Is the Coalition Government’s honeymoon really over?

Forget the Lib Dems’ current poll-ratings for a moment – though today’s 19% from ICM will have done a fair amount to repair nerves frayed by YouGov’s poorer recent scores – and let’s focus on the Coalition Government as a whole.

Last week, YouGov’s Peter Kellner stated categorically: The honeymoon is over. His logic was simple enough:

Over the past four weeks, the coalition’s approval rating has slipped slowly but remorselessly. Our latest figures report a net rating of plus four (approve 41%, disapprove 37%). In just over two months, the coalition’s rating has declined to levels that were not reached for almost three years under Tony Blair.

Clearly the Coalition’s performance is now being judged more critically, not least by the right-wing and left-wing media (ie, pretty much all newspapers), which appear to be as tribally polarised as some of the more screeching commenters on Twitter and blogs.

But is it really helpful to compare the Coalition’s approval ratings in 2010 with Labour’s inheritance in 1997? The differences are far more profound than the similiarity: true, both elections saw the end of a long period of one-party rule – but in 1997 the economy was growing healthily, the party that had won the election gained an overwhelming majority, and the losing party was reconciled to licking its wounds for a period. None of that applies this time round.

No, the comparison with 1997 is wrong-headed. If we’re going to try and compare periods of recent history, as a pointer to future performance, let’s at least try and match like-with-like. And though I’m too young to remember the 1979 election, it strikes me that 2010 is closer to it than to ’97: an economy widely perceived to be in the doldrums, and a new government with a majority but nowhere near a landslide.

So how did Mrs Thatcher’s government perform in its early months? Pretty poorly is the answer. Mori’s satisfaction ratings reach back as far as the 1970s – they show that other than in its very first month, the first-term Thatcher government had a negative satisfaction rating every single month until May 1982, when the Falklands effect kicked in. Even this was short-lived, though, lasting just two months: there was net dissatisfaction with the Tory Government from July 1982 right through until Mrs Thatcher’s landslide in May 1983 (achieved of course on a minority vote).

Let’s look at one other period which bears some similiarities with current times: Mrs Thatcher’s overthrow in 1990 also brought to the end a long period of rule, in this case by a dominant Prime Minister, at a time of economic downturn. Again Mori’s net satisfaction ratings are quite clear: the government of John Major attracted negative satisfaction ratings every single month from December 1990 right up until the Tories’ fourth successive election victory, in April 1992.

From which I draw two conclusions. First, you choose the period of comparison that best suits the argument you wish to make. Mr Kellner wants to pronounce the Coalition honeymoon dead; I think he’s being unduly hasty. For a government to announce massive public spending cuts and put up taxes including VAT and still have a positive approval rating suggests to me a honeymoon that has yet even to near the end of the beginning, let alone the beginning of the end.

Secondly, the idea that a government must always attract a positive net satisfaction rating as a pre-condition for staying in power is plainly wrong – as Tony Blair demonstrated when winning elections in 2001 and again in 2005 despite his government having negative approval ratings.

Where I do agree with Mr Kellner, on the whole, is this argument – which Lib Dems well understand is a real danger for us:

In past periods of Conservative rule, moods of anti-government protest often helped the Lib Dems as much as, and sometimes more than, Labour. The early signs from the current parliament are that Labour will be the overwhelming beneficiary if the coalition stumbles.

But it’s worth juxtaposing that shaft of realism/pessimism with this snippet from Ian Leslie’s excellent Marbury blog:

It’s assumed by most pundits that when the Labour leadership contest is resolved the party will start doing even better. I’m not sure. It may be that, counter-intuitively, Labour’s poll rating is artificially high precisely because it doesn’t have a leader. At the moment, people are effectively being asked if they prefer the current government – which is announcing more bad news every week – or a fuzzy, vague alternative; the Labour Party as they’d like it to be. But when the new leader takes his position – whoever it is – voters will be faced with a more concrete choice. At which point some of them may decide to stick with the devil they dislike least.

And it’s choosing to “stick with the devil they dislike least” which is the main reason governments with negative approvals so often win general elections. Well, that and our unfair electoral system … but that’s another article.

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39 Comments

  • Rob Sheffield 27th Jul '10 - 7:56pm

    As well as yesterdays ICM, today we have the monthly MORI poll: I’ll quote the allegedly LD Mike Smithson:

    ““Today I’m hoping that we’ll see the latest MORI poll.

    POLLING UPDATE:
    MORI Just out
    CON 40
    LAB 38
    LD 14

    So seriously good news for the reds and bad news for the yellows. ”

    On the best performing predictor site from the GE 2010 (electoral calculus) that projects

    Lab 313 (+55)
    Con 296 (- 11 net 24 gains and 35 losses = ALL the Tory gains are from Lib Dems….)
    Lib Dem 16 (-41)
    OTH 7 (-2)
    GRN 0 (-1)

    It looks like the honeymoon for the Tories is continuing (though Labour will eat into the Conservative 38-42 range as long as its post new labour leadership sets out a detailed programme rather than adopting the Cameron opposition strategy of vagueness and niceness). But the Liberal Democrat ‘new politics/ realignment’ honeymoon is over.

    As many commentators have pointed out the key decisions of this government are taken by and for Conservatives.

    That is the simple reason behind you losing between 33% and 45% of your May 2010 vote in less than three months. These people did not vote for a LD supported Conservative government and give it no credence: only incredulity.

  • Tony Blair had higher poll numbers? You mean spending money is an easier sell than cutting spending? Who knew?

  • Self-delusional I’m afraid.

    “For a government to announce massive public spending cuts and put up taxes including VAT and still have a positive approval rating suggests to me a honeymoon that has yet even to near the end of the beginning, let alone the beginning of the end.”

    The vast majority of the cuts have not yet been announced, some of those that have been announced have not yet come into effect and the VAT rise doesn’t take place until January. Just wait until prices are being put up (by more than the VAT rise in many cases) and every retailer is blaming the government.

  • Rob Sheffield 27th Jul '10 - 8:45pm

    @Stephen

    Bless you !

    But that was actually my point. There is clearly a differential post election scenario going on here even if you- in your tribal way- are trying to bury that bad-news-for-your-team with combined total obfuscation. Just as some try the equally absurd tactic of combining the poll ratings to say “54% are pro the coalition and only 38% Labour” !! That’s only valid if you have a formal (coupon) electoral pact and in an opinion poll that gave just the options of Con-Lib; Lab; Nats etc

    But they don’t and this one isn’t.

    My point to remind you as you clearly did not read it: that- as reflected in the polling consistently for weeks now- the Tories are still having a smallish honeymoon (though dismal compared to the two year honeymoon enjoyed by Blair as YG pointed out a few weeks ago).

    Whereas- due to the 33% to 45% of voters who have closed the door on you- your ‘new politics’ honey moon has popped like a fart in the bath tub.

  • @Stephen Tall

    Have to agree with Rob Sheffield’s basic point. Coalition approval ratings are irrelevant as long as Lib Dems intend on contesting the next GE as an independent party (I seriously hope we would never consider an electoral pact with the Tories!). Again, as Rob Sheffield said, the Tories have not had a serious problem with their polling so far, that has been the Lib Dems; a logical consequence since the Tories haven’t had to make the ideological compromises that we have. So you can’t read too much into previous government approval ratings as the coalition government is a different animal.

  • paul barker 27th Jul '10 - 9:31pm

    The one thing we cant do, & the only thing that might be useful, is to compare our polling figures now with the ones we would have got if we had taken one of the other two choices. We always knew we would suffer temporarily from the coalition, what we dont know is how we would have suffered from joining the “Rainbow coalition” or letting the Tories form a minority government. Either of those choices would have lost us some voters but we will never know how many , we didnt have any easy options.
    We have to start from where we are, we have made a promise to The British People, five years of stable, moderate, reforming government. We must do our best & see how the voters respond.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 27th Jul '10 - 9:50pm

    “However, the first para made clear this post was not about the Lib Dems’ poll ratings …”

    But in your first _sentence_ you quoted today’s ICM rating for the Lib Dems (19%) and ignored the other two that weren’t so good – YouGov (15%) and Ipsos MORI (14%).

    Saying “poll ratings don’t matter” would be fair enough. Trumpeting the good ones and ignoring the bad ones is something else …

  • For nearly two weeks now I’ve read comments and articles on here that say ‘ignore yougov, let’s wait for ipsos-mori and ICM’, whose average puts you on 16.5% – well below your disappointing;y low actual vote. The truth is, people didn’t vote for Thatcherism gone mental, which is sadly what the Lib Dem leadership has signed up for. No wonder polls are dropping for the Lib Dems – the dispensable partner of this coalition – and the government in general.

    When Vince & Nick said ‘Labours plans are reasonable, but we can do it better’ I imagine a lot of voters (23% – third place) thought that was true. When they see what you agreed to – the wasteful marketisation of the NHS, the centralisation and de-funding of schooling, the regressive tax on consumers, the pathetic tax cut for the banks and the job losses that will decimate local government – they will hate you. If you like the coalition, vote tory. If not, vote opposition. But only a tiny number will vote for the idiots propping it up for no noticeable gain.

    The only way to regain any independence is to actually realise the Tories don’t have a majority in parliament. Will you do that?

    The honeymoon is over, the only question is will there be a marriage or a wake?

  • The Labour tribalists are unsurprisingly gleeful about a series of opinion polls that appear to indicate a diminution of Lib Dem support. There are two problems with opinion polls: (1) the questions are often amazingly stupid (eg, “would you have voted Lib Dem if you had known about the Coalition?”), and (2) people are asked how they would vote in a General Election tomorrow which is not actually taking place. Real elections where real people vote are suggesting that the Lib Dem vote is holding up. Whatever people might feel about the Coalition, they are still backing us in big numbers at the local government level. The Labour tribalists don’t want to discuss these real elections, because they don’t support their case, and give them little reason to gloat and make faces across the playground (even though they show Labour support marginally up, in my opinion).

    They key priorities for Liberal Democrats should be to (1) continue to campaign for Liberal Democrat policies even where they conflict with Coalition policies, (2) reject Tory policies we are not obligated to support (eg, privatisation of the NHS), and (3) exit the Coalition once the necessary measures to deal with the deficit have been taken.

  • “Whatever people might feel about the Coalition, they are still backing us in big numbers at the local government level.”

    Yeah, like Preston. The only good results you have are in Tory areas and you know it.

    “They key priorities for Liberal Democrats should be to (1) continue to campaign for Liberal Democrat policies even where they conflict with Coalition policies, (2) reject Tory policies we are not obligated to support (eg, privatisation of the NHS), and (3) exit the Coalition once the necessary measures to deal with the deficit have been taken.”

    1) Your leadership believe in the coalition policies, they were desperate to drop the policies passed by conference. 2) You won’t, your MPs are so kow-towed you’ll go along with every policy. 3) How amazingly opportunistic! But you won’t even do that. By that point, Nick will be so certain he’s a Statesman delivering the best policies since 1832 he’ll only exit if there’s votes for him personally in it. Your party is selling itself so cheaply it’s embarassing/

  • Rob Sheffield 27th Jul '10 - 10:54pm

    @Stephen Tall

    the Latest Yougov tonight is remarkably close to the MORI poll

    CON 40
    LAB 37
    LD 14

    Con 320 (+13 net = 28 gains and 15 losses = ALL the Tory gains are from Lib Dems….)
    Lab 289 (+31)
    Lib Dem 14 (-43)
    OTH 9 (+)
    GRN 0 (-1)

    As the Independent said on 25th July:

    “The Deputy Prime Minister came face to face with the public yesterday in Abingdon Guildhall, an ornate building dating from the 15th century. He invited “vitriol and polemic” and stood accused of standing in the way of good schools, a pensioners’ holiday to China and problems with a local weir.

    Several times he stressed that he was “putting aside short-term interests for the long term”. This is the sign of an emerging strategy to deflect attention from the Lib Dems’ dire poll ratings – down to just 13 per cent mid-week – which have fallen as the Tories’ have risen.

  • Agree with much of what @Sesenco says, particularly the priorities.

    I think it is encouraging that the LibDems seem to be starting to find an independent voice in Parliament and signalling that they are unhappy with some of the more outlandish elements of the government’s agenda. The rate at which half-baked and potentially dangerous ideas have been flowing from the Coalition over the last few days and weeks has been quite staggering. The party should support proposals that do not do too much violence to its principles, but not go along with some of the more crackpot ideas. That seems to me to be the only way to avoid serious electoral damage next time around.

  • Rob Sheffield 27th Jul '10 - 11:22pm

    @stephen tall “don’t you guys ever get bored with your own tribalism?”

    ‘A man speaks as he is’ as the old saying goes. No- what I get really bored with is tribalistic partisans tediously pretending that they are not !

    Just because you say isomething Sir does not make it true. But I apologise if the polls are proving a little difficult to swallow 🙂

  • Mike80 wrote:

    “Yeah, like Preston. The only good results you have are in Tory areas and you know it.”

    Is Haverstock a Tory area?

    Come on, Mike, tell us. Was there a gigantic conspiracy within the Electoral Registration Department of Camden Council to rig all the elections from 1971 onwards to make it look as though the Tory-voting council estates in Kentish Town were voting Labour?

    You know nothing about our leadership and MPs. In fact, you appear to know very little about anything. The reason being that you blind yourself to facts that don’t suit your case, such as the good performance of the Lib Dems in actual elections – in both Tory AND Labour areas. You have invented your own reality, and you are determined to stick with it no matter what. Arguing with Jehovah’s Witnesses would be more productive.

    Now, can you answer me this? What is your purpose in posting on this site? If you are in the business of weakening support for the Coalition among Lib Dem members, then you are having precisely the opposite effect. You are making it more difficult for Lib Dems uneasy with the Coalition to argue their case. Those who think the Coalition is actually a good thing rather than a necessary evil have a lot to thank you for, believe me.

  • Andrew Suffield 27th Jul '10 - 11:31pm

    Coalition approval ratings are irrelevant

    Want to talk about which polling figures are irrelevant? Okay.

    We just had an election where all the pollsters got it staggeringly wrong.

    We have never had an election where the pollsters correctly predicted the outcome 4.5 years in advance.

    All of these polling figures are irrelevant.

  • Rob Sheffield 27th Jul '10 - 11:31pm

    Senseco:

    “Real elections where real people vote are suggesting that the Lib Dem vote is holding up. Whatever people might feel about the Coalition, they are still backing us in big numbers at the local government level. The Labour tribalists don’t want to discuss these real elections”

    I am afraid if you check the Local Authority bye election website you will find that this ‘assertion’ is woefully off beam.

    But what I am waiting for is May 2011. That should settle a lot of ‘first year report card’ arguments on here.

    Personally I can’t wait- though I have no doubt that those on here who put such faith in local election results over the last couple of years (and even tonight) will suddenly decide they are irrelevant (‘only election that matters not for another 4 years by which time there will be zero unemployment 20% GDP a liberal nirvana with no bossy busy bodies etc etc ad nauseam); as they also repeat the ‘labour heartlands’ mantra when spanked in Scotland and Wales…

  • Rob Sheffield 27th Jul '10 - 11:39pm

    “All of these polling figures are irrelevant”

    There speaks the adopted partisan strategy as identified in the Independent article: “the only election that counts is the one in 5 years”. Replace ‘5’ with a ‘3’ and you are where the Brownites were in 2007 🙂

    Polls are not predictors of anything: they are snapshots of current opinion- just the sort that got you all excited about when Cleggmania (anyone remember that crikey it seems a VERY long time ago) was upon us in the first two weeks of the campaign before fizzling out.

    For one I am more than happy for Orange Liberals to be complacent about these poll numbers.

    For example- and (stephen) speaking “specifically to the thread” (sic) tonights YG goves the lowest *government/ coalition* approval numbers in all of the YG polling completed since the election.

  • Rob Sheffield:

    I have looked at ALL the local byelection results since May. Taken together, they indicate that the Lib Dem vote is holding up well, that the Tories are doing OK, and Labour is up very slightly (a marginal reduction in those willing to vote Lib Dem tactically). Those are the facts, and shouting me down over the internet won’t change them.

    Why did the Lib Dems win those seats in Haverstock? Why has Labour failed to make more than a moderate impression on the formerly Labour town of Shepton Mallet, and the formerly Labour Oxford suburb of Kidlington, and why has the Labour vote in St Albans continued to scrape the ocean floor, despite your party having held the Parliamentary seat from 1997-2005?

    Labour should be expected to do reasonably well in 2011, but nothing has happened yet in real elections to suggest any dramatic changes of fortune.

    If you can’t wait, then why are you waiting? Why are you not out there hitting the doorsteps instead of scribbling blustery taunts on a Lib Dem site?

  • Rob Sheffield 28th Jul '10 - 5:44am

    You are making it more difficult for Lib Dems uneasy with the Coalition to argue their case. Those who think the Coalition is actually a good thing rather than a necessary evil have a lot to thank you for, believe me.

    AS the Fabian Society say this morning:

    “I am a bit bemused by how strongly Nick Clegg has been playing to the Tory gallery in his attacks on Labour – including specifically over constitutional and electoral reform. The Tory backbenches will be trying to make sure that reform does not pass, while the ability of a Yes campaign to win may well find that the ability to mobilise Labour voters in favour proves decisive.

    Clegg’s current approach is making the job of those in the Labour Party who want the referendum to succeed much more difficult.

    I would have thought Clegg must know that, though he gave every impression to the contrary when taking Commons questions on the issue. But I hope that other LibDem frontbenchers, backbenchers and activists can will be thinking about opening an important dialogue how we can try to make sure that members of rival parties can successfully cooperate on this issue.”

  • *I have looked at ALL the local byelection results since May. Taken together, they indicate that the Lib Dem vote is holding up well,*

    That simply means the LDs are able to concentrate their efforts better than other parties for by elections.Nothing new there.The big test ,and wipe out, will occur at next year’s Scottish and Welsh Assembley elections, and English Council elections

  • “the formerly Labour Oxford suburb of Kidlington”

    Ha! Don’t make me laugh. Labour lost Kidlington to the Tories in 1998 – at the peak of it’s honeymoon. Labour haven’t controlled Cherwell since the 1990s, and I believe Kidlington have been so remorselessly Tory they stood unopposed in the 2008 elections. At the County level, Otmoor and Kidlington is a Tory seat. In fact, I’ve just googled it and whilst I can’t find the recent by-election result, there were 44 Tory councillors in Cherwell, 3 Lib Dems and 2 Labour! And since when has Oxford West & Abingdon (Con) been a Labour seat? So yes, you may do well in Tory areas…

    I post on here because I would like to comment and debate some of what this government is doing. I imagine Tories are less interested in arguments about progressive politics, but thought Lib Dems might be.

  • Utter delusion.

    The biggest danger facing the LDs is this abject denial of the facts beating them around the face.

    The Indy has an objective piece on the decisions facing Clegg:
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/liberal-democrats-is-the-party-over-already-2036788.html

    For this blog, which should be a place for activists to honestly confront the party, to be so in Clegg’s pocket is risible. I spend time at LabourList + Conservative Home and both have an entirely different atmosphere – one where uncomfortable truths can be discussed in the round.

    I fear Lib Dem Voice’s decision to sit back and let Clegg take the party into the wide open arms of the most right-wing Conservative since Thatcher, unopposed, signifies the deeper malaise facing the party. Are you in politics for power or for principle? Your report card at the minute would strongly suggest the latter.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 28th Jul '10 - 9:05am

    “@ Anthony Aloysius St – erm, you say I ignored the YouGov, yet I see I referred to “YouGov’s poorer recent scores” in the _first_ sentence. “

    Yes, of course you referred to “recent” YouGov polls. You contrasted them with “today’s” ICM. The point is that three polls had been published on the day you wrote, and you picked the best one for the Lib Dems, and ignored the other two.

  • AJ:

    You clearly don’t understand how this party works. Concentrating resources in key areas is how we have always directed our campaigning effort, at least since the 1970s. Have you only just noticed? It is one of the main reasons we have the number of MPs and councillors we do under our distortional electoral system, and is one of the main reasons there is unlikely to be a wipe-out or serious loss of support next May. You can hope, but can you deliver?

    Mike80:

    Thank you for confirming that Kidlington was formerly Labour. How about Haverstock and St Albans?

  • Cuse:

    Your last comment makes me snigger. I’m in Clegg’s pocket, am I? That presumably explains why I supported Chris Huhne for the leadership, thinking Clegg too vague and too right-wing. However, I would far rather be in Clegg’s pocket than Dick Cheney’s pocket, as your former leader was.

    Anyone who examines the threads on this site can see that we have frank and honest discussions pretty much all the time, but it is made rather difficult by the cataract of puerile, ill-informed, yaboo comments coming from Labour trolls such as yourself.

  • Sesenco

    It is revealing that you personalise a comment pertaining to the whole of Lib Dem Voice. It is equally revealing, that any perceived sleight to the LD leadership must be defended with accusations of the post’s author being in the (LD approved terminology of dirty, disgusting, war-mongering) Labour Party.

    You do make it easy to portray the Liberals as regressive opportunists with no defining principle when this is the response of a prominent member of the Lib Dem voice community such as yourself Sesenco. The point on Cheney is rather neutralised when you have merged with a party who supported every decision Cheney, through Blair, made.

    And for the record Sesenco – I was a fully paid-up LD voter, struggling to identify with any of the 3 parties now since the party shifted so dramatically to the right. The only thing I do know is that this blog pushes me further away from the Liberals as they sink ever deeper into Cameron + Osborne’s web.

  • Cuse wrote:

    “a prominent member of the Lib Dem voice community such as yourself Sesenco”

    Hey, I’m a prominent member of the Lib Dem Voice community! Yippee!

  • Cuse,

    “you have merged with a party”

    You certainly don’t help your case when you invent facts. The Liberal Democrats haven’t merged with any political party, and are unlikely to do in the near or foreseeable future.

  • @Sesenco

    I agree, a formal merger between the two parties is quite unlikely. But I have a question: how would you feel if come 2014, Nick Clegg suggests we enter into an electoral pact with the Tories to re-elect the Coalition? Would you be in favour of that? is it something you could imagine supporting, given the right circumstances?

  • mpg:

    “how would you feel if come 2014, Nick Clegg suggests we enter into an electoral pact with the Tories to re-elect the Coalition? Would you be in favour of that?”

    No.

    “is it something you could imagine supporting, given the right circumstances?”

    No.

  • “Perhaps you could help us out. If you made measured, respectful and thoughtful posts”

    Patronising comment. Yes, there is a lot of puerile point-scoring on this blog at the moment – From all sides, but the loyalists are about the worst!

  • suzanna jacoby 10th Aug '10 - 2:18am

    I was a Lib Dem voter for years. I feel utterly betrayed. I agree with this:

    http://labour-uncut.co.uk/2010/08/06/james-ruddick-bids-farewell-to-nick-clegg

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