Monday, 4 April 2011

Liberal Democrats: a "no-issue party"?

The latest issue of The Economist features a brief article about the woes of Germany’s liberal Free Democrat Party (FDP). The FDP has fared disastrously in opinion polls and state elections since entering a coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU in 2009.

There is an obvious comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who are also in coalition with the main centre-right party here. Our opinion poll ratings have halved since last year’s general election. But we should not read too much across from the FDP’s experience. German politics is very different. They use a form of proportional voting, for a start and the “market liberal” FDP are hardly soulmates to the various stripes of “social liberals” who dominate our party.

Yet I was struck by one observation in the Economist article:

When Mrs Merkel vetoed [their promise of unaffordable tax cuts], the FDP went from a one-issue party to a “no-issue party,” notes an academic.

The Liberal Democrats are also looking like a “no-issue-party”. MPs, activists and members are interested in a lot of issues, from jobs to Libya, from banks to pupil premiums. But the voters don’t seem to be able to find a quick and easy way to get a handle on us. Last week, YouGov asked voters which party would do the best job of handling a number of top problems facing the country. For each one, the Lib Dems were in single figures, well behind both Labour and the Conservatives. On the economy, which voters see as the top issue facing the country, just 4% saw us as the best party. The result is consistent with YouGov polls since the general election.

These poor issue ratings can’t be explained solely by the fact that the Lib Dems are part of the coalition. The British Election Study (BES) found that during the 2010 campaign, the party did not win any of the arguments on the issues that mattered most to voters.

The question is: how can the Liberal Democrats – in coalition – “get an issue” in time for the next general election?

The answer depends on whether the party’s ministers in government will have some defining achievements, on an issue of some importance to the public, for which they can claim credit and become popular. The key is to tell people compelling stories. One sort of story would have the Lib Dems as the heroes, winning the policy. The other would show how their policy wins worked for ordinary people.

The signs have not been encouraging, until very recently. But Lib Dem ministers have started to assert themselves over the NHS changes and they are bringing forward new proposals for taxes on expensive homes.

They are in the correct political space. In recent years, the Liberal Democrats have scored the highest of all the parties for being “on the side of ordinary people, not the best off”. Last month, Populus found this was still the attribute that voters (34%) were mostly likely to say was true of the Liberal Democrats. (Note, however, that 52% thought that the statement described Labour accurately.)

But there is still a long way to go.

1 comment:

Left Lib said...

What annoys me is that the Lib Dems have stopped being a green party. If the Green party had gone into coalition they would not have allowed the cuts in DEFRA. We don't even have a minister there. And yet this is the most important issue facing us today.
Nick Clegg has failed to mention it in his last 2 leadership speeches.