Earlier today I got into a discussion on twitter about the Lib Dems and the opinion polls. Certainly there is little to be cheerful about for the Liberal Democrats, with polling invariably hanging around the 12-14% mark, after a continual downwards slide. Yet there is some comfort in some of the council by-elections as covered by Tom on this very site. The by-elections have been mixed for the Lib Dems, but there have been a few impressive results on the Lib Dem side, even a couple of gains.
The reality is that opinion polls are somewhat abused these days. The advent of organisations like YouGov has meant that news organisations can purchase a continual onslaught of polls to report upon. News organisations like polls because you can produce a short article about one tied to your desk in a short space of time. Yet it is questionable how much polls at this time tell us. For one thing the Lib Dems usually do badly in post-election opinion polls. The media reporting becomes about the new PM, or in the case of re-election, the old PM will often have a new bout of policies, and there is often a lot going on in the opposition as it tries to figure out why it lost. The poor old Lib Dems get squeezed out. This is even more the case with the coalition because when Lib Dems do speak they often sound like Tories, wedded as they are, now, to the Tory line. As the public is less familiar with Lib Dem policy it is often not noticed when Conservatives argue Lib Dem talking points – William Hague has taken an uncharacteristically moderate line on Europe for instance, whereas Ken Clarke is talking about rehabilitation in prisons.
The public is also inevitably somewhat switched off from politics. They have just had an election to deal with and they are suffering from politics fatigue, and so they are not necessarily paying much attention to what is going on. Many people only really switch onto politics during election campaigns, and so the Lib Dems are even more ignored. This is why the Lib Dems have performed well in some local by-elections. The Lib Dems are impressive campaigners, especially at a local level.
It is worth remembering too, that the next election is a full five years away. A very large number of things can happen in five years. From 2005 to 2010 the Lib Dems plunged to 13% under Ming, to their lofty pre-election heights. Similarly I remember seeing polls a few years ago where the Conservatives had around 50% of the vote, and being assured by Labour and Conservative activists and supporters alike that the Tories would win the next election in landslide style, against my own continued insistence that a hung parliament was the most likely outcome. In 1988 the Lib Dems sank to just 4% in many opinion polls, and predictions of their demise were widespread, but by 1992 they had survived intact, losing two seats, but surviving on 17.8% of the vote. The next five years is bound to be difficult for the Lib Dems, but predicting their demise now is relentlessly short-sighted. It is worth recalling that even if the Lib Dems do lose a large portion of their vote; once a Lib Dem MP is in they are unusually difficult to get rid of, as they are often highly skilled constituency MPs who are overwhelmingly popular locally. If they fall to, say, 15% of the vote that will be troubling for them, but if the vast majority of that loss is in the hundreds of seats where they are in second place it will not necessarily effect their number of MPs that much. This has often been the pattern in 'bad' elections for the Lib Dems. A slightly unusual example is the 1997 election where the Lib Dems fell from 17.8% to 16.8% of the vote, but gained twenty seats. The British electoral system, like God, can often work in quite mysterious ways.
It is impossible to tell what the future will bring for the Liberal Democrats, but I assure you that one thing is certain – you are not going to work it out by analysing this week's opinion polls at face value.