Nick Clegg has been Liberal Democrat leader for just over six months now. As I have argued before, that should provide enough time, and enough polling data, to start drawing one or two conclusions.
I think it’s pretty clear that the change of leader has halted the party’s slow decline in popularity; our public support has firmed up his year. For the first six months of 2008, the Lib Dems scored between 15 and 21 per cent in the Populus, Ipsos MORI and YouGov opinion polls. This compared to a range of 11 to 16 per cent across all the same surveys in the last six months of 2007 (though last year ICM gave us better results, more in line with those for 2008).
Second, Nick is becoming more popular. The Populus leader index measures Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg on a 10-point “how good a leader”, scale. In January, Nick had an initial score with Populus of 4.40. In March, in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty vote, it was 4.16. By May, it was up to 4.52 but dipped slightly, to 4.45, in June.
Interestingly, swing voters gave Nick a 4.60 rating last month, his highest figure yet. This compared to 5.61 for David Cameron and 4.15 for Gordon Brown. And he continues to get more popular with Lib Dem voters.
Nick may be getting himself established with the public – but the evidence here is very mixed. In January, nearly 40 per cent of voters didn’t know what they thought of him. By June, this figure had fallen to 20 per cent.
YouGov’s data tells a slightly different story. On the one hand, they suggest Nick Clegg is getting more popular. You Gov asks voters whether they think each leader is doing very well, fairly well, fairly badly or very badly. In March, Nick had a net satisfaction rating of minus 6 per cent. This month, the same figure was positive 6 per cent. This is slightly below Charles Kennedy’s worst figures but well above Ming Campbell’s ratings. But You Gov surveys still find that nearly two voters in five have no opinion about how Nick Clegg was performing.
It seems that the public are still making up their minds exactly what they think of our (relatively new) leader. PoliticsHome’s five day rolling average tracker (1 – 8 May) tested all three leaders for a range of attributes. 28 per cent thought that Nick Clegg had “none of these”, compared to 9 per cent for David Cameron and 7 per cent for Gordon Brown.
Nick's strongest attributes, so far as the public were concerned, were being “likeable”, “intelligent” and “normal”. He also did quite well for being seen as "moderate". So people are prepared to listen to what he has to say. His top negative score was for being “ineffective” – but then he leads a third party, in opposition. On average, Nick's positive and negative scores were evenly balanced. The lack of recognition was further shown by the fact that they only added up to 26 per cent.
Earlier this month, Populus asked voters which phrase from various pairs best describes each of the three main party leaders. They found that Nick was seen as “weak” rather than “strong”, “a loser” rather than a “winner” and “not likely to get things done”. Against, these may be the inevitable burdens of a third party leader in opposition.
Of more concern, Nick was not seen as being “in touch” or “good for you and your family”; only by a small margin was he seen as “for the many”. (Cameron did well on all three, but “good for you and your family” was his lowest positive score) For a few years now, Populus has found that at a basic empathy with ordinary people and “being for the many not the few” are core features of the Lib Dem brand. These results suggest that Nick needs to do more to embody this narrative if he is to make it authentic and credible. The only alternative is to develop a new and better brand . . .
Let’s temper all that with a bit of context. Looking across the results for all the phrases, between 18 and 29 per cent did not really know what they thought about Nick Clegg. By contrast, both Brown and Cameron had “don’t know” figures that were consistently in single figures. (That profile thing again . . . ) Any way you look at them, Brown had the worst results, by some way. June’s Populus poll found that his rating on its ‘leader index’ has now dropped below the previous record low, achieved five years ago by Iain Duncan Smith.
For that matter, you need to consider that most of the media has been so focused this year on the collapse of Brown and helping to build up Cameron. The Lib Dems haven't been part of that story.
Still, as with previous new Lib Dem leaders at this stage of their tenures, building his public profile remains Nick Clegg’s most immediate challenge.