Good news: Voters places themselves and the Lib Dems in the centre. Bad news: that doesn’t mean they’re liberals

by Stephen Tall on July 24, 2014

“There’s no future for the Lib Dems as a party of the centre,” goes the cry from radicals on both wings of our party. So I was interested to see this polling data from YouGov (hat-tip Adam Corlett) looking at where voters place themselves on the left-right axis and where they place the parties and their leaders. And yes, I know we don’t buy into the idea of a binary left-right axis, but it can’t be entirely dismissed.

As YouGov explains, “tracking data compiled over as many as 12 years gives a clear sense of how the main parties and their leaders have been perceived as shifting on a left-right scale. The two charts below shows mean scores based on 100 being “very right-wing” and -100 being “very left-wing”.” I’ve super-imposed onto YouGov’s graphics where, on average, voters currently place themselves:

voters left right spectrum you gov 2014

Three quick points:

1) The Tories are seen to be a more right-wing party (+46 on the scale) than Labour is seen to be a left-wing party (-37). However, the Tories are seen as slightly less right-wing under David Cameron than they were seen under Michael Howard or Iain Duncan Smith; while Labour is seen to be slightly more left-wing under Ed Miliband than under Gordon Brown — and a huge amount more left-wing compared to Tony Blair.

2) Ukip is seen as even more right-wing than the Tories (+56). That a significant number of Ukip supporters voted for Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s then Tony Blair in 1997 is less surprising when you realise Blair was regarded as a centre-right leader (albeit of a left-wing Labour party).

3) The Lib Dems and Nick Clegg are seen as pretty much in the centre, tending just slightly to the left (-6 on the scale) – almost exactly where voters place themselves (-4). And interestingly Nick Clegg is perceived to have moved to the left since the Coalition was formed.

voters left right spectrum you gov 2014 - 2Enough about the perceptions of the parties – what about the voters’ views of themselves?

As the table on the right shows, a plurality of voters (20%) place themselves squarely in the centre. A further 28% say they are either slightly left-of-centre (14%) or slightly right-of-centre (14%). In total, then, almost half of all voters (48%) place themselves at or close to the centre. This compares to minorities of voters who self-describe as very/fairly left-wing (14%) or very/fairly right-wing (12%).

It is, of course, obvious to anyone who’s looked at the Lib Dems’ poll ratings lately that simply being close to the slightly left-of-centre sweet spot where the voters on average self-identify is not in itself enough. The party has serious trust issues over the breaking of the tuition fees pledge, is tainted in the eyes of many of our 2010 voters by dint of the Coalition with the Tories, and has been heavily pilloried by the media for four years. That has had a huge and cumulative negative impact on Lib Dem support. Much of this is unfair and massively over-blown by our opponents (and too often we Lib Dems turn healthy self-criticism into unhealthy self-harm) – but it is reality.

However, what this polling suggests to me is that however damaged the Lib Dem brand is — and only time will tell whether that’s a short- or long-term issue — our political positioning is about right. Right not just because we’re close to the political centre of gravity, but right because of our situation.

As I wrote last month, “if Lib Dem members really want to remain in government after May 2015 then we will have to do a deal next time with either the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour. We may not place ourselves in the centre, but our circumstances do.”

And as I’ll never tire of pointing out to those who demand the Lib Dem leadership stake out radical liberal positions, the blunt reality is that we’re simply not going to be in a position to deliver on them. Not now. And not after May 2015 either. Unless, that is, they’re policies which we can show enjoy significant popular support. Which is why Mark Pack is dead right to urge Lib Dems to get campaigning in favour of civil liberties rather than simply beating up on the Lib Dem leadership for failing to win liberal fights (for example, over DRIP) when they’re vastly out-numbered by authoritarians both in the Government and in Parliament, and the public is largely indifferent.

Yes, we’re liberals. But we’re also democrats, and we need to start winning a few more arguments in the court of public opinion rather than simply believing that all we need do is more noisily assert the purity of our liberalism.

* 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.