Sunday 21 November 2010

The deep cuts anxieties of still loyal LibDems

The pollsters ComRes were admirably speedy in publishing last night the full breakdown of today's Independent on Sunday and Sunday Mirror poll.

As John Rentoul reported, the poll shows that the LibDems have lost the support of one in two of those who voted for the party at the General Election. What might worry party strategists even more in the long-term are the deep anxieties of voters who remain loyal, which was a question I was wondering about when blogging on the poll findings last night.

Even the half of the May 2010 voters that would still vote LibDem are equally divided about the merits of the government's strategy, the scale and speed of the cuts, with many concerned that they fail the fairness test too.

This suggests that the LibDems may well have to work much harder than their Conservative partners to retain even their current reduced poll share. At the same time, it will surely be very difficult for the junior Coalition partner to persuade the larger partner of significant changes to the government's policy approach to deal with these concerns. Though they could lead to a further haemorrhaging of LibDem support, there is much weaker evidence that these anxieties are an electoral problem for the Conservatives.

42% of remaining loyal LibDem voters think the cuts are too severe and too fast and 42% disagree. While LibDem supporters are equally split, only 18% of Tory supporters express this concern, with 70% happy with where the government is.

37% of remaining LibDems think the government is cutting fairly across all sections of society; but 45% don't. Tory voters are confident about this - with 65% thinking the government's plans are fair and only 20% disagreeing.

54% of remaining LibDems think government's plan is unfair because the poor will be hit harder than the wealthy, with 30% disagreeing. Again, that contrasts with Tory voters, where 63% disagree and only 21% share that concern.

58% of Conservatives are confident that the Coalition is protecting the vulnerable when making cuts, while 18% disagree. But only 34% of remaining LibDem voters share that confidence, with 49% worried that the vulnerable are not being protected.

(There are two different sets of LibDem breaks in the poll detail: one based on current voting intention, cited above, and another set on "general party identification". Those who "generally think of themselves as" as LibDem are overall somewhat more hostile to the government's plans than those who currently say they would vote for the party at the next general election. There is of course a significant overlap between the two groups. For example, those who are generally party identifiers are opposed 46-38% on the too harsh and too fast question (rather than equally split), and break 58-29% in believing the cuts are unfair because they affect the poor more than those who are wealthier).

How could the LibDems respond?

If you ask "what proportion of the electorate still intend to vote LibDem AND are basically content with the government's deficit strategy, rejecting the main centre-left challenges to it", you would find yourself heading perilously towards the 5% share which an anonymous LibDem Cabinet minister - almost certainly Chris Huhne - has suggested will be where the LibDems are in the polls by next Autumn.

There are broadly three responses to this.

Current strategy is to argue that this is essentially a communications failure, talking about the inevitable unpopularity of tough decisions, mid-term blues and generally putting the general lexicon of unpopular parties in government to use. That means puttng energy primarily into persuading these voters that the government's economic strategy is necessary, fair and doesn't hit the poor harder - and to hope that this has more success towards the end of the Parliament than it is now. The aim would be to win back or retain LibDem voters, or perhaps to compete for support with the Conservatives among other voters who agree with George Osborne's strategy. This risks being a "hope something turns up" strategy without a clearer argument about why - even if the government's gamble succeeds - it will be the LibDems who benefit.

Another approach is to place greater emphasis on other LibDem gains within the Coalition, doing more to emphasise the distinction between LibDem and Tory influence rather than shared ownership of the Coalition. Today's Independent on Sunday suggests there will be a strategic shift towards emphasising the difference, quoting new party President Tim Farron to that effect, despite that argument being rejected by Nick Clegg through the Autumn conference, where it was the main point of disagreement about party strategy.

Stil, the shift can be overstated. Clegg has frequently pointed to distinctive LibDem gains in media interviews. This 'critical' perspective again puts the political problems of the LibDems primarily down to communication. (The IoS story says insiders regard the handling of the fees u-turn as a "communications disaster", but the strategic mistake was surely made in either the March NUS pledge, or the policy u-turn, rather than expecting some spin svengali to seamlessly reconcile the two so as to receive plaudits from grateful students).

And the implicit Tim Farron premise is primarily that the LibDems could still hold voters who don't agree with the government on cuts if they can emphasise other issues, beyond cuts and the deficit, and set out a distinctive LibDem voice. This is unlikely to deliver any distinctive LibDem argument on the cuts themselves. In response, Ed Miliband and the Labour party might particularly identify what is needed on key symbolic issues to make it easier both to hold "lost LibDems" and to enable "anxious but loyal LibDems" to switch. (Not a substitute for winning support from the Conservatives but, given that both the Tories and LibDems each gained 6% between 1997 and 2010, it is a necessary complement of any Labour governing strategy).

The third approach - going beyond "communications problems" would be for the LibDem frontbenchers inside government to argue for a significant shift in government policy, towards where majority public opinion and their own voters are. Any major push in this direction seems unlikely.

We'll all be worse off

There is one "we're in this together" finding in the poll detail, though not perhaps the ideal one for the government.

There are few class differences in whether people expect to be worse off personally, with 66% of AB voters, 67% of C2 voters and 64% of DE voters agreeing.

But there is a bigger disagreement about the fairness of the cuts. 32% of AB voters think the Coalition government is ensuring that the vulnerable are protected, but only 19% of DE voters agree. (Cynics might suggest that the government may have more electoral reason to focus on the perceptions of the former group about what is happening to the vulnerable than the experiences of the latter).

Perhaps curiously, the group who express most optimism about escaping a personal impact from the cuts are 18-24 year olds, where 23% do not believe they will be worse off personally (though 53% disagree). 71% of the over 55s expect to be worse off.

Ironically, the government has been particularly wary about cuts which would particularly affect older people (such as by means-testing child benefit but not pensioner benefits; and keeping the Tory pledge about pensioner benefits while breaking the LibDem promise to future university students).

1 comment:

donpaskini said...

Good stuff as ever.

One small point:

"Ironically, the government has been particularly wary about cuts which would particularly affect older people (such as by means-testing child benefit but not pensioner benefits; and keeping the Tory pledge about pensioner benefits while breaking the LibDem promise to future university students)."

I reckon that the biggest financial impact of the government's decision on top up fees might well be on over 55s (parents with university age children) - as the cost of supporting their children falls increasingly on them.

Cuts to housing benefit and council tax benefit also affect a lot of pensioners.