“I will only really believe it when I see it in print!” – so read a text message to me from one of the party’s senior campaign strategists after news started spreading about the latest poll:
- BPIX/Mail on Sunday: Lib Dem 32%, Conservative 31%, Labour 28%
- ComRes/Independent/Mirror: Conservative 31%, Lib Dem 29%, Labour 27%
- ICM/Sunday Telegraph: Conservative 34%, Labour 29%, Lib Dem 27%
- OnePoll/People: Lib Dem 33%, Conservative 27%, Labour 23%
- YouGov/Sunday Times: Conservative 33%, Labour 30%, Lib Dem 29%
The YouGov poll gives Nick Clegg the eye-watering personal ratings on doing well/badly as party leader of 81% versus 9%. At the height of the Iraq war backlash, Charles Kennedy’s rating on this question wording was ‘only’ +44%.
So what on earth to make of all this post-TV debate excitement?
First things first: my scepticism of BPIX remains and OnePoll (due to their newness and similar lack of transparency) should also be treated cautiously, but their figures are in line with those of the other pollsters – even if they are the only ones to give the Liberal Democrats the hugely symbolic edge into first place.
Second, all the polls are telling much the same picture, within the usual margins of error. The pattern across them all is also of the Conservatives being hit more than Labour by the Liberal Democrat surge: Tories down 4% on average, Labour down 2%. (Others are also being squeezed.)
Third, as I wrote this morning, newspaper editors do not like getting too far out of step from their readers. Having numerous readers supporting the Liberal Democrats won’t turn the Sun into a cheerleader for the party, but we’ve seen far more positive coverage for the Liberal Democrats in papers such as The Sun and the Daily Mail, even whilst they’ve also been putting the boot in.
Fourth, there have been previous sharp increases in Liberal Democrat, Alliance and before that Liberal support. Most recently, after victory in the 2003 Brent East by-election polls showed a surge for the party, including an NOP poll that put all three main parties on 31%. That surge quickly deflated – but thanks to causes which give reasons for cautious optimism this time.
Previous surges have come and then gone because the news agenda moved on. There are only so many times you can report “… and the Liberal Democrats dramatically won…”. In 2003 after Brent East came the Liberal Democrat party conference – but then it was off to Labour and Tory conferences and the media’s attention moved on.
However, this time round the media isn’t moving on to other stories: the state of the election campaign is the story until May 6th. Moreover, it’s not that there’s been one TV debate and now it’s on to other campaign reports. There are two more debates, nicely spaced out between now and polling day, to come. There is also a record breaking volume of polling which, so far, is keeping the “Liberal Democrats doing well” story running.
So whilst pessimists will be thinking of 2003, expecting the bubble to soon burst, optimists will be thinking of 1974. In February 1974 the Liberals surged forward at the general election, thanks to a charismatic leader and a run of Parliamentary by-election victories that gave the party vital momentum. The chance of the right series of by-elections at the right time doesn’t often come the way of a party; it did for the Liberals in with Rochdale, Sutton and Cheam, Ripon, the Isle of Ely, and Berwick.
Perhaps in 2010 the sequence of three TV debates during the campaign will the equivalent of that early 1970s run of by-elections?