2010 seems a long time ago. Particularly if you’re a Liberal Democrat.
Five years ago this week, a ComRes poll revealed that Nick Clegg had stolen the show at the first televised leaders’ debate in British history. Five years ago next week, after a meteoric rise in the party’s poll ratings, the editorial of the Guardian boldly declared that “the liberal moment has come”.
Wind the clock forward and the picture is far less rosy – the party’s national poll ratings remain stubbornly low and, as our latest poll for ITV News shows, the Liberal Democrat vote has collapsed in the 14 constituencies in the South West of England currently held by the party where the Conservatives came second at the last election.
Regardless of stubbornly low national poll ratings in recent years, the party’s chief election strategist Ryan Coetzee would have been holding out hope that, by activating strong local networks and campaigning on local issues (as in key Tory – Lib Dem marginal Cheltenham), the party could hold on to many seats. The reality appears to undermine that hope.
Wednesday’s poll showed a 13 point swing from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives: if replicated in all 14 South West seats, the Liberal Democrats would lose all of them. However, don’t be fooled - this obviously does not mean that the Liberal Democrats will lose all of them. Swing will not be uniform across the seats (some candidates will be more popular than others) and, given the margin of error on any poll, even if uniform swing were to prove stronger than expected, it is quite possible that the party is on course to cling on to some of its seats in the South West.
There are also still three weeks for the party’s election machine to gain ground at a local level – historically, the Liberal Democrats have performed well during election campaigns despite the Tories and Labour trying to squeeze them out. Nonetheless, the overall picture is clear – the Liberal Democrat candidates in these seats face an extremely difficult fight. Losses are likely.
Despite this fall in support, perhaps the most surprising aspect of Wednesday’s poll is that the Liberal Democrats’ brand is not as tarnished as some might have expected – two thirds of voters in these seats (66%) say that the Liberal Democrats can be a force for good in British politics, and a similar proportion (63%) say that the party was right to go into Coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.
So what has gone wrong? Why have the Liberal Democrats lost so much support in the South West?
Theories commonly put forward are that the decline can be blamed on tuition fees or on Nick Clegg’s personal reputation. But both of these explanations miss the key reason for their decline.
1. It’s not just Nick
It is certainly true to say that Nick Clegg’s personal reputation is nowhere near the levels he achieved after that famous first debate in 2010. Our research consistently shows him to be among the most unpopular of the main party leaders, with our most recent data showing that just 12% of the public have favourable impressions of Mr Clegg.
But Wednesday’s South West poll shows that, while Mr Clegg’s reputation is far from rehabilitated, it is not the cause of the Party’s woes: only three in ten voters in these seats (29%) agree that Nick Clegg puts them off voting for the party.
2. Tuition fees are not the root of the problem
There is little doubt that tuition fees have been a major blot on the Liberal Democrats’ copybook in the last five years, and that the decision to renege on their pledge to oppose an increase in tuition fees coincided with a period of decline in the party’s poll ratings, as the graph below clearly shows.
But is it realistic to think that a single issue explains the party’s poor poll ratings five years on? Or that tuition fees, which do not directly affect large swathes of the population, could be that issue?
It is probably more accurate to see tuition fees as a symptom of the Liberal Democrats’ problems, rather than the cause.
For the underlying cause of the Liberal Democrats’ decline in the polls is far more fundamental than broken promises on tuition fees. As the chart above shows, even before the tuition fees vote in December 2010 the Lib Dems were already on the way down. It looks more likely that what really did the damage was the decision to go into Coalition; everything else stems from that original injury.
Whether you see the decision to enter government positively or negatively, it is clear that this immediately negated several key factors driving Liberal Democrat vote choice in 2010 (and before).
The Liberal Democrats have historically benefited from being portrayed as the alternative to the “big two” of Labour and the Conservatives. This was demonstrated, for example, by the support the Party enjoyed as a result of Charles Kennedy’s opposition to the Iraq War and their 22% vote share in 2005.
By being in Government, the Liberal Democrats have no longer been able to position themselves as the alternative option – this cost them votes and created space for parties like the Greens and UKIP to position themselves as the real outsiders.
The party’s election campaign, with its “Look Left, Look Right, Then Cross” posters, clearly attempts to regain this ground. But as our focus group for Sunday Politics last week suggests, this is not winning voters over.
So while most voters in key seats such as those in the South West clearly do not hate the party, many of the reasons for voting for them in 2010 simply no longer apply.
In many ways this was predictable – in coalitions, as Angela Merkel once remarked to David Cameron, “the little party always gets smashed!” – and Nick Clegg was aware of this risk when he waltzed into the Rose Garden five years ago. He will just be hoping that his Party does not suffer the same fate as the party that the German Chancellor was referring to – the FDP, Germany’s equivalent of the Liberal Democrats, went from being coalition partners between 2009 and 2013 to having no seats at all in the German Bundestag now.
Being in government forces parties to answer some uncomfortable questions. Are we committed to this policy? What are our core beliefs? Mr Clegg has generally been willing to give answers, but in doing so has disturbed the fragile equilibrium of the Liberal Democrat vote. Smaller parties have always needed to make bolder claims ahead of elections to attract attention. Most have their own equivalent of the tuition fee promise. Nick Clegg is unlikely to be the last leader to suffer this fate.