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Thursday, February 24, 2005


Back from the dead?

Today's MORI poll in the Financial Times ought to worry the Liberal Democrats.

This poll puts Labour on 39%, the Conservatives on 37% and the Liberal Democrats on 18%. These figures are similar to those in the ICM poll in Tuesday's Guardian (37%/34%/21%). A YouGov poll in tomorrow's Daily Telegraph will confirm whether there is a trend.

The Lib Dem percentage figures in recent polls are not bad per se - it's the Tory recovery that should give cause for alarm.

The Lib Dems had written off the Tories as a spent force, as indeed had most other observers (including many Tories themselves). While it remains unlikely the Tories can win the next general election, their campaign over the past few weeks may be restoring their reputation as a credible opposition. That is the risk the Lib Dems should worry about.

The Tories have achieved a recovery by setting the agenda in recent weeks, focusing on a string of populist right-wing issues such as immigration, crime and Europe. The Tories risk using up all their ammunition early on, but at least it puts them back in contention by mobilising their core support. Whether they can maintain this momentum is another matter; Labour still holds the trump cards of the March budget and the choice of election date.

Meanwhile, one should not forget how much of the Tory campaign is going on 'under the radar'. They are doing a lot of work (such as phone-based 'push-polling') in target seats, aided by big donations from the likes of Lord Ashcroft, who is donating up to £21,000 per seat (as reported in
yesterday's Guardian).

An important side-effect of a Tory recovery is that it may increase the turnout. A major factor behind recent low turnouts is Labour voters staying at home because they assume a Labour win is a foregone conclusion. The more the Tories look like a real threat, the more Labour can re-energise its own jaded support.

If this trend continues, the Liberal Democrat strategy of replacing the Tories will have proved disastrous. It is simply no longer credible to claim to be the "only effective opposition" when the Tories are so obviously making the running. More significantly, in recent polls and elections, the Lib Dems have been gaining most of their support at the expense of Labour. The idea that the Lib Dems could gain more support by trying to sound more "tough" is ludicrous. After all, if you're the sort of right-wing voter who places a premium on 'toughness', why vote Liberal Democrat when you can have the real McCoy?

The Liberal Democrats' natural support base is educated and cosmopolitan people with small 'l' liberal values. The party needs to consolidate that progressive-minded base and peel off votes from Labour on issues such as Iraq and ID cards, where it has made a distinctive stand.

If both Labour and the Tories choose to fight on right-wing authoritarian territory, the Liberal Democrats should leave them to it and stay well out of it. The Lib Dem opportunity is in the space this creates.

PS: Friday's YouGov poll in the Telegraph has been released and paints a conflicting picture. Anthony Wells has a convincing explanation.

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