Monday, 5 October 2009

The people's party, honest and with a shade of green - how voters see the Liberal Democrats (Part 1)

How’s the Liberal Democrat narrative going, Neil? I get asked that from time to time, for some reason.

On the basis that the Lib Dems have a narrative, but it belongs to the voters, not to the party, here’s a round up of what the pre-conference research by Populus, Ipsos-MORI and Orb Research (quantitative and focus groups for Newsnight) said about the Lib Dems.

Let’s start with the party’s strengths. According to Populus, the Lib Dems scored highest, once again, for being the party “for ordinary people, not the best off”. There was 40% net agreement that this statement applied to the Lib Dems, as opposed to 0% for Labour (equal numbers agreed and disagreed) and minus 7% for the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems’ second best rating was for being “a united party”, with a net agreement of plus 27%. For the Tories, the figure was plus 16%. For Labour, it was minus 50%.

The Lib Dems were also seen as the most “honest and principled” party. The net agreement that this statement applied to the Lib Dems was plus 24%. That figure compared to minus 11% for the Conservatives and minus 40% for Labour.

On all three measures, the Lib Dem showings were better than in 2008.

So we can see the sorts of attributes that the Lib Dems should be trying to reinforce in the issues and policies that we push; the stories we tell about the party. For instance, Nick Clegg was correct to stress in his keynote the party’s “fair taxes” plan as the “one policy to take away” from Bournemouth. And the party needs to keep embodying the “honest and principled” image.

There’s an important caveat, however. At the end of September, Ipsos MORI found that the Conservatives were the preferred party for “being best at looking after the interests of people like you”, with the Lib Dems third.(1)

Now for the areas where the Lib Dems are not so strong. There were some indications that the party is still not seen as a serious contender for government. The party did less well for having “a good team of leaders” (+3% net agreement) and “competent and capable” (+1%). On both scores, the Conservatives were again the preferred party – though the Lib Dems have made up some ground since last year.

The number agreeing that the Lib Dems “share my values” was equal to the number disagreeing. That may be food for thought for those who say we should campaign on our “values”. Note that the public didn’t really see any party as “sharing its values”, though Labour did the worst by far. And when it came to “having clear ideas for dealing with Britain’s problems”, voters didn’t rate any of the parties. (Tories - plus 3%, Lib Dems - minus 9%, Labour - minus 30%).(2)

Even if no party was seen as having “the answers”, they are all stronger on some issues than on others. Populus showed the Lib Dems top on only one – “tackling the problem of climate change” – where the Lib Dems were 6% ahead of the Tories and 7% ahead of Labour.

On all the issues that matter most to voters – the NHS, education, crime – the Lib Dems lagged well behind both the other parties. Ipsos MORI came up with very similar findings (3). Nothing new there. But many Lib Dems will be disappointed that the party scored only 11% as the best party in the Populus poll for “managing Britain’s economy in good times as well as bad”, especially in light of Vince Cable’s public standing.

Some of the party’s favourite communications themes have not taken off. The Lib Dems were 12% behind the Tories as the best party for “reforming Britain’s political system”. The two opposition parties were rated about equally for “responding to the public anger over MPs’ expenses”. As I have suggested before, “fixing up politics” may not be quite the winner for the Lib Dems that some have thought.

The Newsnight poll found that the Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems were 16% behind Cameron and the Conservatives as “the party that represents change in politics”.

There’s an obvious explanation for all this: the public does not see or hear much about the Lib Dems and see the party as a “wasted vote” in many parts of the country. The well-worn counter-stories about the Lib Dems emerged very clearly from the Newsnight focus groups that were conducted in the second week of September.(4) As one participant put it: “a vote for them is almost like a wasted vote . . . they’ve got no hope of actually taking over.” A few attributed the party’s lack of profile to the voting system and a lack of media coverage.

The American pollster who ran the groups, Cornell Belcher, concluded that the public’s dislike of Labour and lack of enthusiasm for the Tories provide the Lib Dems with a great opportunity:

“ . . . but they’re not coming up the middle because voters don’t know who they are.”

The arguments that “we need more coverage” have been well-rehearsed for years. So has the sense of optimism about the Representation of the People Act, which requires the Lib Dems to have the same amount of broadcast coverage as Labour and the Tories. during general election campaigns. Well, OK. But I think that there’s also a risk that these figures, if turned into the Lib Dems’ preferred storylines, could all too easily crash into each other.

Look at what happened at Bournemouth conference. Yes, the Lib Dems’ “fair taxes” are “for the ordinary people not the best off”. But talk of “savage cuts” – which are more likely to hit low and middle income people hardest - can surely be defended as “honest and principled”. These are hard to reconcile and I doubt that the phrase “progressive austerity” quite does it. (Where’s the story?). But retreating into fanciful and dishonest lists of unaffordable policies would not match the narrative either.

The Newsnight research underlined that the Lib Dems can get across only one or two mutually reinforcing stories about ourselves. These are much more likely to be successful if they are based on being for “ordinary people”, supported by honest and rigorous information about how all major Lib Dem policies will be paid for and sensible environmental policies.

(1) Populus did not ask whether each party “cares about the problems that ordinary people have to deal with” or “understands the way people live their lives in today's Britain” as they did in 2008.
(2) This question was not asked in 2008
(3) Ipsos MORI did not ask which party was best on the environment, presumably because it did not rank high enough as an issue for voters
(4) NB – these were carried out in Pudsey and Brighton, neither of which has any target seats for the Lib Dems.

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