How close is the Lib Dem leadership race?

by Stephen Tall on November 23, 2007

The short answer is: no-one knows.* And don’t expect to become any the wiser today as a result of The Guardian’s ‘sample of members’, despite the paper’s assertions of its significance.

The Guardian asked c.200 of the 300 Lib Dem members present at Wednesday night’s Cambridge hustings how they would vote. Here’s what they said: 85 backed Chris Huhne; 42 backed Nick Clegg; and 83 did not express a preference.

To be fair to the Guardian, they do enter some major caveats: this isn’t a representative sample of members; the east of England is, they say, a strong area for Chris; and activists who attend hustings are not the same as ‘armchair’ members.

Despite this, the paper still confidently reports that the figures “offer a good indication of the mood of the party”.

Really?

In which case, it’s worth recalling The Guardian’s equivalent ‘poll’ during the last leadership contest, taken after the 23 February London hustings back in 2006, which showed:

Chris on 36%;
Ming Campbell on 29%; and
Simon Hughes on 21%.

These kinds of polls fill newspaper column inches; but have absolutely no predictive powers, except by fluke. Even the forthcoming YouGov poll (see James Graham yesterday – I’ve also filled one in) should be taken with a pinch of salt, as its one full survey in 2006 proved to be wide of the mark.

Meanwhile, the two candidates have both published articles in The Guardian in the last two days:

Nick Clegg’s appeared yesterday: Time for a power shift
Chris Huhne’s appears today: Radicalism will serve us

* (Though I imagine the candidates’ campaign teams have a better idea than most through their phone canvassing.)