It may be a somewhat arbitrary measure, and we couldn’t have done it without the BBC, but yesterday’s RSA fringe meeting at LibDem conference was a mark of great progress. This time last year we held only one fringe meeting and attracted an audience of about 30. This year we are having a meeting at each conference and we started last night with an audience of over 150.
The event discussed the question ‘what do voters want’. An excellent presentation from Bobby Duffy of Mori underlined the confused and confusing nature of public opinion. The facts are surprising, and they got some rueful laughs from a good humoured and feisty audience.
So satisfaction with the NHS is at its highest recorded level, but 56 per cent believe it is in crisis. Or try this one - voters are very worried about climate change with 74 per cent saying we are heading for environmental disaster if we don't change our ways. But then 59 per cent say they themselves are doing nothing about it. People think it's up to government to solve our environmental challenges, but green policies won't actually be the deciding factor when it comes to the ballot box. In fact it won't even be close.
This goes to the heart of a key problem in modern politics. The voters, or more accurately the general unwillingness of politicians to have an honest conversation with voters. As citizens we have insight into the problems are that our society faces but we seem to want to have our cake and eat it. We don't want government to meddle in our affairs, but we want it to protect us from all ills. We want American tax levels but Scandinavian welfare provision.
As we approach an election politicians will be increasingly tempted to pander to rather than confront the public’s contradictory desires, which is why these fringe meetings are timely as well as entertaining.
We are looking forward to the next debates - over the next two Sundays David Miliband and then Oliver Letwin will be giving us their take on what the voters want and what their parties can and should do.