As a Lib Dem I know that I shouldn’t get too excited about a big bounce in the opinion polls. After all we spend the rest of the year arguing with Labour and Tory bloggers that polls are meaningless and that the Lib Dems will do much better when the election comes and so we can’t suddenly change our mind when the results are good for us. However the latest polls are interesting as they show what happens when the party is suddenly getting publicity again (it’s just a shame it wasn’t the one that came out during conference). Given the publicity over Nick Clegg’s “£30 pension gaffe” and the mixed response to his speech (which I still don’t understand as I thought it was brilliant), the result is amazing and it is, apparently, the biggest post-conference bounce we have ever had. I still however remain of the view that we won’t have any idea how popular Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats really are until we have had a general election and people get to see more of us and more of Nick. Mind you, if anyone saw Frank Luntz’s focus group on Newsnight, that will give the party great hope.
The more interesting poll though is the one of marginal seats by YouGov, which is a larger sample size than usual and includes a cross-section of different types of seats, in different parts of the country and with constituency-specific results. It seems to me that the main lessons from that poll are:
- You can’t take a uniform swing and then extrapolate that across every other seat in the country as some commentators do. Thankfully this isn’t something that Electoral Calculus does quite so crudely anymore, but the website is still unfortunately quoted by the press as if it is a credible study on each party’s performance in individual constituencies when it isn’t. Electoral Calculus however is useful as a reference for the notional results in the new constituencies, and it is also a very crude way of showing what is probably the worst that Labour and the Lib Dems can do in each seat on the current opinion polls, and the best the Tories will probably do (and in the process dashing the hopes of those Tories who still argue that they can beat Ed Balls in Morley & Outwood).
- The Lib Dems do much better where they are seen as the challengers and where they have an incumbent MP. I go in to more detail below on the situation in Labour seats, but it does show that the Lib Dems are good at holding on where they have an incumbent. The YouGov poll still shows many incumbents being swept away in the tide, but on the whole it is better for the Lib Dems. I still believe that they wrong though on some incumbents, such as Chris Huhne and Tim Farron who I am convinced will hold on. Although admittedly that is partly down to knowing a bit about the seats and what the Lib Dems are doing there and a lot more through instinct rather than through any statistical evidence.
- Perhaps stating the obvious, but Labour really are heading to a disastrous defeat. We have to capitalise on that.
- It doesn’t matter that Cameron has yet to convince the majority of the population that he is any good as he is still seen as better than anything that Labour can offer. I have said before that I don’t see David Cameron as the Tory equivalent of Tony Blair. Yes he may have made the Tories more acceptable, but I don’t detect any great enthusiasm for Cameron as there was for Blair. The crucial difference, and one that Cameron should be thankful for is that Labour have an unpopular leader and party, whereas when the Tories lost in 1997, John Major was quite well liked and it was more his party that was the problem.
What I found disappointing though was to see which seats this poll had selected as the best ones to use as Lib Dem marginals against either Labour or the Conservatives. There is at least one seat (which I won’t name in case it is used by the opposition there) that is used in this poll as a representative Lib Dem/Labour marginal but I know is not even on the target seat list anymore. I also know of several Lib Dem target seats that are perhaps more representative of where the party is trying hard to win that are not included. I know they can’t poll every seat, but it means that the seats being used in this poll are not necessarily representative of how the party polls when they are really trying hard to win.
However despite my criticism of some of the way the poll has been carried out and the conclusions that have been drawn from it, I think the lack of progress in Labour seats is a potential worry. It’s worth bearing in mind that this poll was carried out before the recent poll bounce and at a time when we had only just made going for Labour seats a major priority. But for me the concern is that none of the seats that were Lab/Lib Dem fights showed a Lib Dem gain (except in Islington South & Finsbury). This shouldn’t cause immediate panic as, assuming the General Election is still some way off, there is plenty of time for the party to make progress.
In a previous post I have mentioned that being in favour of tax-cutting won’t harm our chances of gaining Labour seats, just as in 1997 being in favour of raising taxes didn’t harm our chances of winning Conservative seats. What we instead need to have is consistent principles tempered by what is the right political message for the time. But more than any of that, we need to be seen as a credible opponent to the Labour Government. Perhaps that is why we are yet to make real headway in the Labour seats we want to win. In 1997 despite not having any official arrangement with Labour we were seen to be part of an anti-Conservative force. We don’t yet have an equivalent anti-Labour force this time. That may be because after many years as a centre-left party many Lib Dems instinctively hate the Conservatives far more than Labour. That is something though that we need to rectify and is down to convincing people in our campaigning rather than political positioning.
The bigger problem in this poll though seems to be that the party is struggling in three-way fights. I know of a couple of seats (one where we are a close 3rd and another where we are 2nd but with the Tories not far behind) where we are far out-working the Tories, and that doesn’t seem to be reflected in this poll. It shouldn’t be a surprise that people will switch straight from one of the bigger parties to the other one as that is what happened in 1997, but it is concerning nonetheless. Not so much for those seats where we came a close third last time but for those where we came second last time and despite all the hardwork we look likely to fall to third.
What this poll reinforces for me is that at the next General Election many people will simply vote for whichever party can beat Labour. Forget the policy positions, forget the clever slogans, it is beating Labour that matters. But at the moment the message is simply not getting through in many Labour/Lib Dem marginals. We still probably have time, but we don’t know how much time it is. We really need now to get in to people’s minds that in many seats it is us that can beat Labour and not the Conservatives.