Our starters for 2009 – how did we do? (Part I)

by Stephen Tall on December 29, 2009

A year ago, Lib Dem Voice posed 10 questions, the answers to which we believed might shape the Lib Dem year – time to revisit them, wethinks.

1. Will there be a general election in 2009? (If yes, many of the rest of the questions will have very different answers).

No, there wasn’t: with Labour recording their lowest poll ratings ever, and with threats to Gordon Brown’s leadership never quite either disappearing nor materialising, this was an easy one to rule out early in the year.

But, of course, 12 months ago, it looked – potentially – a little different. In December 2008, LDV’s poll average showed Labour at 35% and the Tories on 40%, with the Lib Dems squeezed out on 15%. But then came Jacqui Smith, ’smeargate’, MPs’ expenses and Labour’s local and European elections polls drubbings. By June 2009, Labour’s support had plummetted to a disastrous 23%, a figure even Michael Foot would have found embarrassing. Though Gordon Brown’s party has gained a little since then, it would have been foolhardy in the extreme to go to the country.

The tanatalising question for Labour supporters is the one they’re still pondering: should they have dumped Mr Brown as leader – perhaps back in June, when James Purnell quit the cabinet in the hope of triggering a revolt? A tough one to call. Maybe Alan Johnson, if he had been prepared to stand up to the plate, could have wiped out Labour’s poll deficit with the promise of novelty, called an early election during his honeymoon, and ‘done a John Major’ (their background stories are similar). Personally, I doubt it, but the Lib Dems and Tories are probably fortunate that Labour didn’t have the guts to put us to the test.

2. How will the party respond in the coming year to the new recession politics? Will Nick Clegg’s call for “big, permanent and fair” tax cuts, combined with £12.5 billion of green public investment strike a chord, appear flawed, or be ignored?

There is a growing recognition among the public (and growing consensus within the party) that the Lib Dems now stand for tax cuts targeted at the poorest in society, and this has been an agenda both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have emphasised. The party has been fortunate that the Tories have declined to follow suit, stubbornly sticking to their flawed commitment that the only tax cut they will promise to implement is inheritance tax relief for millionaires. The Tories have boxed themselves into a corner on tax, and it’s the Lib Dems who are able to advocate a distinctive policy which unites members, whether they identify more with the party’s so-called ’social liberal’ or its ‘classical liberal’ wings.

If the policy of tax-cuts for the poorest is gradually seeping into the public consciousness, then the single policy which garnered the Lib Dems most publicity was Vince’s ‘mansion tax’ proposal, sprung on the party – both members and MPs – in the midst of our Bournemouth conference. If its announcement was botched, the policy’s popularity with the public has justified Vince’s confidence in it, even if the precise figures had to be subsequently amended by the party’s federal policy committee to make them more electorally acceptable.

Where the party has made less progress in is re-emphasising its green credentials. True, priority one of the party’s A Fresh Start for Britain pamplet committed the Lib Dems to creating a sustainable economy: ‘Putting Britain back to work and fighting climate change through investment in green economic growth to create jobs, renewable energy, affordable homes and green infrastructure.’ But this agenda has taken something of a back-seat in terms of the party’s positioning in the past year, at least comparaed to tax cuts and the ‘mansion tax’. And as the UK emerges from recession, and the fiscal stimulus gives way to spending cuts, the party will need to find a new way to re-package the need for green investment.

3. Will the Lib Dems reverse the recent decline in our opinion poll ratings, and climb above 20%?

Yes, and no. The decline in the party’s poll ratings has definitely been reversed, handsomely. It’s worth recalling where the party was this time last year: between October and December 2008, our average monthly poll rating was rooted at 15%. Our monthly rating has not once dipped that low in 2009, ranging instead from 16% (January) to 20% (September). As of last month, the party was at 19%. We could, of course, wish to be higher, and to have climbed above 20%. But we are the only one of the three main parties to have improved our poll rating over the past 12 months, which is cause for some degree of satisfaction/relief.

4. Will the Lib Dems finish at least third, and poll at or above 15%, in the European elections in June 2009?

Well, having given the party a bit of a pat on the back for its improving poll ratings, it’s only fair to ‘fess up to our biggest disappointment of the year: our performance in the European elections in June. Nick Clegg’s stated aim was that we should finish second ahead of Labour; instead, we finished fourth behind them. Indeed, there was a brief frisson of fear that the Greens might out-poll us, though in fact we finished very comfortably ahead. The LDV verdict on our performance was published here, and we data-mined some of the votes – identifying the best and worst Lib Dem Euro results – here.

Of one thing, at least, the party can and should be proud: our decision to fight the election on a positive, pro-European agenda. In the end, the campaign was completely dominated by the intense row over MPs’ expenses; had it not been, it would have been interesting to see what impact the party could have made appealing to liberal, progressive, internationalist voters to vote for us regardless of their usual party loyalties.

5. Will June’s local election results show a Lib Dem advance or retreat?

An easier one to answer: overall, the English local elections showed an advance for the Lib Dems, winning a nationally projected share of the vote of some 28%. As I pointed out here in the LDV verdict on the elections:

This is the joint highest popular vote ever recorded by the Lib Dems in a set of local elections, beating the 27% recorded in both 1994 (when the Ashdown-led party was at its post-Eastleigh, pre-Blair high water-mark) and 2004 (when the Kennedy-led party was at its post-Iraq high water-mark), and equalling the party’s 2005 local election vote share, held on general election day. Not only has the party equalled the projected share of the vote it received in 2005, when these seats were last contested, it is up on last year’s excellent 27% – meaning the Lib Dems are the only party to have maintained/improved our projected share of the vote when compared either to last year, or 2005.

There were local disappointments, especially in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, where the party recorded significant losses of council seats, and there was a sizeable Lib Dem to Tory swing. We will find out in the next six months whether those setbacks portend anything for the general election, or whether Lib Dem MPs’ incumbency will allow us to buck the trend of any Tory recovery in the south.

To be continued … look out for Our starters for 2009 – how did we do? (Part II) tomorrow.