Mori, Iraq and the Lib Dems

by Stephen Tall on September 14, 2006

The latest Ipsos-Mori poll has dribbled out via the blogs. It shows, in stark contrast to recent polls, that Labour (36%) leads the Tories (35%), with the Lib Dems on 19%.

But I was more intrigued by the finding shown here: that the proportion of people naming Iraq as an important issue has more than doubled, from 18% in April 2005 – a month before the general election – to 32% today.

However, that leap in political salience, has been matched by a seeming dilution of public support for the Lib Dems’ stance. Eighteen months ago, the party was rated the party best able to deal with Iraq by 52% of the public, compared with 13% and 11% for the two pro-war parties, the Tories and Labour.

Today, just 14% (down 38%) of the public rate the Lib Dems as having the best policy on Iraq. Labour, perhaps perversely, is regarded as the safest pair of hands – 18% (up 7%) of the public believe they will be most effective, while the Tories are still stuck at 13%.

This could be taken as unalloyed bad news for the Lib Dems – more people think an issue matters, yet fewer are confident the party would do a better job. But I think the reality is more complicated than that.

The first, statistical, point to note is obvious enough. The fact that more people are naming Iraq as an important issue is likely to mean that, proportionately, fewer of them are likely to be Lib Dem supporters.

The more prosaic point is this. When the question was asked, back in 2005, just 9% of the public was undecided who would handle Iraq best. At that stage, the question could have been taken (and I suspect was taken) as a proxy for – “Do you believe the invasion of Iraq was justified” – with those saying “No” opting for the Lib Dems to demonstrate their opposition.

Today 43% of the public are unsure which political party would handle Iraq best. You can read into that what you like – so here’s my attempt. The situation there is now so messy that it is almost impossible to imagine how any politician, let alone how any nation or even alliance, can hope to halt the continuing slide into bloody civil conflict.

It may seem scant reward for all those Lib Dem MPs who, with great courage, voted against the US-British invasion of Iraq – but, if public opinion really is saying, “I wouldn’t start from here”, that strikes me as the only possible rational response to this intractable crisis.