Are the Liberal Democrats really topping the polls?

A familiar refrain. 

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The Liberal Democrats have surged to first place in a sensational YouGov poll for the Times, on 24 per cent, ahead of the Brexit Party in second place on 22 per cent, while the Conservatives and Labour are tied on 19 per cent, and the Greens are up to eight per cent.

Regular readers will know that a good rule with any sensational poll is to quietly file it away as something to watch, and then to wait and see if the pattern is born out in further polls or local council by-elections, usually a reliable barometer of what is actually happening to public opinion on the ground.

However, there are a couple of specific factors to note here. The first is that many of the problems that have dogged the polling industry – samples filled with too many people who are hyper-political, leading to results that reacted to sharply to big news events and have given us the wrong impression about voter movements – may be at work not just here but across the polls. With the exception of Ipsos Mori and YouGov, all the pollsters overestimated the performances of both Labour and the Brexit Party and it may be that YouGov is experiencing similar problems.

There are also good reasons to think that these polls might be real, but ephemeral. The first is that while the Liberal Democrats have still had to scrap for every inch of coverage, and arguably haven’t received their fair share, they have been in the news more recently, thanks in part to their stunning performances in the local and European elections. That both Ed Davey and Jo Swinson have announced their bids for the vacant leadership means that the party has had two of its best communicators on prime slots on Newsnight, the Today programme and BBC Question Time. The party got a smaller boost in the polls in 2016 following its defeat of Zac Goldsmith in Richmond, thanks to both the afterglow of victory and an increase in the party’s press profile. The same thing may be happening now. 

There are two important caveats to all this, however. The first is that the Liberal Democrats don’t need these polls to last very long to do better at the next general election than the last one. All they need is one or two more positive polls to be able to put out a very different complexion of leaflets in their target seats – the places where they have both a strong councillor base and won in the European elections – which will make it much harder for the big parties to put the squeeze on them.

The second is to pause for a moment and imagine how you’d react to a poll showing the liberal centrist party leading the polls on 24 per cent in, say, the Netherlands, Germany, France, or anywhere in western Europe for that matter. You’d think it was noteworthy, but hardly surprising given the trends across the continent.

And that’s the thing. For the most part, British election results aren’t that remarkable when you zoom out and look across the continent. They can be exaggerated or muffled by our first-past-the-post electoral system but the trends are still there. And a centrist party, a nativist right party and a booming environmentalist party are all the trends we’d expect to see, rather than something remarkable.

So, yes, treat exciting new polls with patience and caution, but don’t dismiss them out of hand either.  

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.