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15 October 2011

Drawing lessons from 15 October 2007

An era before the rise and demise of Cleggmania.

By Jon Bernstein

Four years ago today Menzies Campbell stepped down as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Faced with increasingly vicious briefing against him from within his own party and a realisation that his last chance to regain authority as leader went once Gordon Brown decided not to call a snap election (thus depriving him the opportunity to bring his party together in common purpose during a general election campaign), Campbell decided it was time to go.

What really undermined Campbell, however, were the party’s dreadful ratings in the opinion polls — the percentage of voters who said they would vote Lib Dem declined from the mid and high teens earlier in 2007 to the very low teens by the autumn. The final poll conducted prior to Campbell’s departure was carried out by BPIX for the Mail on Sunday. The field work was completed on 13 October and showed the following ratings:

Conservative: 41%

Labour: 37%

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Liberal Democrats: 11%

(BPIX/Mail on Sunday, 13 Oct 2007)

It’s intriguing to compare those numbers with polling today. Take UK Polling Report‘s most recent average:

Conservative: 37%

Labour: 41%

Liberal Democrats: 10%

(UK Polling Report Average, October 2011)

The numbers are strangely familiar — an opposition with a four point lead over the governing party and the Liberal Democrats barely above single digits.

Opinion polls need to be treated with caution — some sensible commentators say they are only worth noting a few months out from the election. Nevertheless, these numbers do suggest there are reasons for hope across all three major parties. Much can change between now and 2015 as it did between 2007 and 2010.

The Conservatives already draw comfort from the fact that they have Labour within touching distance (and almost within the margin for error). Yet for Labour too, for whom conventional wisdom demands a much clearer poll lead, there is room for optimism.

That Tory poll lead in October 2007 was the result of one piece of bold, if contentious, policy making (George Osborne’s commitment to an inheritance tax cut) and a jittery response from government (Brown’s election that wasn’t). Prior to that point the Conservatives were trailing badly to Labour. One piece of bold and coherent thinking — and the policy details to back it up — from the Labour leadership this time around could change the game in a similar way.

As for the Lib Dems, mid-term slumps are a regular feature of parliamentary cycle for them. What helped them last time was a change of leader and a bout of Cleggmania. The latter is off the agenda. The former? Unlikely but not impossible.