The myth of the Liberal Democrats in coalition

Nick Clegg and Vince Cable (CC BY-ND 2.0 courtesy of Lib Dems)

You should always be careful when something is repeatedly said but rarely sourced. Not only with hype about technology but also with claims about what the public thinks.

Case in point: it’s rather rare to find an article about the state of the Liberal Democrats that doesn’t contain some reference to the party’s current level of (un)popularity being down to ‘the voters hated the Lib Dems going into coalition and still haven’t forgiven them’.

The evidence, however, has consistently been rather different as a new poll from YouGov demonstrates:

Which of these comes closest to your view?

  • The Liberal Democrats were right to go into coalition with the Conservatives 30%
  • The Liberal Democrats were wrong to go into coalition with the Conservatives but I have forgiven them 16%
  • The Liberal Democrats were wrong to go into coalition with the Conservatives and I haven’t forgiven them 22%
  • Don’t know 32%

Only a fifth of voters fall into that camp, and a full 46% either agreed with the coalition decision or have forgiven the party. The party’s current single digit poll ratings aren’t down to continuing hatred over coalition or the party’s record in coalition. They are more down to perceived relevance, success and clarity over what the party stands for (and hence the arguments I set out in Targeting Plus and, with Jim Williams, in Reinventing the Liberal Democrats).

There’s an important caveat to this, which is that there’s one sub-sample (so statistical caveat to the political caveat, please) where the wrong and unforgiven category is significant. A full 31% of Hard Remainers (people who say they want the government to overturn the EU referendum decision) say the Lib Dems were wrong to go into coalition and that they haven’t forgiven the party. No surprise then that 22% of Hard Remainers says also that they would never consider voting Liberal Democrat.

That helps explain the limits to the party’s success in appealing to Hard Remainers so far. So far, but possibly not permanently, because the frustrating conundrum from a Lib Dem perspective is that those unforgiving Hard Remainers then pretty much line up to vote for Labour. Despite hard core opposition to Europe, and despite holding past Lib Dem behaviour against the Lib Dems, Jeremy Corbyn’s long record of opposition to the EU, lukewarm referendum campaigning and unwillingness to vote against the Tories on Brexit in Parliament isn’t something they see as a reason not to vote for him.

Whether or not the Lib Dems can craft a successful message to appeal to such love Europe / hate Conservatives voters is one of the keys to the party’s future political fortunes.

8 responses to “The myth of the Liberal Democrats in coalition”

  1. I’m one of the Hard Remainers who lined up to vote Labour last June. I can only speak for myself but it had nothing to do with not having forgiven the Lib Dems for going into coalition (which I have never in fact blamed them for). It was a last minute decision on my part when it became evident from the polls that the Labour candidate had a real chance of unseating our sitting (anti-EU) Conservative MP. Having spoken to him, and found him a remain supporter, I voted tactically. No more, no less. Had I realised I would then be co-opted automatically into an imaginary Brexit supporting 83% I may have done otherwise.

  2. It looks like people voted tactically but did not know that Corbyn was a Brexiter. If this dawns on people and we must constantly remind the voter that he is we may, over time, notice we slowly climb up the ratings. I notice one poll has us at 9%. Watch this space.

  3. You could say that we will only go into coalition with a Conservative party (or Labour) if they campaign for a remain or re-enter the EU stance.Again time will tell. We could be entering a long waiting game.

  4. My impression from the doorsteps in June was that in days of very polarised Tory and Labour parties, most people’s need was to express how anti they were to the other extreme. No space for moderates therefore.

  5. The liberal way may well be to stand for the 3Rs: radical policy openness, a reformist benchmark and an overall commitment to responsible governance. The policy courage is attractive to those seeking an outsider’s ability to sort out the problems; the reformist context outplays both Tory and Labour; and the responsible tag line consigns Tory arrogance and Corbynist adventurism to the dust bin. Just a thought.

  6. I think the stats can be read multiple ways. Many of the “Don’t know”s may object to the coalition actions but aren’t sure if they’re forgiven them or not. Also, the ones that have forgiven may not trust the Lib Dems still – the right questions need to be asked.
    Only 30% thinking the Lib Dems were right suggests that 70% have doubts about the Lib Dems judgement. Even those that think they were probably right there may be a proportion that feel that they didn’t achieve enough and question whether the Lib Dem MPs are cut out for government.
    I’ve spoken to those who still haven’t forgiven them, and Labour made a big point in my area of that ‘breach of trust’, despite being responsible for the introduction of student fees in the first place. That makes it more likely that those “Don’t knows” would have been swayed towards the unfunded student fee promises that Labour was making.

  7. We should not be afraid of CRUSADING for Europe. This has nothing to do with our opinions for or against specific aspects of EU policy or particular EU practices. But it has everything to do with the Liberal Vision of the world, looking outward, looking to co-operate with all other peoples and nations who will do so to the mutual benefit of all.

  8. The challenge is that we are in a divergent climate at present and with Labour treading a tight-rope balance, let’s hope they fall off soon.

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