Peter Kellner’s advice to the Lib Dems: ditch boundary changes, and get a new leader before 2015

Chairman of polling firm YouGov, Peter Kellner, has a must-read article over at his firm’s site analysing the big challenges facing the Lib Dems at the next election. I know some Lib Dems might baulk at reading it: Mr Kellner, husband of Labour peer Baroness Ashton, is a self-declared non-Lib Dem, and YouGov’s daily polling consistently shows the party’s ratings to be significantly lower than other polling firms do. But get beyond those facts, and it’s clear we need to take on board the stark questions he has for the Lib Dems — even if we disagree with his answers.

Peter Kellner takes as his starting point his personal admiration for Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister:

Faced with the awkward arithmetic of the last general election result, he has ensured that Britain could navigate the world’s financial storm with a stable government. Despite his MPs being outnumbered by Tory MPs by more than five-to-one, he has secured some important policy victories, such as raising millions of low-paid people out of tax. Yes, he messed up over student fees; but his mistake was not so much supporting their increase in government: it was his bonkers pre-election pledge to abolish them. He must have entered coalition knowing that many Lib Dem voters would peel away: but, bravely and unusually for a major politician, he has put country before party.

However… he then sets out the polling data, as measured by YouGov. Even if we think it’s on the Cassandra-side of pessimistic it’s still not happy reading: the party is polling on single digits level-pegging with UKIP, our 2010 voters now would prefer a Labour-led government after the next election, and Nick Clegg is unpopular even with one-third of those ‘die-hard’ supporters who remain. Ouch.

What are his remedies for the Lib Dems?

First, jettison the Coalition’s proposed boundary changes.

It’s always worth reminding ourselves what we Lib Dems committed to in the Coalition Agreement:

We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies.

Nick himself went on the record in support of equalising constituencies in August 2010, highlighting the unfairness that the votes of 87,000 voters in the East Ham constituency are worth less than the 66,000 voters living 10 miles away in Islington North.

A lot’s changed since then, of course, including the AV referendum being lost, meaning the Lib Dems are now much more exposed to a significant drop in popular support. As a result, the party’s 2015 general election campaign is likely to be largely defensive — back in March, PoliticsHome reported that party president Tim Farron ‘is thought to favour a “multiple by-election” strategy for election day’. However, such a strategy would largely be predicated on the Lib Dems’ traditional incumbency boost which comes from our MPs being deeply embedded within their constituencies, with high name recognition and established activist networks. Disrupted constituency boundaries threaten even that defensive stance.

At its most apocalyptic, the next election has the potential to become a ‘perfect storm’ for the Lib Dems: a first-past-the-post election fought against the backdrop of having been part of an unpopular government at a time of massive economic fragility on new and enlarged constituencies.

Though the Lib Dems have long campaigned for a reduced number of MPs in the House of Commons, this was always as part of a package of electoral reform measures which included the introduction of proportional representation. Taken on its own, it is the re-drawing of constituency boundaries which Peter Kellner states — and I also believe — is likely to be the biggest threat to the Lib Dems’ continuing sizeable representation in the Commons after 2015.

What are the politics of this?

Well, there are plenty of Tory MPs also unhappy at the proposed boundary changes, both on principled and similarly self-interested grounds. At one time the thought of reducing the number of Labour MPs in Scotland and Wales attracted Tories, but it’s quite another matter now individual MPs are facing a form of electoral musical chairs with a diminished number of seats to occupy when the Coalition music stops. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see Tory high command simply agreeing to drop the proposed boundary changes without a quid pro quo from the Lib Dems — which brings us full circle to House of Lords reform.

Secondly, the Lib Dems should also jettison Nick Clegg before the next election, says Peter Kellner:

I don’t think pulling out of the coalition in advance will be enough. If they fight the next election with Clegg as their leader, I can’t see many anti-Tories who voted Lib Dem last time returning to the fold. They will need a new leader whom voters regard as more even-handed. That is why, for all my admiration of Nick Clegg, I suspect that his future beyond 2015 will lie outside government, outside the Lib Dem leadership and very possibly outside British politics altogether.

It’s a view shared, according to our most recent survey, by some 34% of Lib Dem members. It’s not one I agree with for the reasons I set out then:

First, because I think that one of the commonly held criticisms of the Lib Dems is we’re “a bit flaky”, nice guys who are out of our depth when it comes to the serious rough-and-tumble of grown-up politics, that we’ll run at the first sniff of unpopularity. Defenestrating another leader — the first one in 80 years to lead the party into government — would be taken as a further sign that Lib Dems can’t stand the heat in the kitchen. … Secondly, I don’t think it makes sense because it assumes Nick’s successor would prove more popular. However, as I’ve pointed out before it’s not Nick Clegg who’s the current problem for the Lib Dems: it’s that the economy is in dire shape, the government is unpopular, and our party is identified with both those drags. I don’t see that situation changing just because the face at the top does. In fact, though Nick’s currently the least popular party leader, he is also the only leader to out-poll his own party’s standing in the polls.

Whatever my view, though, this isn’t a debate which is going to disappear by being wished away.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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34 Comments

  • Tony Dawson 19th Jun '12 - 8:31pm

    Actually, that quote from Peter Kellner does not say that “the Lib Dems should also jettison Nick Clegg before the next election” as suggested in your headline. His proposal would be equally (and arguably electorally more successfully) be carried out were Nick Clegg to find another occupation of his own volition.

    I am not going to discuss this issue with Stephen on this Forum because I do not think he does the Party any favours by airing it here. I would just point out that Stephen’s posting, like his previous one on this issue, states his own opinions as ‘facts’.

  • paul barker 19th Jun '12 - 8:44pm

    Kellner likes to present himself as a wise, neutral figure above politics. Its a dishonest presentation, he is labour & does not wish us well. The best we can do with his advice is listen & do the opposite.
    If we look at all the polling, it is utterly contradictory. Take the Mori leaders poll last week
    con 34%
    lab 35%
    libdem 26%
    Two of the parties are within MOE of the 2010 election result. Is that coincidence or does it suggest that voters simply arent thinking about politics, just letting off steam. Its no good asking them how they will vote in 2015 as they dont know either, they will decide when the election comes.

  • “YouGov’s daily polling consistently shows the party’s ratings to be significantly lower than other polling firms do”

    It’s instructive to look at the actual figures. The most recent Lib Dem ratings from the various firms, according to UK POlling report, are as follows. Among members of the British Polling Council:

    Populus 9%
    ComRes 9%
    YouGov 9%
    Ipsos-MORI 10%
    Opinium 9%
    Survation 13%
    Angus Reid 9%
    TNS BMRB 9%
    ICM 11%

    There is actually a remarkable level of agreement. The outlier, Survation, also happens to be the only non-member of the British Polling Council.

  • Paul Barker

    Those figures you quote aren’t from a “leaders poll”, and they are in no way comparable with general election results.

    They’re from a survey in which the participants were asked whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied with each party leader in turn. What Nick Clegg’s 26% means is that only 26% were satisfied (and 63% were dissatisfied). As has been pointed out to you on another thread, this rating is very much worse than MORI has ever recorded for either of Clegg’s predecessors.

  • Tony Dawson 19th Jun '12 - 9:17pm

    @paul barker:

    ” Take the Mori leaders poll last week
    con 34%
    lab 35%
    libdem 26%”

    That is NOT a MORI leaders’ poll result. it is a MORI Leaders’ ‘good performance rating’, omitting negatives. Those rating the leaders positively on an individual basis include those who would no more ever vote for their parties than they would slit heir own throats. It is possible to vote positively (or negatively) for all three leaders in this ‘rating which is not a poll’:

    “A third (34%) of British adults are satisfied with the way David Cameron he is doing his job as Prime Minister while 58% are dissatisfied. Mr Cameron started the year with 46% satisfied and 47% dissatisfied with his performance.
    Ed Miliband’s satisfaction ratings have improved since the start of 2012. While the percentage of those satisfied with his performance has remained stable over the last four months (35% are satisfied), there has been a decline in those who are dissatisfied (48% now compared to 56% in January 2012).
    A quarter (26%) are satisfied with the way Nick Clegg is doing his job as Deputy Prime Minister and around 63% dissatisfied, a decline from 32% satisfied and 55% dissatisfied in January 2012.
    Satisfaction with the government has also been fairly stable over the last three months, 28% are satisfied with the way the government is running the country and 66% are dissatisfied. This compares with a peak of 40% satisfied in January.”

    To consider and quote this ‘positive rating percentage’ as a poll level shows either a complete lack of political understanding or monumental self-delusion.

  • David from Ealing 19th Jun '12 - 9:34pm

    Paul, you really need to read things more closely. The poll does not talk about the parties, but about the leaders.

    It finds that those who think the leaders are doing a good job has changed since the last poll. Cameron has gone from 41 to 34, Miliband from 34 to 35 and Clegg from 32 to 26.

    I just cannot see how Clegg can be presented to the electorate in 2015. Lemmings?

    Satisfaction with David Cameron and Nick Clegg is markedly down since March. The percentage who think the Prime Minister is doing a good job has fallen from 41 to 34, while his Lib-Dem deputy’s satisfaction score is down from 32 to 26.

  • In recent years I have read various pieces by Peter Kellner as well as hearing him on TV and radio, it has not occurred to me that he is eitherLabour or wishes the LibDems ill. I think that his views on changing the Leader and opposing the boundary changes would (in my view) help the LibDems in 2015. It could be argued that if he was ‘anti-LibDems’ he would urge you to hang on the Mr Clegg and vote the boundary changes through.

  • Peter Kellner is a political polling Geek miles higher than any political affiliation he has. His work is widely-respected by other ‘experts’ in the field of all political shades, which does not mean they always agree with him. To ‘dis’ this article on the basis of Kellner’s personal politics or who he is married to shows a lack of understanding of the subject matter and Kellner’s ability to process it to conclusions.

  • “Among members of the British Polling Council”

    Sorry – I had been going to list Survation separately at the end, and when I decided not to I should obviously have edited that sentence out.

    To clarify, Survation is the only one listed that’s not a member of the British Polling Council. Of the 8 firms who are, 6 of them are currently showing the Lib Dems on 9% (which is YouGov’s rating). The other two show 10% and 11%. It really won’t do to try to make out that YouGov is out of step with other polling firms. To link that with innuendo about Kellner being married to Baroness Ashton and “a self-declared non-Lib Dem” is reprehensible, I think. To my mind it’s the Lib Dem activists who are showing a lack of objectivity here.

  • Tony Greaves 19th Jun '12 - 11:00pm

    Neither Kellner nor Ashton are “enemies” of the Liberal Democrats in the way that people like Prescott or Harman are. The fact is that this party is in very serious trouble indeed and a proper open debate on how to get out of that trouble will do no-one any harm, and might come up with some positive ideas because no-few people seem to have any at the moment, at any level of the party.

    Stopping the disastrous boundary changes (disastrous for the LDs and disastrous for local communities and politics in general) is absolutely necessary (but very far from sufficient). But do the people at and around the top of this party understand much about this mind of thing? (See my article in the recent issue of Liberator).

    Tony Greaves

  • Stephen Donnelly 19th Jun '12 - 11:24pm

    The Peter Kelner article is a lazy piece of journalism, he describes the problem but does not explain why ‘jettisoning the leader’ would provide a solution. If there is a successful strategy that starts with a change of leader, I have yet to hear it.

  • @Stephen Donnelly:

    “The Peter Kelner article is a lazy piece of journalism”

    I would suggest your own comment is far lazier. Firstly, Kellner does not in that quote call for the leader to be jettisoned rather than suggest he will ‘walk’ either before or immediately after the next election. Secondly, his arguments for the cause of the benefit to the Lib Dems of his suggestion being transacted are abundantly clear and relate to his analysis of the electorate’s attitudes as sampled through polling. Thirdly, you really think that we’d have Tories in a coalition had IDS remained Conservative leader?

    If you read the article carefully, you will see that Kellner does not even say that we will have a new leader by the next election, simply that we will need, and are likely to have to find, a new one after a disastrous next general election if the move has not come beforehand. One does not have to agree with this analysis, of course. Perhaps you could put, with backing evidence and explanation, an alternative likely scenario?

  • “The Peter Kelner article is a lazy piece of journalism, he describes the problem but does not explain why ‘jettisoning the leader’ would provide a solution. If there is a successful strategy that starts with a change of leader, I have yet to hear it.”

    Surely Kellner explains his view perfectly clearly. He thinks the Lib Dems need to establish their independence from the Tories before the next election. And he thinks that can’t be done under the leadership of Nick Clegg, because he is not seen as ‘even-handed’.

    The criticism I would make of his article is that he doesn’t take account of the fact that the parliamentary party has fatally compromised itself by following Clegg’s line, so that ditching Clegg himself will not really be a solution. In fact I think the damage has been done and 2015 is going to be more or less disastrous whatever the party does. The real question is how best to recover after that.

  • paulbarker

    Your previous attempts at prognostication should encourage you not to give up the day job…..

    The yougov numbers may slightly underestimate the LD VI number but all the figures suggest a number in the low teens (even the LE results suggest in a national election that sort of support).

    UKpolling report is a good site for those interested in the discussion of polling numbers – it is run by a self-confessed Tory (who has links to yougov )and his main focus is ensuring the posters look at the numbers correctly.

    He goes into detail on the points paul barker raises ad nauseam.

    Also, paul barker we are currently in the ‘poll drums’ – the numbers from all sides are very consistent. Lab in the low 40s, the Tories in the low 30s, LD in the low teens, UKIP in medium to high single figures. If you look into detail at the numbers you see that Clegg is highly unpopular and has been for a long time and that the Labour VI has been bolstered by not a few LD ‘defectors’.

    I would suggest that Kellner is correct, the current leadership will not get back the lost voters (the best to hope for is that they abstain) and the figures speak for themselves on the boundary changes

    Of course this may change by the GE but situation is not that encouraging. Is wishful thinking the way forward? It could get to the time that drastic action is require to show ‘deep blue water’ between you and the Tories – small concessions are not enough now, as the damage has been done.

  • Stephen Donnelly

    Errr

    Thatcher in 90, IDS and your last two leaders have all been jettisoned mode-election cycle. The first one seemed to work, the second didn’t but was never going to. Blair was almost forced out and perhaps that would have helped if Brown was not so ‘problematic’

    Perhaps you are in a better position to comment on whether the cause was helped by the coups against Charles and Ming

  • mark fairclough 20th Jun '12 - 8:24am

    agreed with Paul Barker,
    Kellner is married to a Labour peer , enough said

  • John Roffey 20th Jun '12 - 9:22am

    I have long held the belief that Cameron has kept Clegg ‘on side’, throughout the Coalitions existence, by promising him, at an early stage in the negotiations, Kellner’s wife’s job of UK – EU Commissioner before he leaves office . That is why NC has been so unconcerned by the Party’s falling popularity.

  • John, a very cynical point of view, and surely, it is obvious that if popularity has fallen so drastically on a leader’s watch, he or she would feel great pangs about it, and the individual’s external reputation would suffer commensurately?

  • Charles Beaumont 20th Jun '12 - 9:43am

    Ditching boundary changes may seem like a good plan right now, but it’s impossible to see us doing it with any credibility or convincing the Tories. We did a deal with the Tories, AV for boundary review. Then we lost the referendum. We all know that the Tories fought dirty, but the Yes campaign was a joke (and I volunteered so I saw from the inside).

    I think we should be focused on 2 things:

    1 – HOL reform. I see very little discussion of what a PR elected upper house will mean for the Lib Dems. Even on 10% of the vote, that means a significant new opportunity for the party.
    2 – spreading the incumbency bonus. By which I mean, wherever we have sitting MPs we need to be working as hard as possible to ensure that their work is noticed not just within the constituency boundary but also in whatever the new boundaries will be.

  • John Roffey 20th Jun '12 - 9:52am

    @Tim

    Yes, it is a cynical view – but, for me, it was the only explanation which fitted the circumstances [it strengthened greatly when NC initially supported Cameron on Jeremy Hunt].

    You don’t have to be popular, or even well regarded, to be an EU Commissioner.

  • I agree with Tony (both of them). The party is headed for total oblivion at the next election. As I see it now, the biggest threat is from those with a misplaced sense of loyalty constantly putting a positive spin on the disastrous situation we are in. All members from top to bottom need to accept reality and come up with a survival strategy for the next election. If we don’t, I see single digit number of MPs, being backed by a quarter of the councillors we had in 2010, and a membership base that means the party will die in huge swathes of the country.

    Clegg resigning to spend more time with his family and ditching the lethal boundary changes would be a good place to start but much more is needed.

  • @ John Doran

    It might be an ‘off the wall’ suggestion, but unless members really do want be part of a German dominated ‘single country called Europe’ – perhaps it might be an idea to ask David Owen to be become President of the Party!

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2155760/Lord-Owen-urges-EU-referendum-UK-faces-joining-single-country-called-Europe.html

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Jun '12 - 10:44am

    Let’s consider the comments on the YouGov site:

    “DeludedDonny”

    errrm no he’s putting himself & his job before the country and his party.

    “postageincluded”

    Secondly, there is every reason to believe that Clegg thought he and his party would gain from the LibCon deal. He intended to profit from the deal, but he miscalculated. No noble sacrifices for the sake of the country were involved.

    teejaymac

    For a taste of power Clegg has destroyed all the gains the LibDems have made over the years
    I’ve no respect for a man who betrays his principles .

    NeilMc1

    Typical lefty spin. Clegg did it for the position and the future job in the EU. perhaps your wife might be able to help there. The libdems have shown themselves to be an untrustworthy rabble, immature to the extreme ad quite unable to be statesman like.

    David Clarke

    How can you rebuild trust if you go back on promises? Integrity means not making a promise you cannot keep.

    I believe they are all completely wrong, and it makes me angry to see this sort of stuff repeated again and again and again by almost anyone who has anything to say about the Liberal Democrats and is not a Tory and not still an active member of the LibDems. However, being angry at the people making these comments is of little help, so I turn my anger instead at those leading our party and advising on our national image who seem to be doing all they can to bolster these opinions rather than to point out they are fantasy politics stuff.

    It seems to me quite obvious that had the current coalition not been formed we would have had another general election in months on the grounds “This country can’t be run if every government decision has to wait while the LibDems dither about it – get rid of them” There would be an informal pact by both the Labour Party and the Conservatives to fight the election on these grounds – just as there was an informal pact between the Conservatives and much of the Labour Party to oppose AV. It would have been in David Cameron’s interest as PM of a minority Tory government to have avoided any difficult economic decision in this period, both to keep the Conservatives looking good, and because any adverse effect on the economy could be written off as “due to the instability caused by the LibDems”. He would then have obtained his majority and we would be under a government far more right-wig than the one we have now. Anyone who doesn’t believe this should look at the ranting and raving that is going on in the right-wing press and right-wing commentary sites about how the Liberal Democrats are stopping the government doing what it ought to be doing. I.e. things like introducing laws to allow employers to sack anyone at will no reason needed, scrapping all environmental policies, properly privatising the NHS, making life even more comfortable for the idle rich by scrapping inheritance tax and capital gains tax.

    Seeing this ranting and raving, the idea that a minority Tory government would have continued for years with the LibDems regularly voting down Tory policy is absurd. Yet this is the only answer I have ever got from anyone who has even managed to give one to the question “OK, if not the coalition then what?”.

    The formation of coalition received overwhelming support from the party membership, and I believe that is because most of us are practical people with a good deal of political nous, and many with experience of difficult balance of power situations in local government, so we knew full well what would happen. That is, the junior coalition partner gets all the blame and none of the credit, and the opposition, particularly if Labour would turn all its negativity to them. The Liberal Democrats are not the Nick Clegg fan club and I do not think the party membership gave its support to the coalition merely because it liked the idea of Mr Clegg having a comfy job. Neither do I think most party members accepted the line that has been put about afterwards by a few that the coalition was the natural consequence of the party moving to the economic right. Had the balance in Parliament been exactly the same apart from the number of Tory and Labour MPs reversed we would have gone into a Labour-LibDem coalition in just the same way and for just the same reasons. We were saved from the difficult position of having to make an actual choice because the balance in Parliament gave us just one choice of a stable coalition.

    Mr Kellner is right, we want into coalition not for our own glory but because it was the only way we could respond to how the people voted and give the country a stable government. Anyone who doubts what I am saying should consider the situation in Greece – no stable government meant another general election in weeks and people frightened into voting for right-wing austerity by what they saw of the failure otherwise to form a government.

    So why can’t we get that message across to the general public?

    I believe the answer is all this over-playing of our position in the coalition with things like pushing the line “75% of our manifesto policies implemented” and the rose garden and tractor factory posing of Mr Clegg with Mr Cameron as if they were almost equals. Apart from that, it is just the incredible word-beginning-with-sm-and-rhyming-with-rug-ness that Mr Clegg exudes (I put it this way because I am told by those running LibDem Voice that I am banned from using the actual word I want to use because it is “insulting”). We have been told since the formation of the coalition by the image makers at the party’s top that this exudation of wbwsmarwrness would help us, since it would make us look serious, people would be impressed by seeing us in government and being proud (or as I would put it, because I think this is how the general public see it, wbwsmarwr) about it, and we would go up in the opinion polls.

    I believe the loyalty which ordinary party members gave to Mr Clegg by agreeing to the coalition with almost no outright opposition has been greatly betrayed by his behaviour since, surrounding himself by advisers who haven’t a clue of how it works out at grass roots level rather than by experienced party members, an d showing an obvious bias to his own fringe of the party rather than being even-handed in appointments. I agree with Mr Kellner that we have been pushed into the point where to escape from this we need some sort of cathartic change before the next general election.

  • Peter Watson 20th Jun '12 - 11:10am

    @paul barker “he is labour & does not wish us well. The best we can do with his advice is listen & do the opposite.”
    @mark fairclough “Kellner is married to a Labour peer , enough said”
    If this is the level to which debate on LDV has descended then we are in trouble.

    If you disagree with Kellner’s views on boundary changes, then provide the evidence that his interpretation of polling and analysis is wrong, but I would suggest that this Tory policy to reduce the number of labour seats was not put together for the benefit of Lib Dems.

    If it is Kellner’s views on the leadership that you disagree with, then bear in mind that 34% of LD members on LDV want to replace Clegg before 2015; a more unequivocal statement than any that Kellner makes.

  • Mark Smulian 20th Jun '12 - 11:14am

    The Liberator article to which Tony Greaves refers is here:
    http://www.liberator.org.uk/article.asp?id=247104213

  • “he then sets out the polling data, as measured by YouGov. Even if we think it’s on the Cassandra-side of pessimistic it’s still not happy reading”
    This is a very ironic metaphor – and given the context, presumably wholly unintentionally so. The point of the story of Cassandra is not that she was unwarrantedly pessimistic; it’s that, although nobody believed her prophecies, she was *always right*.

  • mark fairclough 20th Jun '12 - 5:19pm

    Ok the truth , there will probably be a schism in the parliamentry party after the next election .
    The majority of MPS led probably by nick farron or vince cable will ally with Labour no matter what , the rest will stay independent or vote on each issue.
    The interesting thing will be what names the 2 groups call themselves.

  • David Evans 21st Jun '12 - 9:45am

    @mark

    What utter tosh. Closer to the truth would be a group clinging on to the Conservatives to save their skins, and a group remaining Liberal Democrat and independent. However, I can’t see many of the conservative hangers on surviving.

  • http://redefiningliberalism.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/why-i-am-probably-not-liberal-peter.html

    Just because Kellner is not a Liberal doeas mean we should assume he is eaten up with the hatred that some Lab folk display-as Tony Greaves points out. Of interest is Kellner’s posting on the Redefining Liberalism blog run by Gladstone’s Library

  • jenny barnes 22nd Jun '12 - 6:21pm

    Chris ” I think the damage has been done and 2015 is going to be more or less disastrous whatever the party does. The real question is how best to recover after that.”
    That assumes that you decide that your political aims can best be achieved through the Liberal Democrats. I am no longer convinced that’s the answer for me.

  • Jenny

    Oh, yes, me too. I only meant the real question for those still in the party.

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