On the Lib Dem conference polling bump (lack thereof) and what it means for the party

by Stephen Tall on October 2, 2013

The Labour party’s been enjoying a post-conference bump in the polls on the back of Ed Miliband’s bit of unexpected populism of promising a 20-month energy price freeze. At the weekend, Labour opened up an 11-point lead over the Tories, hitting 42%, its highest level since June.

Of course party conferences frequently distort the polls. We’ll see if the Tories also get a boost from their week’s exposure (or whether the row between the Daily Mail and Ed Miliband has overshadowed it). And then we’ll see if any of these spikes have any kind of long-lasting effect, or — as usual — settle back to their pre-September norms.

But it got me thinking… Where was the Lib Dem poll boost? Well, it did happen. But you’re forgiven for not noticing it.

Looking at the five YouGov polls immediately before the Lib Dem conference, the party averaged 8.8%. In the five YouGov polls immediately after the Lib Dem conference, the party averaged 10.2%. (I’ve used YouGov not because I think they’re necessarily the best polling firm, but because they poll most frequently.)

Generally, though, the Lib Dems tend to suffer from the party conference season. I’ve looked at YouGov’s polling averages in September and October for each of the last six years. Here’s what happens…

2012: Sept = 9.2%, Oct = 9.0%. So -0.2%.
2011: Sept = 9.4%, Oct = 9.1%. So -0.3%.
2010: Sept = 12.5%, Oct = 11.4%. So -1.1%.
2009: Sept = 19.4%, Oct = 17.7%. So -1.7%.
2008: Sept = 14.8%, Oct = 11.7%. So -3.1%.
2007: Sept = 17.4%, Oct = 16.0%. So -1.4%.

That’s right: in each of the last six years the Lib Dem poll rating has drooped in the month following the party conferences. True, the drop was tiny in 2011 and 2012 – but then, as critics would be the first to point out, the party’s rating doesn’t have much further to fall. In fact the party’s polling in the three years since November 2010 has been remarkably consistent:

lib dem support in polls since may 2010

I’ve made pretty clear my view the party will not do as badly as some of the pollsters forecast — ironically enough, the first-past-the-post voting system offers us protection against the worst ravages of a drop in the popular vote.

But, I’m not one of those panglossian Lib Dems who thinks the polls are all rot and it will turn out alright on the night. Truth is, we’re in unchartered waters and I don’t know, not for certain, what the next election will bring. After all, in October 2008 – the same stage of the electoral cycle as we are now – the party was on 11.7% of the vote. We scored double that 18 months later. The situation we’re in now is (of course) completely different.

So the reason I’m pretty phlegmatic is not because I’m complacent about the result; far from it. It’s because I don’t think there’s much the Lib Dems can do that will be a game-changer.

Pull out of the Coalition? Does anyone seriously think the voters will reward us for pulling the plug on the government we democratically chose to form? Replace Nick Clegg? Who else would do better? After all, it’s being in coalition with the Conservatives that’s the unpopular thing. (As would being in coalition with Labour, by the way.) Maybe Vince or Tim would get a honeymoon bounce, but they’d soon kop the same flak Nick has the first time a compromise or trade-off had to be made. As the Institute for Government highlighted here last week, the junior partner in a coalition has very little room for manoeuvre.

We have no option but to see the Coalition through to its bitter end. Not because we’ll necessarily get the credit for doing so, but because we’ll get more blame for not doing so. We knew what we were doing, in May 2010, when we chose the least worst course of action available. Yes, there have been mistakes along the way, big ones, which have made our lives as Lib Dems much, much harder. Ultimately, though, we are living out the consequences, most of them inevitable, of that moment of decision. As Vince Cable said at the time: “It’s going to be bloody awful. But it’ll be less awful because we’re there.” It was true then and is still true today.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.