Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A Ming and a prayer

The Lib Dems choice of Menzies Campbell may come to haunt them at the polls

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In the monthly surveys we conduct at the University of Essex as part of the British Election Study we ask the following question: ‘Who would make the best prime minister?’

The responses to this question over the period April 2004 to June 2006 are very revealing about what the electorate think of the party leaders, particularly David Cameron and Menzies Campbell. In October 2005, a few months after the general election, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy were neck and neck in the leadership evaluation stakes as far as the voters were concerned.

Fast forward some eight months to June 2006 so that the new Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders have been in place long enough for the electorate to be able to pass judgement on them, and the picture changes radically. In that month David Cameron scored 30 per cent, slightly ahead of Tony Blair on 28 per cent, and Menzies Campbell scored a derisory 6 per cent. This is a massive decline in the popularity of the Liberal Democrat leader compared with his predecessor. To be fair, he did start from a low base, which reflects the bad publicity surrounding the resignation of Kennedy, and had a brief honeymoon lift in his support for a couple of months. But this has now clearly fizzled out.

It would be a mistake to think that the source of the Liberal Democrat leader’s troubles is the fact that David Cameron has succeeded in sweeping all before him. The winner of the contest for the best prime minister in June of this year is the ‘none of the above’ candidate. No less than 35 per cent of respondents were in the ‘don’t know’ category. Thus there are plenty of voters who are disillusioned with both Blair and Cameron, but they are not opting for Campbell.

These trends come at a difficult time for the Liberal Democrats, as they try to sustain their recent electoral gains. The party has always done better against the Conservatives in office than against Labour. It picked up significant extra votes in the 1964, February 1974 and 1983 general elections, when the Conservatives were incumbent, and lost support in 1970 and 1979 when Labour was in office. More recently this pattern has changed, but under Blair the party’s gains in terms of vote shares have been rather modest.

So it is difficult enough for the Liberal Democrats to face a resurgent Conservative party in the next election, without have the added burden of an unpopular leader. An analysis of the opinion polls conducted over a period of 30 years from 1974 to 2004 in our recent book, Third Force Politics, shows that there is a direct causal link between the popularity of the Liberal Democrat leader and support for the party. So the party may pay a heavy price for its leader, unless his prospects improve.

There are 17 Liberal Democrat held seats where the Conservatives came second in the 2005 election, and which have majorities of less than 10 per cent of the vote. These include constituencies like Torbay, Sutton and Cheam and Eastleigh, and they are all vulnerable to a Conservative resurgence. In addition there are a few very close marginal seats like Manchester Withington and Rochdale, which the party could lose to Labour, assuming that Blair’s successor gives his party a lift in the polls. All this raises a key question: Have the Liberal Democrats made a mistake in appointing Menzies Campbell?

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Paul Whiteley

is a professor at the Department of Government, University of Essex

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