Peter Kellner’s advice to the Lib Dems: ditch boundary changes, and get a new leader before 2015

by Stephen Tall on June 19, 2012

Chairman of polling firm YouGov, Peter Kellner, has a must-read article over at his firm’s site analysing the big challenges facing the Lib Dems at the next election. I know some Lib Dems might baulk at reading it: Mr Kellner, husband of Labour peer Baroness Ashton, is a self-declared non-Lib Dem, and YouGov’s daily polling consistently shows the party’s ratings to be significantly lower than other polling firms do. But get beyond those facts, and it’s clear we need to take on board the stark questions he has for the Lib Dems — even if we disagree with his answers.

Peter Kellner takes as his starting point his personal admiration for Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister:

Faced with the awkward arithmetic of the last general election result, he has ensured that Britain could navigate the world’s financial storm with a stable government. Despite his MPs being outnumbered by Tory MPs by more than five-to-one, he has secured some important policy victories, such as raising millions of low-paid people out of tax. Yes, he messed up over student fees; but his mistake was not so much supporting their increase in government: it was his bonkers pre-election pledge to abolish them. He must have entered coalition knowing that many Lib Dem voters would peel away: but, bravely and unusually for a major politician, he has put country before party.

However… he then sets out the polling data, as measured by YouGov. Even if we think it’s on the Cassandra-side of pessimistic it’s still not happy reading: the party is polling on single digits level-pegging with UKIP, our 2010 voters now would prefer a Labour-led government after the next election, and Nick Clegg is unpopular even with one-third of those ‘die-hard’ supporters who remain. Ouch.

What are his remedies for the Lib Dems?

First, jettison the Coalition’s proposed boundary changes.

It’s always worth reminding ourselves what we Lib Dems committed to in the Coalition Agreement:

We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies.

Nick himself went on the record in support of equalising constituencies in August 2010, highlighting the unfairness that the votes of 87,000 voters in the East Ham constituency are worth less than the 66,000 voters living 10 miles away in Islington North.

A lot’s changed since then, of course, including the AV referendum being lost, meaning the Lib Dems are now much more exposed to a significant drop in popular support. As a result, the party’s 2015 general election campaign is likely to be largely defensive — back in March, PoliticsHome reported that party president Tim Farron ‘is thought to favour a “multiple by-election” strategy for election day’. However, such a strategy would largely be predicated on the Lib Dems’ traditional incumbency boost which comes from our MPs being deeply embedded within their constituencies, with high name recognition and established activist networks. Disrupted constituency boundaries threaten even that defensive stance.

At its most apocalyptic, the next election has the potential to become a ‘perfect storm’ for the Lib Dems: a first-past-the-post election fought against the backdrop of having been part of an unpopular government at a time of massive economic fragility on new and enlarged constituencies.

Though the Lib Dems have long campaigned for a reduced number of MPs in the House of Commons, this was always as part of a package of electoral reform measures which included the introduction of proportional representation. Taken on its own, it is the re-drawing of constituency boundaries which Peter Kellner states — and I also believe — is likely to be the biggest threat to the Lib Dems’ continuing sizeable representation in the Commons after 2015.

What are the politics of this?

Well, there are plenty of Tory MPs also unhappy at the proposed boundary changes, both on principled and similarly self-interested grounds. At one time the thought of reducing the number of Labour MPs in Scotland and Wales attracted Tories, but it’s quite another matter now individual MPs are facing a form of electoral musical chairs with a diminished number of seats to occupy when the Coalition music stops. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see Tory high command simply agreeing to drop the proposed boundary changes without a quid pro quo from the Lib Dems — which brings us full circle to House of Lords reform.

Secondly, the Lib Dems should also jettison Nick Clegg before the next election, says Peter Kellner:

I don’t think pulling out of the coalition in advance will be enough. If they fight the next election with Clegg as their leader, I can’t see many anti-Tories who voted Lib Dem last time returning to the fold. They will need a new leader whom voters regard as more even-handed. That is why, for all my admiration of Nick Clegg, I suspect that his future beyond 2015 will lie outside government, outside the Lib Dem leadership and very possibly outside British politics altogether.

It’s a view shared, according to our most recent survey, by some 34% of Lib Dem members. It’s not one I agree with for the reasons I set out then:

First, because I think that one of the commonly held criticisms of the Lib Dems is we’re “a bit flaky”, nice guys who are out of our depth when it comes to the serious rough-and-tumble of grown-up politics, that we’ll run at the first sniff of unpopularity. Defenestrating another leader — the first one in 80 years to lead the party into government — would be taken as a further sign that Lib Dems can’t stand the heat in the kitchen. … Secondly, I don’t think it makes sense because it assumes Nick’s successor would prove more popular. However, as I’ve pointed out before it’s not Nick Clegg who’s the current problem for the Lib Dems: it’s that the economy is in dire shape, the government is unpopular, and our party is identified with both those drags. I don’t see that situation changing just because the face at the top does. In fact, though Nick’s currently the least popular party leader, he is also the only leader to out-poll his own party’s standing in the polls.

Whatever my view, though, this isn’t a debate which is going to disappear by being wished away.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal CentreForum think-tank, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.