Clegg in the doldrums

March 07, 2011, 7:28 PM GMT+0

What does the Barnsley Central defeat mean for Nick Clegg? Peter Kellner considers our figures and explains

On their own, by-elections mean little. Judged in isolation, the Lib Dems’ embarrassing sixth place in Barnsley Central last Thursday can be dismissed as easily as their creditable second place in Oldham East and Saddleworth a few weeks ago. Sadly for Nick Clegg, however, there is other evidence by which we can judge his party; and these suggest that the slump in the Lib Dem vote in Barnsley correlated rather better with the national mood.

With the exception of one recent ICM survey, which put the Lib Dems on 18%, every poll by every polling company since early February has shown the party on 11% +/-2. Their support has halved since last year’s General Election.

The obvious reason is that the Lib Dems are now in Government. But on its own, that explains little. The same raft of polls that show Lib Dem support plummeting since last May show Tory support holding up. Their recent average has been 36%, just one point down on the 37% they achieved last May.

The difference is that people voted Tory knowing that they were choosing a prospective government. There are signs that disillusion is setting in, for more than 50% now disapprove of the Coalition’s performance, while the proportion approving struggles to reach 30%. But, broadly speaking, the Conservatives are doing what they said they would – above all, taking tough measures to cut public spending in order to reduce the deficit. Tory voters are getting what they voted for.

Lib Dem voters are not; and herein lies the difference. In our final election poll last year for the Sunday Times, YouGov asked which people how they thought they would react to a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Just 11% of Lib Dems said they would be delighted. Four times as many, 43%, said they would be dismayed. 37% said they wouldn’t mind; the remaining 9% offered no view. Even if we add the ‘wouldn’t minds’ to the ‘delighteds’, we still fall fractionally short of half the Lib Dem vote.

To a large extent, we can explain today’s voting figures by saying that the ‘delighteds’ and ‘wouldn’t minds’ still back the Lib Dems, while the ‘dismayeds’ (many of whom voted Lib Dem in order to defeat the Conservatives locally) have deserted the party. But even that is not the whole story. The game-changing events in last year’s election campaign were the TV debates among the party leaders. Nick Clegg’s victory in the first debate was rooted in a widespread public belief that he represented a new kind of politics – cleaner, more honest, more responsive and less cynical than that represented by Labour and the Conservatives. His real problem today is that by joining the Conservatives in coalition he has undermined the very qualities that made him so attractive last April.

It is instructive to look at Clegg’s profile at four moments; first, on April 11-12 last year, before the first TV debate; second on April 17-18 after that debate; third on May 16-17, shortly after he became deputy Prime Minister and fourth, today. In each case, respondents were shown a list of eight attributes and asked to tick all the ones that applied to each leader. (For the nerds and the technically minded: with this kind of question in which people are asked to choose from a list rather than asked a separate question about each attribute, 10% is a low score, 20% a moderate score and 30% a high score. Had we asked separate questions about each attribute, the numbers would have been higher. But the relative figures and the trends from one survey to the next would have been roughly the same.)

As those figures show, he had a middling profile before the first debate and a profile to die for after that debate. With just over a fortnight to go, Clegg had scores north of 40% on honesty, charisma and being in touch. In none of our polls did David Cameron or Gordon Brown ever reach 40% on ANY attribute.

Clegg’s numbers began to slip in the final two weeks of the campaign. By the time he became Deputy prime Minister, he was back to his pre-debate scores on honesty and sticking to his beliefs, but still ahead on the other six attributes.

Now look at today’s figures. He doesn’t reach 20% on any attribute. His ratings for honesty and being in touch are only half what they were before the first debate and when he became DPM – and only one-third what they were after the first TV debate. His ratings for strength, decisiveness and being a natural leader have collapsed, proportionately, even more.

Does this mean the Lib Dems are doomed to disaster at the next general election? No: with four years to go, much could happen, especially if the economy starts to recover strongly and the public gives the Coalition credit for administering the right, if nasty, medicine at the right time. Clegg might then gain credit for taking brave decisions in the national interest. But right now, the figures look bad for him and his party, and the Barnsley result reflects that underlying truth.

See our latest voting intention results (Sunday Times)
See our 'Party leaders' tracker
See our 'Government approval' tracker