Is Martin Kettle right – could the Lib Dems eclipse Labour?

LDV has eschewed mention of the past week’s opinion polls, three of which have shown the Lib Dems to be the chief beneficiaries of the recent slump in Labour support. As our regular readers will know, we just don’t believe there’s anything to be gained from looking at any one individual poll in isolation – the media and blogosphere’s slavish fixation on statistically insignificant percentage changes is usually just an easy distraction from discussing substantial issues that actually matter.

But it hasn’t escaped the attention of Guardian columnist Martin Kettle, who today ponders (with all the necessary caveats) if we’re actually beginning to see a real seismic shift in the electoral landscape:

Thanks to Cable, the Lib Dems also think they may have stumbled upon their Iraq moment. It is certainly possible. Just as the party’s opposition to the Iraq war reaped large electoral dividends in 2005 – when a million Labour voters moved to the Lib Dems – so their clarity of analysis and prescription on the financial crisis equips the party to make a powerful pitch to voters in 2010. The longer the recession goes on, the stronger will be its three-part pitch – Labour has failed, you can’t trust the Tories and the Lib Dems got it right. It will frame the attempt to defend the party’s 63 seats next year. More important still, it provides them with a powerful weapon in the northern Labour seats in which the Lib Dems are looking to pick up new victories when the election comes.

Mr Kettle even considers – over-optimistically, in my view, but, hey, the party’s due a dose of over-optimism – whether the Lib Dems could repeat the succes of last year’s local elections, and knock Labour into third place:

The main shift in public opinion, after all, remains from Labour (and Lib Dem) to Tory. But this secondary Labour to Lib Dem swing, if sustained through to a general election that Labour loses badly, may do more than simply enable Clegg’s party to hold its own. If accompanied by the Lib Dems’ usual campaign dividend (a 6% improvement from start to finish in both 1997 and 2001, but only 2% in 2005), and by significant tactical voting (a recent internal poll for the party found only 15% of voters would never think of voting Lib Dem) we could be witnessing the first election since 1983 in which there is a real contest for second place in the popular vote.

His conclusion?

A generation ago, there was much hot talk about breaking the mould of British politics. It didn’t happen, and the sensible pragmatist will still say such a thing is unlikely. But these are exceptional times and the old political order cannot expect to emerge unscathed. The strange death of Labour England? It can’t be ruled out.


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  • “LDV has eschewed mention of the past week’s opinion polls, three of which have shown the Lib Dems to be the chief beneficiaries of the recent slump in Labour support.”

    Eh? shows a total of three polls in the past week, in only one of which the Lib Dem vote was higher than in the previous survey by the same pollster.

    You must have been having a lovely dream.

  • David from W5 20th Feb '09 - 8:23pm

    Anonymous – you can prove anything with statistics, they say, but to make them mean something you need to have a wide range of statistics available and not just restrict yourself to one week’s figures, even if a week is along time in politics.

    That means looking at a range of pollsters and not limiting yourself to just some of the evidence.

    UK Polling Report gives the figures for five different pollsters, so it’s probably best to see what they all say, rather than restricting yourself to three of the five:

    Ipsos 15 Feb – 17, 18 Jan – 17, 14 Dec -15 (overall change up 2)

    YouGov – 13 Feb – 14, 29 Jan – 16, 16 Jan – 15 (overall change down 1)

    ComRes – 12 Feb 22, 23 Jan 16, 15 Jan – 15 (overall change up 7)

    Populus – 8 Feb – 18, 11 Jan – 15, 17 Dec – 17 (overall change up 1)

    ICM – 5 Feb 22, 25 Jan 16, 14 Dec – 19 (overall change up 3)

    Of course the figures cover different periods, but the complete picture shows steady growth in all but one of the polls.

  • David from W5

    What on earth are you going on about?

    Can you not see that I was correcting a factual error in the article?

  • Stephen

    All you need to do is use the link I’ve already given you, and you’ll see that only one of those polls was published in the “past week”.

  • Stephen

    I see that since I replied to your last comment you’ve edited it so that it says something different!

    What you said was “the past week’s opinion polls”, which naturally doesn’t mean “last week’s opinion polls”. But in any case, the three polls you’re referring to weren’t all published last week.

    What’s so hard about admitting you made a mistake?

  • Martin Land 20th Feb '09 - 9:45pm

    Stephen, I’ve been stuck here all these years in my constituency preparing for government – can it be true at last?

  • Of course, on the substantive point, even if the Lib Dems pulled ahead of Labour in the popular vote, that would represent a Lab-LD swing of only about 5%, which wouldn’t mean a huge number of seats changing hands.

    And realistically the other side of that coin – certainly according to the current polls – would be a very strong Tory vote, which would put many Lib Dem seats at risk.

    Of course, in 1983 the Alliance did come within a couple of percent of Labour in the popular vote. But Labour remained by far the dominant opposition party in the Commons, and the closeness of the popular vote meant nothing in the long run. No doubt the same thing would happen again if the Lib Dems did come close to equalling – or even narrowly overtaking – the Labour vote.

  • Stephen

    “I admit when I referred to the past week I may have been so loose as to have meant the past 10 days, not the past seven …”

    Sorry, but I just find it so funny when someone has such a pathological aversion to admitting they made a mistake.

    So first of all it was the “past week”, and then you said you meant “last week”, and now you go back to _loosely_ the “past week”, which really meant “the past 10 days”, and of course not even that’s right because the ICM poll was released almost a fortnight ago.

    But of course it’s all my fault for being “pedantic”!

  • Kettle’s most worrying sentence:

    “If the Lib Dems have any sense they will put Cable front and centre of everything they do before the election – a double act with Nick Clegg rather like those of the Alliance in the 1980s is being planned.”

    Do we really intend to reinvent the Spitting Image style of leadership, with Steel in Owen’s pocket, that led us to crashing defeat and the split of 1987? Voluntarily, off our own bat, to buy the one-way ticket to Switzerland?

    If we really want Cable to be at the “front and centre of everything”, there’s only one good way to put him there.

  • David,

    I think there’s a clear difference between the Alliance’s terrible double act and a kind of US-style President/VP ticket, but where it’s for Prime Minister/Chancellor. If asked to defend such an approach, we could very plausibly say that, in times such as these, who is chancellor matters to a huge degree.

    That would allow us to capitalise on the good contrast of youth and charisma with age and experience; versus two young and experienced politicians for the Tories and, well, GB and Alistair Darling (if he’s still, miraculously, in his job at that point).

    Consequently, Cable should be as centre-stage as Biden was, perhaps more so, in my opinion. We must make maximum use of someone who is, let’s be in no doubt, a massive asset to the party.

  • There’s nothing that gets Lib Dems quite so orgasmic as the thought of becoming the second party in a three horse race. And nothing so pathetic either.

    The Liberal Democrats are still a million miles away from overtaking Labour in terms of parliamentary seats. Nothing the party has by way of policies or personalities amounts to a knock out unique selling point. So chill out.
    You need only prepare for Conservative government.
    And Labour led opposition.
    And fewer seats.
    And a smaller base in local government as Labour begins to chew on your arses.
    And a good long wait before the pendulum swings enough for your true, tribal, anti-conservative callings become anything like popular enough for you to make any progress against the Conservatives.
    So what’s Vince going to do about that?
    Has he got ten years of Parliamentary life left?
    Will the Lib Dems even exist in ten years in their current form?
    Lib Dems face as many questions about their role in the post Labour era as any other left wing party.
    But cheer up! You might beat Ukip to come third in the European elections!
    Then again, coming fifth behind the BNP is not out of the question either.

  • Martin Land 21st Feb '09 - 6:39am

    Tina – I think you are wrong. When I joined the Liberal Party we had 6 MP’s and a few hundred councillors, not thousands. Being a LD is a huge exercise in optimism.

  • “Like, whatever. I’m happy to stick to data: three of the five polls in Feb have shown the LDs considerably up.

    Are you able to accept that fact? Or do you want to continue accusing me of dreaming for pointing it out?”

    Stephen, you know very well that what I was pointing out was that you got your “data” wrong – that what you said wasn’t a “fact”, because you said it was three polls within the past week.

    It is indeed a trivial – and boring – point, but it’s revealing that you’re absolutely unable to own up to making a mistake. And that you’re now trying to mislead people about what I said. But of course it’s no more than par for the course.

  • David from W5 21st Feb '09 - 11:14am

    Anonymous (interesting that, why don’t you give a name at all?) – You were seeming to want to point out that the Lib Dems have not done so well as Stephen was indicating. I was indicating that if you at all the evidence, you’ll see that the picture is better than you think.

  • “You were seeming to want to point out that the Lib Dems have not done so well as Stephen was indicating.”

    No – I was correcting a factual error. Obviously something that’s not at all welcome.

  • Stephen

    Of course I corrected your error. I pointed out that there had been three polls in the past week, only one of which had shown a rise in the Lib Dem rating.

    But how typical of you, rather than simply acknowledging your error and explaining what you did mean, to whinge on and on and on about how it’s my fault for being “pedantic”, about how I shouldn’t have corrected the error in the way I did but in a different way, about how I was being “misleading” in setting the facts straight, and how I’m a “troll”. (I wondered how long it would be before the name-calling started!)

    Here’s an idea for you. Take a bit more care over the factual accuracy of what you post. And if you do make an error, just correct it with good grace, rather than wasting veryone’s time with a lot of ridiculous twisting and turning, and trying to put the blame on someone else. Oh, and try to get over yourself just a bit.

  • “I gather from this that being called a troll happens to you a lot. Reading over the tone of your remarks here, I wonder why that is?”

    I think it’s because whenever people can’t think of anything sensible to say in answer to someone who is disagreeing with them, they find it easier just to yell “troll”! And no wonder it happens so often, when even the Editor at Large does it when he’s too embarrassed to admit making a mistake.

    Now, Alex and Alix, I believe a troll is actually someone who tries to pick an online argument just for the sake of it. So does either of you have anything to say about the subject of the thread, or …?

  • Alix

    Surely you can think of something?

  • Andy

    “The interesting question here is, if we came second, but had not a lot more seats than we do now (which, under FPTP, seems likely), would anyone other than us care?”

    No, I don’t think they would, particularly as the big story would not be about second place, but about the Tories storming to power with a huge majority.

    The trouble is that the electoral arithmetic means that the Lib Dems will not “break through” in terms of seats without getting well into the 30s in terms of percentage vote share.

    I’ve always thought it would be better to recognise that – barring a catastrophic upheaval in the political system – the best the Lib Dems can realistically hope for is being an influential and principled minority party. It’s certainly futile to throw the principles out of the window in attempt to become more “electable”. The party isn’t “electable” under the present system, and the electorate is intelligent enough to realise that.

  • “So chill out.
    You need only prepare for Conservative government [etc]”

    Most if not all of those things were said with “reversed polarities” in 1997. However they appear not to have come to fruition.

  • I like Martin Kettle.

  • David Allen 22nd Feb '09 - 7:39pm


    “I think there’s a clear difference between the Alliance’s terrible double act and a kind of US-style President/VP ticket.”

    Well, it depends on the act, doesn’t it.

    Biden for Obama: hand-picked by the leader to make a strong, united two-man team

    Palin for McCain: parachuted in to “balance” the ticket, loose cannon, sowed disunity and distrust

    Cable for Clegg: the deputy was the first in post, an independent personality, eclipses his boss in public esteem, not overtly disloyal, but no real team chamistry either

    The job of our opponents and the pushy journalists at election time: to find out why Clegg and Cable are not really playing as a team, drive a wedge between them, and exploit the results. It could be more like Owen and Steel than we would like to think.

  • I do want to cause a firestorm so I hope what I am saying will be taken in the right spirit.

    I look for a number of things in parliamentary candidates including character. Whilst it can be hard to admit making a mistake, I think there is a plus side.

    By admitting a mistake, you show people you are human and are interested in what they have to say. You also show that you are willing to rethink positions and that you are willing to learn from your mistakes.

    Maybe you are concerned that Tories might embarrass the party by having people point out every mistake. I think the danger is far outweighed by the good.

    Take Gordon Brown. If he had been willing to listen, maybe the FSA would have been constructed differently and we would have a better world as a result.

    Admitting a typo might seem to be small beer but the same instincts that view any criticism as something to fear rather than something to embrace could well affect more important decisions.

    I have not voted Lib Dem in the recent past but these kinds of issues are the sort of things that might make me vote Lib Dem again.

  • Sorry. That should read “I do not want to cause a firestorm”.

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