New poll gives a boost to Lib Dems – but will it last?

by Stephen Tall on October 2, 2012

An interesting poll from ComRes in today’s Independent appears to show a post-conference boost for the Lib Dems at the expense of Labour:

As UKPollingReport’s Anthony Wells sensibly reminds us, this is just one poll: it might just as easily be a blip or a rogue as a sign of real recovery. BUT it is still interesting:

1) I’d expect the post-conference boost to fade away as the media focus moves on first to Labour and then to the Tories. What is significant, I think, is that it shows how in flux politics currently is, and that there is genuine potential for the Lib Dems to grow the party’s vote when its able to get its liberal message across.

2) Quite what part Nick Clegg’s apology has played in this we don’t know. The only polling I’ve seen (again by ComRes) doesn’t address the real question: what did moderate, ‘swing’ voters make of it? They were the folk — those open to persuasion, not those who’ve already made up their minds about Nick and/or the Lib Dems — his party political broadcast was trying to reach.

3) There’s also the question about what a reasonable Lib Dem polling benchmark should look like — a tricky one considering the party hasn’t been in coalition during a time of modern opinion polling. We scored 23% at the 2010 general election, but we know it’s usual for our poll ratings to dip inbetween elections. But none of us knows if the very fact of being in Coalition — of taking unpopular decisions in government, of being the constant focus of media attacks — means what’s happened in the past is no predictor of the future. Personally I’ve no idea how the poll ratings the Lib Dems are scoring today will play out at the 2015 general election, though I think there will be some recovery if the economy begins to grow even falteringly.

So simply for the sake of comparison here’s the 3-month average poll ratings for the Lib Dems at the equivalent stages before the 1997 and 2001 general elections (the other, post-Iraq elections probably aren’t that helpful as guides or benchmarks any more):

1994 (Sept-Nov): 16% (actual result, 1997: 17%)
1999 (Sept-Nov): 14% (actual result, 2001: 19%)

Oh, there is one quasi-Coalition equivalent: the Liberal party’s performance in the lead-up to and during the Lib-Lab pact of the late 1970s. It’s a bit hard to read very much into the polls of those times, as the party was a bit… distracted… but for what it’s worth in autumn 1976 the party was averaging 10% in the polls, dipping to 7% in 1977 and 6% in the autumn of 1978. At the general election of May 1979, the Liberals scored 14% of the vote.

All of which probably means that when we’re met by polls predicting either disaster or triumph we’re best treating those two imposters just the same.

PS: figures for historic polls taken from Mark Pack’s fascinating Opinion polls spreadsheet: 1943-today.

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