Could Nick Clegg’s strategy of taking “full ownership” of the coalition's decisions – even unpopular ones – may be paying off, after all?
Earlier this month, The Independent’s Andrew Grice summed up the accepted version of Nick Clegg’s approach to the coalition thus far:
The Deputy Prime Minister is convinced that his party would reap no dividend at all if it tried to let the Conservatives take the blame for the nasty medicine needed to cure the country's economic ills.
He hopes the Liberal Democrats will eventually get a reward for facing up to hard decisions, by showing they can be trusted in Government and are no longer a wasted vote.
This strategy, which now seems to be in the process of being modified, addresses the weakest points of the Liberal Democrats’ brand. So far, however, “owning the coalition” doesn’t appear to have done the party much good. According to YouGov, in mid-December 2010, our poll ratings for being “led by people of real ability” and having “leaders [who] are prepared to take tough and unpopular decisions” were still stuck in single figures, just as they were before the general election.
It may not be as simple as that. We also need to look at public perceptions of Nick Clegg who is the most accessible symbol of the party, the embodiment of our narrative. That is especially true in this era of quasi-presidential politics.
In The House magazine (17 January 2011, p.9), Professor Paul Whiteley of the British Election Study relates how, in their monthly surveys, the BES asks people to rank each party leader on a scale that runs from 0 (very incompetent) to 10 (very competent). I can’t find an electronic version of his article or the graph, so here are his main conclusions:
Surprisingly, Nick Clegg has been in the lead on this measure for almost the whole of the period [November 2009 to November 2010]. He overtook David Cameron in the competency stakes in December 2009 and has been ahead of him ever since.
Clegg’s rating was boosted by the general election campaign and, in particular, the first of the televised debates.
But the post-election unpopularity of the Liberal Democrats, which has seen their voting support plunge to half that of their general election vote share, has not affected his competency ratings very much.
Professor Whiteley goes on to add a cautionary note, that competency is but one dimension of leadership evaluations. He says that a leader should also be seen as likeable, trustworthy and in touch with ordinary people.
On these scores, the news for Clegg is mixed. The Ipsos MORI political monitor for December 2010 found that 27% of voters thought that he was “more honest than most politicians” compared to 33% for David Cameron and 24% for Ed Miliband.
Ipsos MORI also found that 43% of voters thought that Clegg was “out of touch with ordinary people”, compared to 51% for David Cameron and 34% for Ed Miliband.
Like all polling figures, these findings need to be seen in context. First, at the time of the election, Clegg was seen as the most honest and down to earth of the three leaders, according to Ipsos MORI. So, Cameron has now overtaken him in these areas.
Second, YouGov have tracked a downward trend since the election debates in Clegg’s ratings for being “in touch with the concerns of ordinary people”, “honest” and “sticking to what he believes in”. His best score, especially with Lib Dem and Conservative voters, is for being “charismatic”. [Anthony Wells provides some useful background, including on pre- and post-debate comparisons, here.]
Third, the BES figures cited above do not show the full impact of the tuition fees debacle. Ipsos MORI have traced the plunge in perceptions of Nick Clegg’s trustworthiness in the wake of the tuition fees vote.
Professor Whiteley finishes with the following suggestion.
[To] be seen as competent gives a leader a real advantage since it wins him an audience – voters will listen to a leader who they think is competent, whereas they are likely to dismiss a leader they think is incompetent.
I agree with Professor Whiteley, but I would add that being seen as “strong” is even more important. Last month, YouGov reported that just 5% of voters thought that Clegg was “strong” and 8% saw him as “decisive”. These were amongst his weakest areas just before election day [YouGov], when his popularity was at its peak so perhaps all is not lost. But voters might expect to see evidence of “strength”, which may go some way towards explaining the Lib Dems’ disappointing performance at the election.
Over the next couple of years, Nick Clegg will provide a test case for these theories. His future, and that of the Liberal Democrats, could well hinge on the way public perceptions of his competence, strength, likeability and trustworthiness pan out.