Clegg least popular since Foot

Peter KellnerPresident
September 24, 2012, 7:51 AM UTC

While many people see Mr Clegg as likeable, few see him as strong, decisive or trustworthy. These are terrible figures for a man who says he will lead his party at the next election, suggests YouGov President Peter Kellner

As I have brought consistently bleak news about Nick Clegg in recent months, let’s start with a glimpse of sunshine. His apology for messing up his party’s policy on student fees has gone down better than Gordon Brown’s apology in 2010 for describing a Rochdale voter as a bigot.

After Mr Brown discovered that his remark about Gillian Duffy had been caught on a microphone he wrongly thought was off, he dashed round to her house and told her how sorry he was. The next day we asked people about this apology. Just 26% said it was genuine, while 56% thought it was not. In our latest poll for the Sunday Times, we asked the same question about Mr Clegg’s apology. This time, 40% told us it was genuine, while 35% disagreed.

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That is where the good news ends. 41% think his apology makes him look weaker, while just 21% think it makes him look stronger. Only 5% say his apology will make them more likely to vote Lib Dem at the next election, while 15% say it makes them less likely. No wonder Lib Dem support is so low – just 8% in our post-apology poll – while Mr Clegg himself has slumped to his worst ever rating. Having risen briefly (after the first leaders’ debate on TV in April 2010) to become more popular than Churchill, he is now Britain’s least popular main-party leader since Michael Foot.

To explore views about Mr Clegg in more detail, we asked respondents how they regarded him according to four pairs of characteristics. This is what we found:

% seeing Nick Clegg as…



Likeable                          42                Dislikeable                        38

Trustworthy                      24                Untrustworthy                     58

Decisive                          14                Indecisive                          66

Strong                            11                Weak                                75

As I have argued before, character usually matters more than policy, especially to the floating voters whose verdict decides elections. And while many people see Mr Clegg as likeable, few see him as strong, decisive or trustworthy. These are terrible figures for a man who says he will lead his party at the next election.

What, then, can he and his party do to revive their fortunes? Their slogan this week in Brighton, is ‘fairer tax in tough times’. The interviews given by leading Lib Dem MPs over the weekend suggest that their narrative at the next election will go something like this: ‘We have protected the poorest and most deserving by raising the personal tax allowance, providing the biggest ever increase in the state pension, and giving schools a ‘pupil premium’ - more money for every child on free school meals. At the same time we have gone after the rich who indulge in tax avoidance. Vote for us and we shall continue to fight for fairness in the next parliament’.

I have no quarrel with this narrative. It’s probably the best available. The challenge is to convert this argument into votes. Apart from doing the obvious – repeating this message at every possible opportunity – Lib Dem strategists must answer two questions: Should the party withdraw from the coalition well before the next election? And: should Mr Clegg lead it into the next election?

As things stand, my answers are that the party should leave the coalition before their 2014 party conference, and Lib Dem members should elect a new leader in time for that conference. The party could then spend six months setting out fresh policies that demonstrate that they are truly different from the Conservatives and passionate about fairness.

However, that advice is based on my belief that most voters have made up their minds about Mr Clegg, and that the longer his party remains in coalition, the harder it will be to persuade the public of its commitment to fairness. (Logically, doesn’t this mean that the Lib Dems should change leader and withdraw from the coalition NOW? No, it would be counter-productive, because it would look like an indulgent, self-serving move to precipitate an unnecessary early election. Voters would be even less likely to back the Lib Dems.)

As with any political prediction, there is a chance mine will be wrong. It is possible that voters will start believing the Lib Dems’ fairness message while they are in coalition with Mr Clegg as their leader. If so, then plainly the sensible thing to do would be for the party and its leader to stay where they are.

The time to make a definitive judgement will be June 2014. That is the month when elections to the European Parliament will take place. Last time, the Lib Dems won 14% of the vote across Britain. They came fourth, behind Labour, the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party. Were these elections held this autumn, I would expect the party’s vote to halve. They might even come fifth behind the Greens.

If that sounds far-fetched, remember that these elections are held under proportional representation. This helps fringe parties. In this year’s elections to the London Assembly, also held under a proportional system, the Greens scored 9% while the Lib Dems won only 7%.

If the party suffers that badly in a national contest with less than a year to go before the 2015 general election, then it is inevitable that Lib Dem activists will ponder the future of their leader and the party’s place in the coalition. YouGov will, of course, be exploring the extent to which the fairness message is or is not getting through.

Suppose it is clear that the party is still in the doldrums because the public don’t believe its commitment to a fairer Britain. Can I guarantee that a new leader who takes the party out of the coalition will gain millions of extra votes? I’m afraid not. If voters think that the party is acting cynically rather than from principle, the change would backfire. The new leader must not just be Mr/s Fairness and Mr/s Independent, but also, Mr/s Integrity. It won’t be easy. But anyone who enters politics expecting an easy life is far too deluded to reach the top.

See the full survey details and results here

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