John Curtice: Kennedy found lacking in Lib Dem push for power

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The Independent Online

Last week had all the appearance of being good for the Liberal Democrats. Their attempt to put Iraq on the agenda succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Brian Sedgemore, the former Labour MP, announced his defection. And on Saturday we even had pictures of Charles Kennedy's new baby set in dramatic Highland countryside.

Last week had all the appearance of being good for the Liberal Democrats. Their attempt to put Iraq on the agenda succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Brian Sedgemore, the former Labour MP, announced his defection. And on Saturday we even had pictures of Charles Kennedy's new baby set in dramatic Highland countryside.

Yet none of this appears to have had much impact on the public. The party's average poll rating may have moved up a point over the past week, but that merely returns it to the level it was at a fortnight ago, 22 per cent. The overall lack of progress means that the 2005 Liberal Democrat election campaign could be one of the party's least successful.

We should add a cautionary note about the latest polls. Much of the interviewing for the four polls published yesterday was conducted only as the initial news about the contents of the Attorney General's legal advice was emerging. As a result, they may not fully reflect any impact that the row about that advice might have had. Even so, it seems unlikely that its impact will be anything other than small.

Meanwhile, the extra visibility the Liberal Democrats have secured during the official campaign seems to have done little to enhance their image. Throughout the campaign, ICM has tracked which party is thought to have the best policies on eight issues. The proportion naming the Liberal Democrats has gone up, but in most cases only by two or three points. Much the same is true of the responses to a question that YouGov has regularly asked about which party could best handle each of 18 problems.

Charles Kennedy does not seem to have enhanced his personal reputation much either. He is undoubtedly regarded as the most affable and trustworthy of the three main party leaders. But he does not seem to have persuaded the public that he is a potential prime minister. YouGov reported that only 24 per cent felt he was a strong leader who would make a good prime minister while 49 per cent felt he would not. Indeed, 52 per cent went so far as to claim that he could not cope as prime minister, while only 29 per cent disagreed.

This failure to convince the public that the party has the positive qualities required to govern will not help insulate its supporters from last-minute appeals from the two larger parties to switch to one of them in order to keep the other out. This seems particularly true of Labour's repeated claims that a vote for the Liberal Democrats could help the Conservatives win the election; forty-three per cent of Liberal Democrat supporters agree with this claim, slightly more than the 38 per cent who disagree. And as Liberal Democrat voters are more likely to say they feel more hostile to the Conservatives (73 per cent) than they are to Labour (48 per cent), this is a perception that could help move some voters back into the Labour camp.

In reality, as demonstrated in this paper on Saturday, the Conservatives cannot win an overall majority, or anything close, simply as a result of voters switching from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, this remains true even if all those who, in the last two general elections, switched tactically from the Liberal Democrats to Labour to keep the Tories out were to stop doing so. But an election appeal does not have to be accurate to be effective.

John Curtice is professor of politics, Strathclyde University

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