Lib Dems: about to collapse, or on the up?

by Stephen Tall on September 1, 2007

Two very alternative takes on the party’s fortunes have appeared in the press in the last few days.

For those who like to drink from the glass half-empty, you can sup happily from today’s leader in the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph:

Liberal Democrat support is quite simply collapsing. The party currently attracts only 14 per cent of voters, compared with 22 per cent in the 2005 general election. If there were a general election tomorrow, the Lib Dems would lose some of their most cherished West Country seats – to the Tories. Admittedly, Gordon Brown would be returned to office with an increased majority, but, for the first time in decades, Britain’s third party would have been reduced to insignificance.

There are several reasons for this state of affairs. When Mr Cameron rebranded the Conservatives as a green party, he pushed the Lib Dems off a patch of the ground that they had occupied, rather smugly, for years. But there is a more significant factor, which can be summed up in two words: Menzies Campbell.

But those who prefer their politics sunny-side-up can opt instead for Bill Jacobs’ upbeat assessment in The Scotsman:

Unexpectedly, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell has had the most relaxed holiday of the three party chiefs. While Gordon Brown has been desperate to show that as Prime Minister he is just as much in control as he was as Chancellor, and David Cameron has been trying to subdue his unruly Conservative Party, Ming finds himself as ruler of all he surveys. …

As the wheels came off Mr Cameron’s new Tory bandwagon over the early summer and Mr Brown took over from Mr Blair, the Lib Dem leader’s performances at Westminster strengthened and his age ceased to be an issue in the press. The idea of a steady hand on the tiller of the Liberal Democrats as well as in the country took hold and the murmuring in the party subsided. …

Now the party is on the up in the opinion polls and its leader looks safe, at least until the next General Election expected within 18 months. Ming is a bit of a fly fisherman as well as an athlete who ran in the 100 metres relay in the 1964 Olympics, so he knows that a flying start is not everything.

If you are seeking to reel in trout and salmon – as he has done many times in the Borders with friend and predecessor David Steel – you don’t expect them to bite first time. Similarly, Ming doesn’t expect the voters to leap up and swallow his party line immediately. But, as one of his closest aides told me: “If you look at Ming’s career as an athlete, lawyer and politician – not to mention fisherman – there is a lot of patience and hard work there.”

And it is beginning to look, as Mr Brown and Mr Cameron try to tear each other apart, that those quintessential qualities are paying off.

So, there you have it… you pays your money, you takes your choice.

And let’s not forget the Torygraph has been here before – the paper splashed its front-page with the headline, ‘Scandal-hit Lib Dems in freefall’ (23rd Jan, 2006). Only problem was that a couple of weeks later the Lib Dems’ Willie Rennie won a sensational by-election victory in Dunfermline.

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37 comments

I think both sides have some validity in their arguements, the key thing will be how Ming Campbell will actually perform during the election campaign. We’ll be on the defensive in the coming election, thats for sure and with an upcoming eletion we don’t have the chance to change our leader. Will we suffer only a couple of mild losses?? or will we have a complete collapse, that difference will decide Ming’s future.

by a radical writes on September 1, 2007 at 4:16 pm. Reply #

Only today a Burnley resident stopped me to ask why we don’t hear more from Ming. “All we’ve heard about for weeks is Cameron this, Brown bounce that. The Lib Dems should be pushing ahead, especially with what’s going on in Iraq, but he’s nowhere to be seen.”

I wonder to what extent this is my fault. We’re in the middle of delivering a newspaper here that doesn’t mention him at all. Or Iraq. It’s all local issues.

by Darren Reynolds on September 1, 2007 at 4:50 pm. Reply #

So in summary, our support is plummeting, we’re set to have our representation slashed in the Commons, and to lose a once in a generation opportunity to break through the centre. But on the plus side, Sir Ming had a nice fishing holiday.

by Laurence Boyce on September 1, 2007 at 5:22 pm. Reply #

I doubt that anybody else would have performed better in the current circumstances than Ming. Many voters seem to have believed the Tory hype about being more liberal and green, and totally forgotten that Gordon was supporting Tony’s decision to attack Iraq.

The only thing that can be done is to try to open their eyes, and offer a clear liberal vision, compared to which the cheap imitations will pale, but it will take some time before the voters will realise the truth.

by Melian on September 1, 2007 at 5:37 pm. Reply #

I spy an emperor with new clothes. That emperor is the Liberal Democrats. We can put as much spin on things as we like but as Laurence Boyce points out, our support is plummeting.

We are getting squeezed and I don’t know how we can turn it around. The seats that we will win and hopefully hold will be won largely due to the ground war; however, we do need a decent air war to back us up. At the moment I don’t think we are getting that.

by Cheltenham Robin on September 1, 2007 at 5:39 pm. Reply #

I suggest that Liberal Democrats who wish to debate this kind of issue should do so in the Members Only part of this outfit or other appropriate places
such as Liberal Democrat cix. Otherwise do not complain when the Telegraph or the equally pernicious Guardian runs a story on “Big Row over Campbell’s Leadership”.

by Tony Greaves on September 1, 2007 at 6:07 pm. Reply #

Whatever we think Ming is the leader now, for better (or probably ) for worse.

We have got to support him and work our butts off, but he is looking very tired and the gravitas thing doesn’t work now with Brown.

I think only real hard work can cover up his deficiencies but if we all do the work on the ground we should be OK.

Tony is wrong we should feel free to discuss things on this site or what’s the point in having it?

by mellow yellow on September 1, 2007 at 6:23 pm. Reply #

A big flaw with the Telegraph analysis is the idea that support is flowing from the LibDems to the Tories, apparently because of the Tories’ new supposed greeny policies. If this was happening then surely Tory support would be on the way up, wouldn’t it? But it isn’t. David Cameron’s Conservatives are now back to their bedrock support, where they have been stuck since the mid-1990s. But if the Tories wish to go on kidding themselves then fine.

by Stuart on September 1, 2007 at 6:40 pm. Reply #

Tony Greaves is right – best discuss all this elsewhere.

The only people who discuss things – negatively at that – on this forum are Tories (and the odd Labour contributor).

by Sid on September 1, 2007 at 7:35 pm. Reply #

The only thing that can be done is to try to open their eyes . . .

We could even try opening our own eyes.

by Laurence Boyce on September 1, 2007 at 7:45 pm. Reply #

We could even try opening our own eyes

Or indeed you could remove those unwieldy blinkers …

by Dominic on September 1, 2007 at 9:06 pm. Reply #

do not complain when the Telegraph or the equally pernicious Guardian runs a story on “Big Row over Campbell’s Leadership”.

I won’t complain at all – it might push him over the edge and we can have someone who won’t lead us to disaster in a General Election.

Anecdotally at least there seem to be very, very few people left who think he’s up to the job.

aradicalwrites…err… writes:

Will we suffer only a couple of mild losses?? or will we have a complete collapse, that difference will decide Ming’s future.

I agree that this is how it is being perceived, but it’s potentially a huge price to pay to settle the leadership question. Rather, the leadership question should be settled by the fact that some considerable time after the election of a leader, it’s never gone away. He was an amazing asset as foreign affairs spokesperson, and the party had credibility and stature in that area thanks to him.

On foreign affairs we no longer call the shots. When we finally, much too late, called for troops out, the public and the media looked on us with a bemused smile, and moved on. Michael Moore must be the most frustrated man in the Liberal Democrats.

This is just insane, really – I just don’t understand how we’re letting Menzies Campbell bumble on in a job that isn’t right for him, when that may kill us in a General Election.

What damaged us the most in the General Election of 05? The media storm surrounding the manifesto launch. The media perceived Charles Kenendy had a particular weakness, and when he stumbled, they pounced.

In Menzies Campbell’s age / appearance, the media can smell a weakness. So consider this possibility – in a General Election campaign, under the inescapable eye of an unsympathetic media, the leader:

Trips or
Is seen sleeping on a bus / plane or
Gets the name of a town / city he’s visiting wrong or
Loses his rag with a journalist / stumbles over a question (“Listen. Can I do that again? Listen. 3,2,1. Listen”)

Any of these things can happen to any leader in a General Election, but how much worse will it be for the party if it happens to Menzies Campbell, when the media already smell blood?

If anyone really believes we wouldn’t be slaughtered by the media in those circumstances, or worse takes the attitude that that’s the media’s problem rather than ours, then they need to prepare themselves for in the best case scenario no further Parliamentary advances in terms of seats, and in the worst case scenario serious losses.

by Rob Fenwick on September 1, 2007 at 9:52 pm. Reply #

Am I the only reader of this thread exasperated by the stream of self-opinionated intellectual midgets tilting at our leader (who could eat the lot of them for breakfast in one gulp)?

We will enter the next General Election with a leader who is in almost every respect unimaginably superior to the one who led us into 2005.

Ming won’t flounder when asked to explain party policy. He won’t fall asleep (be ashamed of yourself whoever made that ageist remark). He won’t get drunk. He won’t look as though he’s slept in his clothes. And he won’t say “in terms of” with the same infuriating frequency as Paul Marsden says “obviously”.

All of us are prone to opinion-poll panic at some stage in our political lives. But do pay heed to history. How did the Liberal Party stand at the outset of the February and October 1974 General Elections, or the SDP/Liberal Alliance in 1983?

Our poll ratings have a history of improvement during GE campaigns, sometimes very substantial (don’t have figures to hand).

In 2005, we remained static, mainly because we had an underperforming leader. And in 1987, we went down during the campaign, largely because of the dreadful PPBs and the “Two Davids” debacle.

What worries me now is (1) a lot of poor organisation on the ground and few resources to beef it up, and (2) the torrent of petulant snipings against the leader from a tiny minority of activists who ought to know when to keep their mouths shut (they never liked Ming and are using every opportunity to vent their spleens).

by Angus Huck on September 1, 2007 at 11:12 pm. Reply #

Angus, it would be the easiest thing in the world for me to suddenly become a fan of opinion polls now they seem to support my view, but I’ve long maintainted they’re nonsense, and I continue to believe that.

We seem to agree on one thing – an underperforming leader can damage the party’s electoral chances in a General Election. Where we disagree, is on whether our current leader is performing or underperforming.

Neither of us can produce factual evidence to say what the majority of the party thinks on that one, but for my part I genuinely think you’re in the minority.

by Rob Fenwick on September 1, 2007 at 11:17 pm. Reply #

“Neither of us can produce factual evidence to say what the majority of the party thinks on that one, but for my part I genuinely think you’re in the minority.”

Rob, the Party membership has had one opportunity, and one opportunity only to give an opinion. And I think we all know what that opinion was.

Given that Ming won outright on the second count, I think it is fair to say that those who didn’t want him as leader were in the minority.

And do recall. Exactly the same criticisms (he’s too old, not trendy enough, etc) were made by his detractors at the time. Clearly, on the evidence available (counted ballot-papers) a majority of the members who voted did not agree.

by Angus Huck on September 1, 2007 at 11:29 pm. Reply #

Am I the only reader of this thread exasperated by the stream of self-opinionated intellectual midgets tilting at our leader.

Every last human being counts. Unless you think that intellectual midgets should be denied the vote.

We will enter the next General Election with a leader who is in almost every respect unimaginably superior to the one who led us into 2005.

Well that’s not saying much, is it?

Ming won’t flounder when asked to explain party policy.

No, that’s right. Because he’ll be reading it off a script.

Exactly the same criticisms (he’s too old, not trendy enough, etc) were made by his detractors at the time. Clearly, on the evidence available (counted ballot-papers) a majority of the members who voted did not agree.

Maybe some of the younger party members had difficulty following the arguments.

by Laurence Boyce on September 1, 2007 at 11:48 pm. Reply #

Laurence, please explain to me how one answers a question by reading off a script.

Remember who Ming is. He is a leading member of the Scottish criminal bar. He is used to dealing with customers far trickier than any Westminster lobby correspondent. Barristers never read off scripts. In fact, they don’t have scripts. What they do is master their briefs and address the court ex tempore. Which is what Ming does.

If Ming had addressed the jury reading off a script, how many convictions would he have got?

Charles Kennedy, as leader, failed for a number of reasons. The most crucial, I think, was the quite fair and accurate perception that he is not Prime Ministerial material.

Could you imagine CK in No 10 running a government and working with world leaders?

Replace “CK” with “Ming Campbell”, however, and the answer is an unhesitant “YES”. That is Ming’s greatest strength. People do perceive him to be a PM in waiting. And this will shine through as the GE campaign unfolds.

A question for you, Laurence:

Supposing we change the leader this Autumn. We replace Ming with Chris Huhne, Nick Clegg, David Laws, whomever. Then, in 6 months time, the opinion polls have stubbornly refused to budge. What do we do then?

by Angus Huck on September 2, 2007 at 12:11 am. Reply #

I haven’t been involved or up to date with politics for a while. I recently have tried as I am so sick to death with Labour.

I was looking at the differences between the Lib Dems and the Liberal Party and I must say that despite voting Lib Dem in the last few elections they don’t appeal to me in the same light the Liberal Party do.

Now where I live there is not a Liberal Party candidate but I really think that the Lib Dems need to go back and understand what it is to be a British Liberal!

by James on September 2, 2007 at 12:29 am. Reply #

Laurence, please explain to me how one answers a question by reading off a script.

Well that is what it sounds like. How it is actually achieved is a complete mystery.

What they do is master their briefs and address the court ex tempore. Which is what Ming does.

Yeah, right.

Could you imagine [Kennedy] in No 10 running a government and working with world leaders?

No, I’ve always said he was crap.

People do perceive [Ming] to be a PM in waiting.

That is a) ridiculous, and b) irrelevant. Nobody is seriously suggesting that we are going to win the next election.

And this will shine through as the GE campaign unfolds.

Are you Lady Campbell by any chance?

Supposing we change the leader this Autumn. We replace Ming with Chris Huhne, Nick Clegg, David Laws, whomever. Then, in 6 months time, the opinion polls have stubbornly refused to budge. What do we do then?

My principal argument has nothing to do with polls, though they can be a bit worrying. It’s simply that Sir Ming is not up to the job, and it would therefore be an insult to the electorate to go into a general election with Ming as captain. Try to think of the voters occasionally.

by Laurence Boyce on September 2, 2007 at 12:44 am. Reply #

There were a string of opinion polls in early 97 which put us on 10-12%

People then were saying “the next election is going to be a disaster” and we know how right they were.

There’s little point in rising to the bait of being attacked in the Telegraph!

by Hywel Morgan on September 2, 2007 at 11:44 am. Reply #

“Could you imagine [Kennedy] in No 10 running a government and working with world leaders?

No, I’ve always said he was crap.”

So you didn’t like Ming or CK, are you sure you’re really a Lib Dem?

Ming is a bit of a liability, CK was fantastic and that’s why we did so well with him, he wasn’t the drunkest politician in history but he was one of the better ones, people warmed to him and believed in him, Ming brought a lot of this on himself by stabbing him in the back.

Anyway, we’re stuck with Ming now and need to make the best of it.

by mellow yellow on September 2, 2007 at 9:26 pm. Reply #

Well I wasn’t a member of the Lib Dems when Kennedy was leader, but I did vote Lib Dem in 2005, despite him being drunk in charge of a political party.

by Laurence Boyce on September 2, 2007 at 9:41 pm. Reply #

“he wasn’t the drunkest politician in history”

No, he wasn’t.

There was George Brown (Lord George-Brown, as he became). For whom “Private Eye” coined the term “tired and emotional”. When Brown lost his seat in 1970, he delivered an almost incoherent valedictory ramble, all about “the democrats being democked”, whatever that means.

According to a wonderful “Private Eye” front cover, when Brown and Wilson visited De Gaulle, Brown said: “And you do the hokey cokey and you shake it all about.” Wilson chipped in: “Georges et un peut fatigué, votre majesté.” But Longconk still bellowed out: “NON!”

Towards the end of his life, Brown appeared on a TV chat show with Lord Longford. Brown decided to deride Celment Atlee as an overrated politician, to which Longford retorted: “Claptrap.” Brown snapped back: “The problem with you intellectuals is you’re always so bloody abusive! Can’t you be polite for a change?”

We just don’t make politicians like that any more.

by Angus Huck on September 2, 2007 at 10:53 pm. Reply #

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, about George Brown that his request for a dance from a figure in a flamboyant red gown was once declined in the following terms.

“I will not dance with you for three reasons. Firstly you are drunk, secondly they are currently playing the national anthems and thirdly I am the Archbishop of Lima!” 🙂

Drifting from the point I know but too good a story not to repeat :_)

by Hywel Morgan on September 2, 2007 at 11:21 pm. Reply #

The most amusing comment so far in this thread; to the most vociferous Ming apologist, “Are you Lady Campbell?”
The rudest comment so far:
anyone attacking the present leadership is an “intellectual midget”
One of the rules of good quality debate is to demolish by argument, not by insult. By using abuse he signals his own weakness.
I am also amused by Lord Greaves frowning on public debate. Can this be the radical Tony who used to be such a critic of the party establishment?
Remenber the old story “For want of a nail the shoe was lost…etc. In our case the unnecessarily precipitous removal of Charles, our whips failure to check out Mark Oaten, heavy backing of MC by Paddy,Shirley and the party establishment,stunned grass roots, too short an election campaign have all left us in this mess of having an unconvincing leader although he is still a good shadow Foreign Secretary.
Elizabeth

by Elizabeth Patterson on September 3, 2007 at 8:50 am. Reply #

I’d just like to point everyone to our poll ratings in 2001/02, in the first couple of years after the general election:

http://www.ipsos-mori.com/polls/trends/voting-allpub-trends.shtml

You can see that we were polling pretty much what we’re polling now – but by 2005 we’d turned that into a 22% share. Undoubtably we are a couple of percent lower in the polls than we were at the same time in the last “electoral cycle” but it’s no collapse.

It fits with the media’s narrative that we are collapsing, despite the fact that it’s not true, and so of course they’ll spin our poll-ratings that way. And of course they’ll pick up on negative comments about Ming’s leadership – it’s what they want to hear!

by Grammar police on September 3, 2007 at 10:29 am. Reply #

Guys,

A great many points made, but can I ask people to focus on reality:

* The 2006 + 2007 local election results saw us losing vote share
* The results in Scotland were not great
* We are currently polling between 14% and 18%
* Campbell’s personal rating is appalling (polling shows only 6% rate him as best potential prime minister)
* Campbell has also got image problems which won’t go away
* There is no law of nature that will give us an automatic swing up as the election approaches.

That’s the bad news!

This is the good news: Even if the General Election is called for October WE STILL HAVE TIME TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

* Make sure we campaign on OUR issues of liberty, democracy, ethical foreign policy, environmental action, and social justice.
* Make sure we all use every Focus to campaign on real national Liberal issues, not lamp posts and pot holes.
* Don’t muddy the water by compromising on terror laws, or locally by supporting Nimbys or being populist.

And as far as Ming is concerned:
* Make sure Ming is ALWAYS seen with a right hand man (say Chris Huhne) and a left hand woman (say Julia Goldsworthy).

Finally: If Brown doesn’t call an October election then we CAN have a Nov leadership election.

Ming’s original mandate was won under very unusual circumstances and if his supporters think he’s that good then they should encourage him to call one, enter it and win it.

by LDmember on September 3, 2007 at 4:50 pm. Reply #

Iraq alone will not win seats anywhere but, possibly in areas with large Muslim populations and no Respect candidate. MC is a fading liability who has largely reversed the gains made under his predecessor. Get your heads out of the sand some of you, without a change of leadership electoral success on a worthwhile scale is simply a mirage.

by LondonLibDem on September 3, 2007 at 7:40 pm. Reply #

Elizabeth Patterson wrote: “The rudest comment so far:
anyone attacking the present leadership is an “intellectual midget””

Wrong, Elizabeth Patterson, whoever you might be. I said no such thing. I referred to a stream of critics venting their spleens on Lib Dem Voice, not to anyone attacking the present leadership. A defining attribute of an intellectual giant (or an intellectual of normal stature) is the ability to read and analyse text correctly.

Elizabeth Patterson further wrote: “In our case the unnecessarily precipitous removal of Charles, our whips failure to check out Mark Oaten,”

So it’s OK to have a leader who gets drunk in public and is unable to explain party policy at a manifesto launch?

By what means could our whips have “checked out” Mark Oaten? Followed him into public lavatories and male brothels? Or searched his dustbins?

by Angus Huck on September 3, 2007 at 11:42 pm. Reply #

So the “Torygraph” is Tory-supporting?
Ok, I think we’ve got that.
But why no mention of whom the Scotsman supports?

by Jim Carr on September 4, 2007 at 2:29 am. Reply #

“The 2006 + 2007 local election results saw us losing vote share”

Whilst I know that the overall share of the vote in 2007 was 1% down on 2006 (and we lost seats), our share of the vote at both of these was record-breaking for our party – 27% and 26% respectively.

This is not to say I don’t think we could be doing better – we shouldn’t be complacent – but it’s certainly not as bad as some of the posters say here. Changing a leader alone doesn’t solve all the problems a party had. Look at the Tories. The press wanted to believe the Tories’ new narrative, which DC was skillfully weaving – but his party has scuppered him in recent months *because they’ve not changed at all*. And as the man who helped write the Tories last manifesto, it doesn’t run too deep in him either!

by Grammar police on September 4, 2007 at 7:58 am. Reply #

to answer the first point post 31 from ‘Grammar police’.

OK, 26% is not terrible, but we were up at 30% in 2003. That’s the level I believe we can achieve with a good national image (+ good local policy + campaigns).

by LDmember on September 4, 2007 at 11:26 am. Reply #

The Lib Dems scored a national equivalent of 27% in both 2003 and 2004, according to Rallings and Thrasher.

See here, page 52.

by Stephen Tall on September 4, 2007 at 11:40 am. Reply #

Stephen,

Thanks for that.

My number came from BBC online.

They give local election LD shares as:
2003 = 30% england
2004 = not clear
2005 = not clear
2006 = 27% england
2007 = 26% result for england, not clear for scotland + wales

I don’t understand why there’s the difference.
Rallings and Thrasher seems much easier to use, shame they only run to 2004.

by LDmember on September 4, 2007 at 1:31 pm. Reply #

Untangle the agenda-based bias, exaggeration and extrapolation from the simple opinion and you might find some small facts which just might be reliable.

Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable and often fluctuate within large margins of error, also likely to be influenced by inumerable, multifarious and infinitely variable factors.

Nevertheless polls are still an effective way to build a narrative and sell newspapers – for exactly the reason that they provide a sound-track to provoke a subject and set a bench-mark to measure reactions by…if you want to dance to that tune.

I don’t think talk of this or any ‘current crisis’ is more than a third-party should ever expect, as the onus will always be there to overturn the vested interest of favoritism that accompanies an assumed consensus – which is what the media is there to create.

It is our job to break the damaging and divisive assumptions and replace them with a vision of something more coherent and practical – ie good; better; best sense.

Yes, we aren’t there yet. Yes, we have more to do. Yes, we will continue. Yes we can do it.

by James S on September 4, 2007 at 6:17 pm. Reply #

Rallings & Thresher base their figure on more wards. There is a complete list of estimated vote share in the House of Commons library paper on the results from this year
http://tinyurl.com/36mh4q

We were on 24 last May – 1% ahead of our standing at the previous General. In 2003-4 we were at 27% – 8% ahead.

by Hywel Morgan on September 4, 2007 at 7:26 pm. Reply #

Just to get the story about George Brown being defeated in 1970 correct, he said: “Democracy has democked!”, which I think is both coherent and witty in a situation when you have been Deputy Leader of a party which has been in power for 6 years and have lost your seat. OK, he was probably drunk too. Didn’t he join the SDP?

by tony hill on September 4, 2007 at 8:42 pm. Reply #

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