Newsnight Review: poll the other one

by Stephen Tall on July 20, 2006

“Twice as many people believe Charles Kennedy would be a better leader of the Liberal Democrats than his successor Sir Menzies Campbell, a poll suggests.” So says, following up an ICM survey commissioned for Newsnight. What are we to make of this news?

Well, the first thing to note is that the poll is utter bollocks. In fact, a curse does it no justice; let’s try some alliteration. It was bunkum, bilge and baloney. And balderdash.

Newsnight, of course, is utterly ignorant of, and disinterested in, psephology. (Which is why they are happy to employ Republican advisor Frank Luntz to conduct skewed focus groups and pass them off as impartial political science.)

Desperate always to try and set the agenda, in last night’s programme Ming Campbell was confronted by an over-caffeinated Martha Kearney, next to whom could be seen, like Banquo’s Ghost, a picture of Charles Kennedy: she eagerly revealed the finding that 53% of the public would favour him as Lib Dem leader, to 26% for Sir Menzies.

Why do I think this poll factoid is so much drivel? Am I simply trying to shoot the messenger?

In answer, I have dug out the Mori satisfaction poll ratings for eight months in 1999, either side of Paddy Ashdown’s retirement, and Mr Kennedy’s succession. Here’s what they show:

Paddy Ashdown: Satisfied % / Dissatisfied %
April 1999 = 55 / 18
May 1999 = 52 / 20
June 1999 = 53 / 16
July 1999 = 55 / 16

Charles Kennedy: Satisfied % / Dissatisfied %
August 1999 = 21 / 10
September 1999 = 24 / 11
October 1999 = 23 / 13
November 1999 = 28 / 11

Mr Kennedy, it can be clearly seen, was not an instant success. After five months in charge, barely half the public were as satisfied with him as they had been with Mr Ashdown.

And that, I should add, is no reflection on CK, who – let’s remember – went on to lead the Lib Dems to their two best post-war electoral performances. It is merely a reflection of the difficulty all third party leaders have in establishing their identities given our political journalists’ craven failure to grapple with the collapse of two-party politics.

Sir Menzies had, by common consent, a difficult, even diffident, first 10 weeks as Leader.

The transformation of the Party into a smart, ambitious, tough political operation was being effected behind-the-scenes. Too little was visible, or even perceptible, to anyone on the outside. The stumbles at Prime Minister’s Questions, the absence of a media strategy, and a mixed-bag of local election results eventually seeped into the public consciousness. This can be seen in Sir Menzies’ own Mori poll ratings:

Ming Campbell: Satisfied % / Dissatisfied %
March 2006 = 22 / 17
2006 = 26 / 20
May 2006 = 22 / 31
June 2006 = 22 / 28

The perceived failure in May’s local elections – which in reality was neither as bad for the Lib Dems, nor as good for the Tories, as the media portrayed it – saw Sir Menzies lose a little of his authority. Those satisfied declined very slightly; far more noticeable was that the number of those dissatisfied increased.

Just as David Cameron was seen as a winner – for having added a whole 1% more to the Tory vote than William Hague managed in 2000, or Michael Howard achieved in 2004 – so Sir Menzies became tainted as a loser, despite the Lib Dems achieving their third best local election result in a decade. Which, considering the mensis horribilis the Lib Dems endured in January, was no mean feat in itself.

The last 10 weeks have, however, been a wholly different story, with Sir Menzies proving his credibility with each passing day.

He appears to have cracked the trick of Prime Minister’s Questions, vigorously tackling Mr Blair on issues of substance, in stark contrast to Mr Cameron’s flimsily clever point-scoring. Sir Menzies bested Mr Cameron’s Tories in Bromley, proving once again how formidable can be the Party’s campaign machine when operating at full throttle. Most importantly, the Lib Dem leadership has proposed a radically redistributionist tax package, an uncompromisingly bold environmental manifesto, and taken a resolutely liberal line on issues of international justice, from the NatWest Three to Israel.

While Mr Cameron is frittering away his honeymoon chasing yesterday’s headline, Ming is focused on setting tomorrow’s agenda.

Postscript: as Alex Wilcock has already noted, Ming is never going to beat CK in the cuddly stakes. Nor should he try.

Echoing the sound advice imparted by Jonathan Calder last month, the Party should be content to ‘Let Ming Be Ming’. Which segues me neatly into a West Wing snippet which seems somehow to be apt, following Ming’s forceful defence of his leadership on Newsnight.

Here, President Bartlet’s speech-writers, Will Bailey and Sam Seaborn, discuss their boss’s bravura election debate performance:

WB: I thought he was going to have to fall all over himself trying to be genial.

So did we. But then, we were convinced by polling that said he was going to be seen as arrogant no matter what performance he gave in the debate. And then, that morning, at 3:10, my phone rings, and it’s Toby Ziegler. He says, “Don’t you get it? It’s a gift that they’re irreversibly convinced that he’s arrogant ‘cos now he can be.” If your guy’s seen that way,
you might as well knock some bodies down with it.