The Guardian on the Lib Dems

by Stephen Tall on December 28, 2006

Today’s Grauniad editorial, ‘Liberal Democrats: In search of adventure’, is a critical but generally fair analysis of the party after its annus horribilis, noting that:

  • Poll ratings are dipping from low 20s to high teens;
  • Ming has not found yet a defining issue to make his own, as Paddy Ashdown did with Bosnia or Charles Kennedy did with Iraq;
  • The party is not yet daring to be radical enough on key issues, such as Afghanistan or Trident; and
  • The next year will be critical to Ming’s standing as leader.

Some of this is merely the ephemera of here-today-bored-tomorrow journalism. Until Tony Blair finally resigns, and Gordon Brown’s had six months as Prime Minister, it is silly trying to read anything much into opinion polls showing movements within the margin of error. Speculation is fun; but it is no more than speculation (and often not much fun).

What we can confidently assert is that the ‘Cameron effect’ is nowhere near as potent as the ‘Blair effect’ was in the mid-1990s.

In the year before Tony Blair became Labour leader (August 1994), the Lib Dems’ average ICM poll rating was 25%. In the year after, it was 17%, a drop of 8%. Perhaps fortunately for Paddy Ashdown, polling was still under a dark cloud following the debacle of the 1992 general election, and the 365x24x7 rolling news agenda was not as hyper-intense as it is today.

In the year before Mr Cameron became Tory leader (December 2005), the Lib Dems averaged an ICM rating of 21%. In the year since, the party has also averaged 21%.

That does not mean the Lib Dems should confidently dismiss Mr Cameron, or complacently assume he will implode. But, equally, the media might attempt to add just a little context and perspective before writing up any one poll as a triumph for the Tory leader or a disaster for the Lib Dems.

It’s certainly the case that Ming did not get off to a flying start as leader. A couple of early faltering performances in the House of Commons, and local election results which fell short of expectations (even if those expectations were perhaps too high) allowed an easy caricature to take root of a decent man who is now past it.

That’s unfortunate and, in many ways, unfair. But such is politics. The real test of Ming’s leadership will be for him to overcome that perception, for the party’s sake as well as his own.

And though the Grauniad identifies two issues on which the Lib Dems should stake out some distinctive ground – Trident and Afghanistan – the editorial is notably vague in offering policy prescriptions. Which is fair enough: there aren’t easy answers to either. And it smacks a little of sophistry for the Lib Dems to be accused by the Grauniad of political opportunism, and then to urge the party to determine our policies according to the level of “public disquiet” felt about Mr Blair’s defence and foreign policies.

This is rather typical of the Grauniad’s wish to see the Lib Dems act as its (and Labour’s) political conscience – but never, of course, to support the party because we “lack credibility”. A case of having your Christmas cake, and eating it.