New poll gives a boost to Lib Dems – but will it last?

An interesting poll from ComRes in today’s Independent appears to show a post-conference boost for the Lib Dems at the expense of Labour:

As UKPollingReport’s Anthony Wells sensibly reminds us, this is just one poll: it might just as easily be a blip or a rogue as a sign of real recovery. BUT it is still interesting:

1) I’d expect the post-conference boost to fade away as the media focus moves on first to Labour and then to the Tories. What is significant, I think, is that it shows how in flux politics currently is, and that there is genuine potential for the Lib Dems to grow the party’s vote when its able to get its liberal message across.

2) Quite what part Nick Clegg’s apology has played in this we don’t know. The only polling I’ve seen (again by ComRes) doesn’t address the real question: what did moderate, ‘swing’ voters make of it? They were the folk — those open to persuasion, not those who’ve already made up their minds about Nick and/or the Lib Dems — his party political broadcast was trying to reach.

3) There’s also the question about what a reasonable Lib Dem polling benchmark should look like — a tricky one considering the party hasn’t been in coalition during a time of modern opinion polling. We scored 23% at the 2010 general election, but we know it’s usual for our poll ratings to dip inbetween elections. But none of us knows if the very fact of being in Coalition — of taking unpopular decisions in government, of being the constant focus of media attacks — means what’s happened in the past is no predictor of the future. Personally I’ve no idea how the poll ratings the Lib Dems are scoring today will play out at the 2015 general election, though I think there will be some recovery if the economy begins to grow even falteringly.

So simply for the sake of comparison here’s the 3-month average poll ratings for the Lib Dems at the equivalent stages before the 1997 and 2001 general elections (the other, post-Iraq elections probably aren’t that helpful as guides or benchmarks any more):

1994 (Sept-Nov): 16% (actual result, 1997: 17%)
1999 (Sept-Nov): 14% (actual result, 2001: 19%)

Oh, there is one quasi-Coalition equivalent: the Liberal party’s performance in the lead-up to and during the Lib-Lab pact of the late 1970s. It’s a bit hard to read very much into the polls of those times, as the party was a bit… distracted… but for what it’s worth in autumn 1976 the party was averaging 10% in the polls, dipping to 7% in 1977 and 6% in the autumn of 1978. At the general election of May 1979, the Liberals scored 14% of the vote.

All of which probably means that when we’re met by polls predicting either disaster or triumph we’re best treating those two imposters just the same.

PS: figures for historic polls taken from Mark Pack’s fascinating Opinion polls spreadsheet: 1943-today.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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11 Comments

  • The changes recorded are more or less within the bounds of sampling error which is another good reason for treating this latest poll with caution.

    I keep a track of local byelection results which show tentative signs the run of disastrous post-GE results are bottoming out.

    Thanks fo the link to Mark Pack’s table – a real labour of love!

  • paul barker 2nd Oct '12 - 1:28pm

    Traditionally both the libdems & the government go down in mid-term. My feeling is that now we come in both categories we are suffering a double hit.
    There is also a possibility that fixed-term parliaments have changed the way voters think (or rather dont think) about politics. With less & less prospect of an election before 2015 voters may be treating poll questions even less seriously than before. Hence the millions of “labour” voters who apperently dont want a labour government or PM.

  • I think there was a lot of Labour supporters who thought that there would be no cuts, and no selling off parts of the NHS if the Lib Dems had not “helped” the Conservatives. I know it is amazing, but they are all over the internet, talking as though a Labour Government would never do these things. They might have just begun to register that actually Labour are not offering to er “save” the NHS, and they are not offering to reverse the cuts either. Now, those people have backed off to think again. There is not much point in boo hissing at Lib Dems for failing to do what Labour would have done, when it is actually the same thing.

    Or it could be a blip, obviously.

  • Nigel Ashton 2nd Oct '12 - 4:10pm

    “At the general election of May 1979, the Liberals scored 14%” – yes, but we had ended the Pact eight months earlier.

  • There is no doubt that the Lib-Lab pact (or “arrangement” as David Steel called it) cost us votes. The 1977 GLC/County Council elections were grim as those of us who canvassed then will remember. The 1978 local elections were better. Immediately before the start of the 1979 campaign we were at 5% which literally doubled overnight because of David Alton’s by-election win in Liverpool Edgehill just a few days before dissolution. I was a member of Durham University Liberals during this period and the Federation of Conservative Students had two election slogans: “Vote Liberal and Make Parliament a Gay Place” and “Liberals: A Labour Saving Device”. Their other slogan was “Hang Mandela”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Oct '12 - 10:37pm

    Missomole

    I think there was a lot of Labour supporters who thought that there would be no cuts, and no selling off parts of the NHS if the Lib Dems had not “helped” the Conservatives. I know it is amazing, but they are all over the internet, talking as though a Labour Government would never do these things

    Worse than that, a lot of them are talking as if a Conservative government would not do such things, as if somehow the LibDems are all to blame or it. That is the most logical reading of the “I hate Liberal Democrats, I hope to see them all destroyed at the next general election” or the “I hate coalitions, I’ll vote against electoral reform to lessen our chance of having one in the future” way of thinking. If the Liberal Democrats had fizzled out before the 2010 general election, we would have a Conservative majority government in now – most LibDem held seats are seats which have been won off the Tories. If you think, as opponents of electoral reform do, and that included many prominent Labour people in the referendum last year, that it’s better to have distorted representation so that the largest party wins enough seats to get a majority even if it did not have a majority of the vote, then the conclusion from your thinking is that right now we should have a Conservative majority government. As Labour people who moan in this way also moan about all the cuts this government is making, one must assume that they believe the pure Conservative government which is what their arguments would have given us right now would not be making these cuts.

  • Now if Paul Hunt could link any of todays politicians with the Tory student slogans he quotes, that could be useful!

  • Matthew Huntbach – well yes, I see what you mean and suddenly I can see a few people at the next election thinking “I am going to vote Conservative, because I don’t want the Conservatives to win.” , maybe they need to get that far to see that there is a fault with their logic?

    peter – Hang Mandela??? Good grief!

  • @ peter – Nick Gibb, who was replaced at Education by David Laws in the recent re-shuffle, was two years below me and, according to ‘Wiki’, “Gibb was a member of the radical libertarian Federation of Conservative Students.” The slight snag is that I’m 99% certain that he was a member of the University Liberal Club in his first year (1978-79). I don’t remember him helping us at the General Election.
    @ Missomole – students demonstrated outside the Durham branch of Barclays as part of a South African Dis-investment campaign. I remember members of FCS going into Barclays to OPEN accounts!

  • @ Paul Hunt – clearly they were still not entirely convinced that the Empire could be financed without slavery, and therefore required sympathy from the NP in SA, because by the 1970’s nobody else in the UK understood how correct they were about that.

    @Mathew Huntbach – perhaps asking those voters where and when Labour actually said “No Cuts” would help?

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