those who joined the Liberal Democrats from the left were not keen on a centre-right Coalition from the outset. For the Liberal Democrats, the current pattern represents a return to the post-war level of support for the old Liberal Party. The resurgence of the Liberal Democrats as a third way in British politics had been built up by the efforts of Ashdown and Kennedy, only to be dismantled by the project of the orange book Liberals — most notably Clegg, Alexander and Laws. One prominent member of the party’s left wing – Sarah Teather, representing a poor, former safe Labour seat, has already announced her intention to quit at the 2015 election. It will be no surprise if, as 2015 approaches, more prominent left-of-centre Liberals join her, jumping ship before the impending electoral Tsunami hits. Complete electoral disaster may be spared, however, through the personal vote that individual MPs have managed to cultivate in their local constituencies – recent evidence suggests voters in Liberal Democrat seats like their MP better than those living in Labour or Conservative seats, and that such voters remain more willing to back a local Liberal Democrat than the national polling suggests.

Perhaps the only question that remains is this: will the Liberals have sufficient MPs in the next parliament to play kingmaker? Clegg would be better advised to stop manoeuvring the party in preparation for the next coalition and instead focus on finding a way to expand a support base that has been on life support for more than three years now.

Rob Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup

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