Differentiation is good, division is bad: a warning for the Lib Dems from the polls

The latest, post-Budget, opinion poll from Populus (for The Times) contains a battery of questions about how the public view the overall image of the three main parties. Do they have clear ideas, are they for ordinary people, do they have a good team of leaders and so on.

Leafing through the details two dangers leap out for the Liberal Democrats. First, the party’s policy of differentiation has not – at least in the immediate aftermath of the Budget – come through strongly enough.

Despite securing bigger compensatory tax rises for the richest than the tax cuts the Conservatives insisted on for them, when it comes to the question of whether the party is “for ordinary people, not just the best off” the Lib Dems come out on -5. That is much better than the Conservative Party’s -35 rating, but some way short of Labour’s +18. Securing tax cuts for millions of ordinary people whilst overall putting up taxes for the very richest may be a Liberal Democrat Budget success, but the public has not been won over by it (yet).

However, before any Liberal Democrat strategists rush off and plot a Differentiation Double Plus Extra Strong strategy, they should take a look at the question about whether or not people think parties are united. Being viewed as disunited by the public is a major impediment to securing votes at election time.

On this question, the Liberal Democrats are in deep negative territory, coming in at -36, compared to -11 for the Tories and -2 for Labour.

Differentiation that sees Liberal Democrats outside government talking up how they wish to do things differently from the Conservatives risks making the party seem divided rather than different.

The lesson? More Liberal Democrat ministers from the very top (or rather, from just below the very top as Nick Clegg has been good in recent months at talking up his differences from Cameron) need to talk up their differences rather than stay silent.

Silence from them makes the party look divided when others are talking up the genuine differences. Ministers need to be doing so more often and more loudly too.

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