“Competence with a conscience” sounds like a good, comfortable narrative for the Liberal Democrats. But the voters don’t seem to be buying it.
Nick Clegg’s narrative to market the Liberal Democrats and our role in government was summed up in his speech at the National Liberal Club in May. The speech marked the first anniversary of the coalition’s formation.
At the next election, we will say that we are demonstrably more credible on the economy than Labour, and more committed at heart to fairness than the Conservatives. I am confident that by showing we can combine economic soundness with social justice – competence with a conscience – we will be an even more formidable political force in the future.
These themes are elucidated in Nick’s foreword to the Facing the Future paper, to be considered by the party conference this week.
For the conference season, Populus has produced its latest findings on how the parties are perceived by voters. The results aren’t exactly encouraging for the Liberal Democrats. A useful summary comes from Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report:
Historically these Populus questions tended to show that the Lib Dems had the positive party image. That is no longer the case. They have the least positive score on every measure except being for ordinary people [with 45% agreeing it applies to the Lib Dems], where they at least beat the Tories [with 30% agreeing].
This is very important – and very worrying. In the run-up to the last general election, the image of “being for ordinary people not the best off” was, with a reputation for being honest, one of the party’s most positive brand assets.
We have often heard the argument that being in coalition would make the party more credible to voters. Once they saw us delivering in government and taking the hard decisions, voters would take the Liberal Democrats more seriously – the “competence” part of Nick’s desired brand. But Anthony Wells explains:
On having a good team of leaders [the [Lib Dems] are on 31% (down 13 since last year), on sharing peoples’ values they are on 36% (down 5), on being honest they are at 35% (down 6), on competence they are at 31% (down 10), on party united they are at 27% (down 13), on having clear ideas they are at 31% (down 11). In most cases the party’s ratings had already dropped sharply last year following their decision to enter the coalition – these falls are on top of that.
Then, Wells rams the point home:
In summary, go back a couple of years and people tended to give the Lib Dems the benefit of the doubt, there was a tendency for people to assume they were good, honest and caring people (even if other polls also suggested people rather doubted their policies would work or they had any chance of actually winning). That positive party image took a knock after the removal of Charles Kennedy, but was on its way to recovery by 2009. Since then it has fallen through the floor.