THE BLOG

Why Nick Clegg Is in Trouble in His Own Back Yard

11/08/2014 16:33 BST | Updated 11/10/2014 10:59 BST

Sheffield student Aidan Phillips recently voiced the widespread desire among Sheffield students to get rid of Nick Clegg as their local MP. Phillips believes Clegg's Sheffield Hallam constituency contains 11,000 student voters. Actually, there may be considerably more, given that Sheffield University and Sheffield Hallam University have 64,000 students between them, if one includes postgraduates. Even allowing for many of them being overseas students, and many more living outside the constituency, this is a sobering prospect for the Deputy Prime Minister, who voted to treble fees just five months after he promised to scrap them; and as an implicit part of his subsequent "apology", he admitted that he was lying when he made his 2010 election pledge.

Of course, these 64,000 students do not all live in the constituency - although a great many of them do so for part of the year, and could theoretically swamp the "home" electorate. Realistically, they are more likely to be registered to vote at their home addresses, where they live during vacation, than they are to be registered in Hallam.

Nine years ago, I remember helping to run the student campaign which was part of the Liberal Democrats taking Cambridge on one of the biggest swings of the 2005 general election. Back then, the single biggest piece of work undertaken in preparing for the election was in encouraging students nine months out that they should register to vote in Cambridge, not at home.

We did this in two ways:

Firstly, we argued that by registering in Cambridge, students were able to vote with one voice, in a place where their votes would count, instead of being dispersed around the country as a minority. By registering in Cambridge, students would be so concentrated in one area that politicians in that constituency would have to listen to them.

Secondly, we argued that the treachery of the incumbent MP over fees was such that this was too important an issue to let it go away. In the case of Cambridge, Anne Campbell MP had pledged to oppose tuition fees in 1997, before then voting for them; and she had pledged to oppose top-up-fees in 2001, then later pledged to abstain on top-up fees - and then when it came to the vote, she actually voted for them. Such brazen treachery from a politician surely deserved to be punished.

Despite a healthy-sounding 15,284 majority secured in the heady days of 'Cleggmania', Clegg looks like he's in trouble in Hallam. Aidan Phillips points to council election results across the five wards of Sheffield Hallam since 2010, where the Lib Dem vote has slumped from 53% in 2006-10, to 31-39% since 2010 - and while the Conservative share of the vote has broadly flatlined, Labour's share of the vote has increased in that same period from 11-16% to 23-29%. The figures are converging, though not necessarily overlapping.

Phillips's figures are, of course, somewhat misleading. They actually underestimate how far the Lib Dem vote has fallen in Hallam, particularly in 2014.

Amidst the gloom of the 2014 local election results, the official Lib Dem line was that the party was jubilant that it had still topped the poll in Clegg's constituency, showing that they could still win in difficult circumstances. On the face of it, it seemed impressive that Lib Dems polled 53% to Labour's 32%, with the Conservatives on 15%, in what had been a staunchly Tory seat for most of the twentieth century.

What passed largely unnoticed was that in 2014, the Conservatives did not field candidates in two of the five wards of Sheffield Hallam. In 40% of the seat, if you were a Conservative voter supporting the coalition, your only real choice was to tactically vote Lib Dem, which of course artificially propped up the Lib Dem share of the vote. One of these two wards, Stannington, was a Lib Dem hold, while the other, Crookes, was a Labour gain on a very tight poll. Given that Crookes is the centre of Hallam's student housing, it is perhaps surprising to find that the Lib Dems should have come so close to winning in such unpromising territory (1,833 votes to Labour's 2,103), and only the knowledge that the Conservatives withdrew and gave the Lib Dems a clear run comes near to explaining why the Lib Dems came so close to holding on to the ward.

The Conservatives will not repeat this "clear run" for Clegg in 2015. One of the provisions of the Conservative Party's constitution is a commitment to stand candidates in every parliamentary constituency in the UK. Clegg thus faces the prospect of real trouble in his back yard, against a backdrop of recent polls that have been even worse for the Lib Dems since the 2014 elections.

Two detailed sets of publicly-visible polling have been done in Clegg's Hallam constituency. The most recent was the much-publicised ICM poll commissioned by Lord Oakeshott in early 2014, which showed that with Clegg as leader, the Lib Dems were on track to lose the seat and come third with 23%, compared to 33% for Labour and 24% for the Conservatives. This poll was the subject of a much-quoted hatchet job by Survation - who failed to mention in their detailed post that they are employed by the Liberal Democrats as their private pollster, and therefore have a vested interest. Yet Survation's attacks on the ICM poll don't stand up to much scrutiny. It was claimed that the poll underestimates the Lib Dem incumbency factor, by not naming the local candidate. But Nick Clegg's personal poll ratings are dire - officially the worst since polling began, and worse even than Michael Foot, Iain Duncan Smith or Gordon Brown. Who are these mythical thousands of Hallam voters who say "I wouldn't vote for the Lib Dems, but I really like Nick Clegg"? Secondly, Survation somewhat misleadingly claimed that the Oakeshott poll was at odds with a previous set of polling done by Lord Ashcroft in Hallam, "conducted a good 4-5 months into this highly unpopular Coalition". The Ashcroft polling, which showed that Clegg would suffer a heavy swing against him, but would narrowly survive, was in fact done in November 2010 - a month before the tuition fees debacle, and crucially, still during the Coalition's honeymoon period. If that's what the figures looked like in November 2010, and if the Oakeshott poll is as accurate as ICM believe it to be, then Clegg looks to be in serious trouble.

If Clegg does lose his seat at the general election, he would be the first incumbent major party leader to do so since Sir Archibald Sinclair in 1945 (who was ironically the last Liberal leader to sit in cabinet, in a Conservative-dominated coalition). His place in the history books would be assured - but not in the way he would like.

As noted, in Cambridge in 2005, it was the effort to register some 20,000 student voters in the constituency which sealed the incumbent MP's fate, even though on the face of it, it was a safe seat. Thus when students at Hallam's two universities return for term next month, the decision they make over where to register will be central in ensuring whether or not Nick Clegg will be re-elected in 2015 for five more years as a Sheffield MP.