Monday, 2 March 2009

Pollwatch: Lib Dems behind Labour as best party on the environment and third on economy and education

Full details of the ICM’s Guardian poll for February are now up on the company’s website. This was the survey, you may recall, that led UK Polling Report to come to the entirely plausible conclusion that the Lib Dems’ 22 per cent rating in January was a blip.

I quickly turned to the results for the question,

“Irrespective of how you yourself will vote at the next election, which political party do you think is putting forward the best policies on . . . ”

As usual, the Liberal Democrats’ best rating – 19 per cent – was on the environment. But we were one point behind Labour and one point ahead of the Conservatives. Allowing for margins of error, the three parties were level pegging, with one in five respondents saying that “none of them” had the best environmental policies.

The last time ICM asked this question (that I can find) was in September 2007. The results were Labour 24 per cent, Conservatives 20 per cent, Lib Dems 18 per cent.

All the same, this result is somewhat disappointing, especially given the government’s record over recent months, what with Heathrow, more news about missed CO2 emissions targets and ministers’ slowness to assemble a substantive green new deal.

There are a couple of possible explanations. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats are still not pushing green issues hard enough. Also, the environment is not a deal-breaker for many voters who, since the recession began, may be going into a climate trance. Just 4 per cent of respondents picked the environment as the issue that will be important in their decision on how to vote. (A comparable figure for 2007 is not available). Voters may be less inclined to look closely at any party.

The top-ranked issue was, unsurprisingly, the economy, nominated by 35 per cent of respondents. Just 10 per cent said that the Lib Dems had the best economic policies, compared to 29 per cent for the Conservatives and 23 per cent for Labour.

As for which party had the best policies for “sorting out the economic crisis”, the Conservatives held a 2 point lead over Labour. Just 9 per cent said the Lib Dems.

The big story, in my view, is Labour’s crash as the party that is seen as best at managing the economy.

But the ICM figures provide further confirmation that Vince Cable’s brilliant economic commentaries are perceived as just that: Vince Cable’s brilliant economic commentaries; wise, accurate and incisive, but above and beyond party politics and not much to do with the Liberal Democrats. The public may like and respect Vince, but that does not mean they are more inclined to support the party.

On the other issues of most concern to voters: taxation and public services; health and law and order; asylum and immigration; and education, the Lib Dems did not do much better. The Conservatives were ahead of Labour on each one, apart from health – but on education they had only a one point advantage. In September 2007, Labour was ahead in all of the top-ranking policy areas.

These sorts of polling figures need to be seen in perspective. We usually come last in this kind of poll. Most voters do not expect the Liberal Democrats to win power and may not look very closely at us or our policies, at the national level. The question facing party strategists is, just as in previous elections, how to be seen as the “best party” on the issues of most concern to voters, in constituencies where we can win.

Still, other polling agencies’ research usually gives the Lib Dems better scores on “key issues”. For instance, last September, Populus gave us 31 per cent and a clear lead as the best party on climate change (though a different set of questions and options were offered). On the environment, Ipsos MORI told a similar story.

And the party rankings could change during the general election campaign. In 2005, Populus found that, on education and health, the top two concerns for voters, the Lib Dems gained significant ground during the general election campaign and by polling day, were level pegging with the Conservatives in being perceived as the “best party”. Next time, we will need to do perform a similar feat on what is sure to be the big issue, the economy.

Another striking feature of the ICM results is, once again, the number of people saying that “none of them” have the best policies in what voters see as the top six issues. The “none of them” figures were: 21 per cent for health; 20 per cent for education; 21 per cent for law and order; 26 per cent for asylum and immigration; 22 per cent for taxation and public services – and 24 per cent for the economy.

So there is still a lot to play for. But are the Lib Dems playing it correctly?

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