Nick v Nigel: the polls call it for Farage. Disappointing, but don’t panic! Here’s 3 reasons why you shouldn’t…

by Stephen Tall on April 2, 2014

Farage cleggLast week we had one post-debate poll. It showed Farage won overall, but the split was more interesting: Labour and Lib Dem voters went for Nick, Tory and Ukippers for Nigel. As you’d probably expect.

This week we had two post-debate polls, and their results are remarkably similar. ICM says Clegg was reckoned to have won by 31% of viewers, Farage by 69%. YouGov says 27% preferred Clegg, 68% Farage.

ICM has released the breakdown of its poll. This week, Labour voters split (narrowly) in Farage’s favour, by 57% to 43%, which means only Lib Dem voters reckoned Clegg won (by 58% to 42%).

It’s fair to say, the polls have called it for Farage. And, as I blogged earlier, I’d broadly agree.

But, and it’s a big but, does that mean Nick Clegg’s gamble of laying down the gauntlet to Nigel Farage has failed? I don’t think so. Here’s three reasons why…

Nick Clegg has galvanised Lib Dem supporters.

That matters for two reasons. First, in a low-turnout election, as the 22 May Euro elections will be, getting your base to turn out matters. And secondly, that base is also far more motivated now to get out the vote – in that sense, Ukip is a useful enemy for the Lib Dems. As anyone who was at the York spring conference will testify, it was easily the most cheerful party event since 2010 – and the decision to fight a focused pro-European campaign and to take on Ukip is a big reason why.

A boost for Ukip hurts the Tories and Labour more than the Lib Dems.

There’s no denying that Nigel Farage and Ukip have emerged well from these debates, especially tonight’s. Their populist, insurgent message – that all the nation’s ills are the fault of foreigners, Westminster and big business – clearly resonates. But it will resonate least well with Lib Dem voters, and best with Tory and Labour voters. A polling spike for Ukip will probably be at their expense, not ours. Though that’s a slightly depressing thought – I’d rather people voted Labour or Tory than for Farage’s isolationism – it’s far less of an electoral worry for the Lib Dems.

Pro-Europeanism appeals to moderate, centrist voters.

Recent polls show the British public pretty split on whether the UK should remain within the EU, but tilting towards staying in. The Lib Dems’ internal polling suggests that, among the one-quarter of the public who’ll consider voting for the party, pro-Europeanism plays pretty well. My main frustration of tonight’s debate was that Nick Clegg failed to advance the pro-reform case for staying within the EU as well as he’s done in the past – but there will be many more times and places for him to make that point in the next seven weeks. Overall, clear defining the party as being pro-European is more likely to win the Lib Dems the votes the party needs to win, both in 2014 as well as 2015.

* 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.