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Liberal Democrat Newswire #48: Lib Dem leadership under fire after campaign failure
Welcome to the 48th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, which looks at what went wrong with the party's European election campaign and the key facts not previously published about those leaked constituency polls
£25,000 spent on trying to oust Clegg
In a day of rapidly moving news yesterday, a story about leaked constituency polls quickly turned out to be a story about Liberal Democrat peer and long-time opponent of Nick Clegg, Matthew Oakeshott privately funding a series of constituency polls during April which were then strategically leaked to the Guardian in a way designed to maximise the damage to Nick Clegg’s leadership.
With constituency polls from a firm such as ICM typically costing around £5,000 each, and with – in addition to the four leaked, a fifth one I understand also having been commissioned in Danny Alexander’s constituency – that means around £25,000 has been spent on this plotting so far.
As many Liberal Democrat members have commented, given the tiny margins by which some Liberal Democrat MEPs were defeated, if that £25,000 or so had gone on campaigning for the party, it may well have resulted in more MEPs being elected.
Add to that Oakeshott’s initial efforts to stay anonymous and not be named as the funder of the polls, and there was plenty of criticism from across the party over his behaviour. Would-be anonymous spending of large sums of money to influence politics doesn’t go down well with party members who believe in transparency over party funding. As one activist put it, “At a difficult time, can I thank Lord Oakeshott for uniting the party on one thing”.
Oakeshott wants to see Vince Cable take over as leader, but Cable quickly saw the damage that could be done to him if he was in any way associated with the move and thoroughly disassociated himself from the polling.
The truth about what the polls really say
Courtesy of the British polling industry's rules on transparency, it's now possible to look at the leaked polls in detail because the pollster, ICM, has had to published the data tables. And that's a good thing too, because when you read through the 225 pages of data (or read a newsletter written by someone who has looked at it...!) there's quite a lot that's been missing from the headlines.
It’s not only the attempted anonymous funding of the polls that’s questionable. So too is the way they were worded. Even reputable pollsters such as ICM given their clients some discretion over question wording, and in this case it was a matter of misleading by omission rather than an outrageously worded question in its own right.
The full data tables for the polls show they tested the popularity of Liberal Democrats MPs and even some of their named constituency opponents, but when it came to the voting intention question gave only the names of parties and not the names of the individuals.
Yet the names of individuals appear on ballot papers and it’s well established in previous constituency polling that Liberal Democrat MPs do better when named in voting intention questions than when they question is just a generic one about parties. Moreover, naming them gives figures that are better predictors of actual election results.
The only sensible reason for missing out candidate names in polls such as the one done in Cambridge, where the poll tested the reputation of Julian Huppert MP alongside the named Labour and Tory candidates but didn't name any of them in the voting intention question, is if you want to get figures that make the Liberal Democrat position look worse than it really is.
And there's more about how the polls were conducted.
Part of ICM’s usual methodology was omitted from the polls, for reasons left unexplained. As ICM (to their credit) have made clear:
Usually, ICM would add 50% of those who refuse to answer the vote intention question or say they don’t know to the party they voted for in 2010. We did not do so on these polls.No reason is given for doing this, however, and this adjustment usually benefits the Liberal Democrats. That indeed seems to be the case with these constituency polls.
For example, in Cambridge on the initial raw figures, Labour leads by 23 people (103 to 80). Had ICM’s usual adjustment then been made, this would have become 110 to 102, a radical shrinking of the gap.
Add then to that the impact of not using names in the voting intention question which, bearing in mind the net 58% positive rating for Julian Huppert in the poll would not have been trivial, and you see how these two methodological decisions made a big difference to the headline results.
Comparable calculations can’t be made for all the constituency polls as the published data tables released by ICM are missing several tables (for example, the Redcar poll is missing tables 2, 4 and 5). Missing too are several tables from the Sheffield Hallam poll. However, the raw 98-73 Labour lead in its table 3 becomes a dead heat tie of 101-101 if the don’t knows and refused on that table are reallocated in line with the usual ICM methodology.
There’s further weighting for turnout required beyond table 3, but this gives another striking example of why the methodology details aren’t just technical curiosities but have a major impact on what picture the polls show overall. Clegg not set to lose after all wouldn't have made for such a great headline.
The combined impact of all these factors means the figures are not sensible figures for anyone to draw a conclusion from save for one: the numbers have been together in a way that causes maximum damage to the party whilst doing much to obscure what the true level of support is for the party's MPs in the polled constituencies.
Why ‘the party of IN’ strategy failed
A Status Quo song is about as predictable as a Liberal Democrat Focus leaflet. Take a very common (musical) phrases and repeat time after time for decades to generate some impressive successes.
But for this May’s elections, the Liberal Democrats went one step too far in their Status Quo imitation, sounding far too often like the party of the European status quo. The nadir was Nick Clegg’s poor answer in the Farage debates to a question on where he saw the EU in five years time. Pretty much the same as now, was Clegg's answer.
His second attempt, in a phone-in the following day, was much better, setting out how the Liberal Democrats would reform and improve the European Union, but the first stumble epitomised how what should be a radical, reforming party came over for much of the European elections as sounding like it wanted to preserve the current status quo for ever.
That was a major reason why the ‘party of IN’ strategy failed. At a time when the public was looking for change, the party didn’t offer up a pro-European vision of change. It offered up no change.
The second major reason is that whilst there is much to commend about taking a polarising position in an attempt to build up a core vote, going for a heavy pro-European message didn’t gell with local election campaigns on the ground.
As I pointed out before the elections in Liberal Democrat Newswire #46, people trying to win their local ward faced the dilemma of a European campaign that was trying to appeal to fewer people than were necessary for them to win in their seat. Local victories required a broader coalition:
The third reason was that enthusiasm for the idea of running a pro-European election campaign often ran ahead of its core logic and intended execution. As a result rather than the party being focused on issues that top the public’s lists of priorities, such as jobs and crime, and then talking about how being pro-European is the best way of tackling them, too often instead the party sounded like it just wanted to talk about Europe for the sake of it, leaving the big issues at the forefront of the public’s mind to one side.
What have the Lib Dems achieved in government?
My ever-popular infographic/poster highlighting the main achievements of the Liberal Democrats in government since 2010 has had a fresh update (including, of course, same sex marriage now being a reality). You can view the latest version here.
Its companion poster – on what the Liberal Democrats believe – is a little more timeless as Gladstone tends not to do things that require updates these days. You can view that too online.
And if posters aren’t your thing, there’s also a newly updated version of What The Hell Have The Lib Dems Done? website for your idle moments, er…, serious research: www.whatthehellhavethelibdemsdone.com
Links to all of these and other online resources for Liberal Democrat campaigners are collated on my website.
Two reasons why Clegg’s position is more secure than some expect
One much commented on reason is the lack of plausible, consensus candidates. Obvious front runners such as Tim Farron and Vince Cable do not command the sort of widespread support across the Parliamentary Party that could secure a smooth transition in the style of, say, Michael Howard taking over from Iain Duncan Smith.
The second is the nature of being in coalition. Usually a new leader wants to plot a new course and that’s how they get a honeymoon period and – if they do well – longer term popularity too.
However, in a coalition government the room to do that is massively constrained – as any new significant spending or legislative decisions require agreement across the coalition.
It’s rather unlikely that Cameron and Osborne will give a new Liberal Democrat leader the room to change course in any significant way. And if a new leader can't be different, how new will they really be?
But what if there was a contest?
Liberal Democrat Voice’s latest poll of party members asked who people would vote for if there was to be a leadership contest to succeed Nick Clegg. Tim Farron topped the polled with over 500 votes, a decent margin ahead of Vince Cable on 466:
Note the omission of Danny Alexander from that list of those who secured over 100 votes from party members. As with Mark Oaten’s would-be leadership campaign when Charles Kennedy went, Danny Alexander’s leadership campaign does rather better in the press than it does within the party.
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