Nick Clegg isn’t hated – his problem is something else

In the TV show The West Wing, the deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman once said, “I make it a point never to disagree with Labour blogger Hopi Sen when he’s right, Mr President.” (I may have paraphrased).

While I probably should never ignore such sage advice, this time I do disagree with Hopi. In particular I disagree with his assertion that the Lib Dems absolutely have to get rid of Nick Clegg because, as he puts it:

“PEOPLE HATE NICK CLEGG.

REALLY HATE HIM.

REALLY. REALLY. HATE. HIM.

They are not kidding about this and are not going to change their minds.”

But I think Hopi – and everyone else who makes the same point – are misdiagnosing the problem for Nick Clegg. Because the polls suggest, as politicians go, he really isn’t particularly unpopular.

According to Lord Ashcroft’s May poll (which I use as it has a huge base size), Clegg’s average score, in terms of “how positively or negatively” people feel, on a scale of -100 to +100, is -11.7. This is slightly worse than Cameron’s -1.7 and Miliband’s -2.4, but is roughly on a par with -15.8 for Osborne and -10.6 for Balls.

So on average, Clegg is relatively low though not bottom. But this doesn’t tell us about the spread of opinions.

If Hopi’s right that a meaningful number of people really (really) hate Clegg, we should see a high number giving him extremely negative scores – but we don’t. The proportion that give him scores in the bottom 10% (-80 or below) is pretty much the same as for Cameron and Miliband:

What’s more, the people who give him such negative scores are far more likely to be 2010 Labour voters than 2010 Lib Dem voters: compared with the 31% of 2010 Labour voters who rate Clegg so badly, only 13% of 2010 Lib Dem voters give him such low scores.

Comparing the 13% of 2010 Lib Dem voters who give him such a low score with the 2% of current Lib Dem voters who do the same, we can work out that, among those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 but now wouldn’t do so, about 22% give Nick Clegg a score of -80 of below. So even among current Labour voters and defecting Lib Dem voters (which are overlapping groups), less than a third appear to really dislike Clegg.

It’s far from a good performance, but not in itself a sign that Clegg couldn’t do all right in an election again.

So if he isn’t hated, what’s the issue for Clegg? There clearly is a problem that needs explaining given 76% of people think he’s doing badly.

His difficulty isn’t that he’s seen as loathsome, but that he’s seen as pathetic. These Populus numbers are now 16 months old, but I suspect still hold true:

So Clegg’s seen as out of his depth, weak and indecisive, yet also likeable and not arrogant.

If these are the drivers of his unpopularity, we may wonder about the consequences of a music video that shows Clegg’s humanity and humility – but also the fact that he misjudged what he’d be able to achieve in government, for which he felt he had to apologise.

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