Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Explaining the Liberal Democrats' disappointing performance in 2010: an update

I have just come across the “emerging evidence” from British Election Study (BES) for the 2010 general election.

The findings confirm two of my earlier conclusions, based on the Ipsos MORI election data: that Liberal Democrat support grew during the campaign but remained soft; and whilst Nick Clegg’s personal support shot up after the first debate, support for the Lib Dems did not firm up as a result.

As the BES summary and conclusions slide puts it:

With weak fundamentals, ineffective campaigns and widespread voter disaffection with politics as usual, the two major parties were susceptible to a move by the Liberal Democrats. The leader debates provided the Liberal Democrats with the exactly the opportunity they needed.

Despite their surge after the first debate, the Liberal Democrats had to rely heavily on Nick Clegg’s popularity. Their partisan base remained small, and they had little pulling power on the economy, the issue that dominated the campaign.

On the last point, the BES data seems to back up another of my previous conclusions: the Lib Dems did not win any of the arguments on the issues that mattered most to voters. Only 9% of the CIPS post-election respondents chose the Lib Dems as the best party on the issue they saw as most important. (Yes, nearly half of those who saw the environment as the top issue opted for the Lib Dems. But “green issue” voters accounted for only 3% of the electorate.)

The Lib Dems can draw a small amount of comfort from this BES finding:

. . . no party had the overall pulling power on major issues that Labour enjoyed in 1997, 2001 and 2005. In the CIPS post-election survey only 25% chose Labour as best on most important issue and only 30% chose the Conservatives.

And one of the above BES conclusions should be tempered, just a little. Voters were more likely to see the economy as the number one issue. Amongst those most concerned with the economy, the Lib Dems drew even with Labour and the Conservatives as the best party. I am sure that has not happened before.

But there’s no getting away from the twin realities. The Lib Dems will make little further progress unless we are more credible across the range of key issues that matter most to voters. And we need to go into election campaigns with a stronger base of core supporters. Just 11 per cent of voters, the same proportion as in 2005, identified with the Liberal Democrats in the run-up to the campaign. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives made any progress on that front either, but both started from much higher bases.

The big question for the next five years is: how will being in the coalition help or hinder the Liberal Democrats’ efforts to build more credibility on the issues -- and a stronger partisan base?

Posted via email from Neil Stockley's posterous

1 comment:

Matthew Huntbach said...

I don't think it's necessarily the case that we lack policies or that our policies are poor or unattractive, but it's that the electorate simply do not know what they are or even that we do have them.

This struck me particularly when collecting signatures for local election nominations in derelict wards. I do this by canvassing as if it were normal canvassing, and then asking "would you mind awfully ... ?" when I come across a voter who seems really quite keen on us. By far the most common response to my initial question "Are you thinking of voting Liberal Democrat this time?" was not "yes" or "no" but something like "I don't know, I have no idea what you stand for".

An additional aspect of this is that if people have no idea what we are about, they will believe some of the preposterous claims made by our opponents - the only time we are ever mentioned in "THE Sun" newspaper, for example (apart from when we have a councillor caught kiddy-fiddling or something else awful), is when they can find some dotty way of interpreting some policy detail to make fun of us. This sometimes leads to the hostility one can find on Sun-reading estates. It's definitely not a "we always vote Labour hostility", that attitude has dwindled fast at least where I have worked i.e. working class areas of London and the south-east.

While I've made no secret of the fact that I am not a Clegg fan, I see this as an additional reason why the Clegg-based national campaign failed us. It meant our appeal was centred on his personality rather than on gaining support for our policies.

Our party has always suffered from an over-focus in its national image on the leader. One of the reasons Charles Kennedy proved surprisingly effective as leader is because, as we now know through sad necessity, he was often dropping out and letting others share the role of public face. It's clear that in 2010 the initial aim was at least to share the public face by promoting a Clegg/Cable duo. We were misled by what we thought was the reaction to the first leaders' debate (later analysis showed we had a big poll rise just BEFORE that i.e. at least some of it was due to local activists getting going, not the debate) into dropping this. I think that was a big mistake.