As the conference season gets underway, leaders, not issues, will dominate the coverage. I have explored in depth at how the three party leaders are seen, particularly by voters who are open to switching parties at the next election. We asked voters in focus groups to choose from a large selection of words and images, to sum up their views of Cameron, Miliband and Clegg. If some of what they noticed seems superficial, it is not unimportant – voters will only weigh a leader’s motives, values and competence if they can be persuaded to give him a hearing in the first place.
David Cameron was widely seen as determined and competent. Some had an impression of arrogance or smugness, and a feeling that he is detached from ordinary people’s lives. But the principal impression was of a leader who is getting to grips with the mess he has been left. A number of our groups chose a picture of Churchill to portray Cameron as a leader rising to the challenge of our times – but one who, like Churchill in 1945, may not be rewarded for his actions in the ballot box.
After a year in his post, Ed Miliband has still not made an impression on many voters, which leads many to conclude that he is out of his depth as Opposition leader – often illustrated by a picture of a boy in a suit playing at doing a grown-up job. But the word the groups chose most often (sometimes mentioning spontaneously, but reluctantly, as though they would use a kinder word if they could think of one) was “weird”. This had several facets, including the leadership battle against his brother and his general demeanour and manner of speaking. For those more warmly disposed to Labour, Miliband was a blank canvas onto which they projected their hopes that he would, eventually, prove to be on the side of ordinary people and succeed in defeating the government – symbolised by a picture of a light at the end of a tunnel.
As for the Deputy Prime Minister, the chief debate in our groups was whether Nick Clegg was ineffectual because he was weak, or because he had traded principle for office. Some saw his weakness as a failure to argue his corner, and others, more charitably, as a reflection of the number of Liberal Democrat MPs compared to Conservatives. Either way, most thought he was making little impact, and despite having good values, was now articulating a Tory agenda – which they often illustrated by choosing a picture of a puppet on a string. The more cynical view was that he is calculating, blending into the background that best suits his advantage, as illustrated by a picture of a chameleon. Like Miliband, many thought Clegg seemed out of his depth, and a lightweight in comparison to Cameron. Yet despite what is a pretty devastating verdict for a political leader, there was very little personal animosity towards him: many found him likeable, and however little impact he seemed to be making, several said they found it comforting that he was there.
Analysis of our poll of 5,000 people found that views about leaders – whether positive about a party’s own leader, or negative about others’ – are a more important driver of support than views about policies. Those who named Cameron as the best available Prime Minister did so because of their view of his own qualities. This may sound obvious, but those who named Miliband or Clegg did so almost by default – their views of the other leaders were at least as important in their choice.
Crucially, Cameron is the only net attractor of supporters to his party. Voters who say they are likely to switch to the Tories at the next election have a more favourable view of him than they do of the Conservative Party generally. Meanwhile, those switching to Labour are so much more favourable towards the Labour Party than to Ed Miliband that it could almost be said that they are doing so in spite of him. And while most voters defecting from the Conservatives still see Cameron as the best available PM, most of those moving away from Labour and the Lib Dems would prefer someone other than Miliband or Clegg respectively in the top job.
Despite all this, the government faces more tough years, and polls point to a potential Labour majority. But this does not reflect a settled view that Miliband ought to be running the country instead of Cameron. The increase in the Labour vote share is soft, and only one in six voters switching to Labour were attracted by its leader. As the election nears the leadership factor will only grow in importance as people decide who they want in charge.
Read this story in The Sunday Telegraph.