Clegg – Lib Dem stealth bomber?

by Stephen Tall on January 2, 2009

Yesterday’s Indy published an interesting account of the findings of ‘private polling for the Liberal Democrats’ under the flattering headline, Is the invisible Clegg a secret weapon for the Lib Dems?

The research was scarcely earth-shattering, but there were some interesting conclusions:

On Nick Clegg:

The research concluded that Mr Clegg was the Liberal Democrats’ best asset even though he is unknown to many voters. The party’s strategy in the new year will be based on giving him as high a profile as possible. Women, who like him more than men do, regard the Liberal Democrat leader as “nice-looking, presentable, personable and likeable”, according to the research. Among men, he is viewed as “down-to-earth” and “someone I could relate to”. People saw his body language as “in control” and “welcoming”.

On Gordon Brown:

Despite Mr Brown’s experience on the economy and recent recovery in the opinion polls, people regard him as “old”, “dull”, “tired” and “boring”, according to a Liberal Democrat summary of its polling. Voters reacted sceptically when the Prime Minister tried to “feel their pain” by speaking about rising prices at the petrol pump and supermarket check-out. Some pointed out that Mr Brown does not drive, and his remarks contributed to a feeling that he was out of touch with ordinary people.

On David Cameron:

Mr Cameron is seen by many voters as young and energetic and as bringing dynamism to an old-fashioned party. But they believe he looks “too posh” to be “one of us”. Some voters said he was rather lightweight and not experienced enough to be prime minister. … The focus groups suggest that, contrary to rumours in the Westminster village, people do not confuse Mr Clegg with Mr Cameron. The Liberal Democrat leader is seen as more forceful and authoritative without being “posh”.

Three things to note, it seems to me:

First, when it comes to public perceptions of Nick’s performance as Lib Dem leader there’s still all to play for. As YouGov’s Peter Kellner noted in the BBC.co.uk review of the year for the party,

A third of the electorate don’t have an opinion of Nick Clegg,” says Mr Kellner. “He’s simply not made much of an impact for good or ill on great number of voters.”

You can read that a couple of ways: negatively (why the hell hasn’t Nick made an impact?), or positively (he still has the chance to win folk over). And as all Lib Dem leaders have trouble gaining the media spotlight before they’ve had the chance to fight an election – I can recall the mutterings against both Paddy and Charles before their first campaigns – it seems fair to cut Nick some slack.

Secondly, though this is private polling for the party – and so will be greeted with some scepticism by those who’ve not had chance to see the raw data from the party’s focus groups – the findings are noticeably similar to those reported by BBC2’s Newsnight last September. Again, these showed that when voters get to see Nick in action, they warm to him personally, and to the message of the party he conveys.

Thirdly, I was pretty intrigued that the party appears, at least reading between the lines of the Indy report, to have been asking its focus groups whether Nick has been put in the shade by his deputy, the Lib Dems’ shadow chancellor, Vince Cable:

Nor has Mr Clegg been eclipsed by Vince Cable, the party’s Treasury spokesman, who has won plaudits for his performance on the economy and for predicting the personal debt crisis and housing bubble. Among ordinary voters, it seems, Mr Clegg is better known than Mr Cable.

Nothing wrong with asking the question, of course. Indeed, it would probably be remiss of the party to gather a focus group together, and not take the opportunity to ask some tough questions. But interesting nonetheless. For the record, I think we should be doing much more in all party publicity material to show Nick and Vince – ‘Energy and Experience’ – wedded at the hip from now until whenever the general election is.