This is the fifteenth of a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it.
In the previous two posts, we tracked the first decisive shift in public opinion since the collapse in Liberal Democrat support following the formation of the coalition. The Conservatives’ support fell sharply, while Labour advanced steadily. In just two months a double digit Labour lead opened up.
Another month has now passed since the spring shift against the Conservatives began, and opinion seems more stable. Our new estimate for the Conservatives puts them at 31.1%, up fractionally from the low of 30.8% a month ago. Cameron’s ship is no longer sinking, although it remains very low in the water. Conservative support in the past two months has been significantly lower than in any comparable period of the present Coalition government. The junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, continue to flat line in single digits, this month at 7.4%, down 0.8 points from last month. UKIP continue to notch up similar shares – we aim to begin tracking their polling performance next month.
While the Conservatives have stabilised, Labour have made a further advanced, pushing up 1.6% to 42.0%, a new record for the current government. If Ed Miliband was to achieve this share in a general election, he would beat Tony Blair’s performance in the 2001 and 2005 elections, and be within touching distance of the share (43.2%) achieved in the historic 1997 landslide. Given such polling numbers it is surprising that his leadership continues to face media criticism. This may perhaps reflect continued poor ratings of his leadership in the polls, although these have started to improve over the past two months, suggesting Miliband personally may benefit from comparison with a struggling Prime Minister
A further month of poor poll ratings suggests negativity about Cameron’s party is solidifying. It is now less likely that the shift in voting intentions represents a temporary blip in response to a string of bad news cycles, although these did continue at reduced volume over the month, and more likely that it reflects a more decisive shift in voters’ assessments of the Conservatives’ policies and their competence to govern. Of course, plenty of time remains before the parties will face the voters – assuming the Coalition holds together – but Cameron and his colleagues badly need something positive to offer the voters. At present, austerity and economic stagnation rumble on, taking a steadily increasing toll. Recent research by Professor Larry Bartels suggests that the fate of governing parties since 2008 has been closely tied to economic performance. Incumbent governments who fail to deliver on the economy get thrown out, regardless of their ideological direction. Bartels’ model suggests economic growth rates at close to zero, as seen over the first two years of Coalition government, would be likely to reduce Conservative support by 5-8 percentage points, most likely enough to see them back in opposition. His model has not, however, been tested much for parties which entered government after the crash, which is a small crumb of comfort for the Government.
But Britain’s continued economic weakness looks will clearly remain the primary source of Conservative anxiety moving forward, and a strong reason for making the awkward marriage of coalition work until more prosperous times arrive.
Robert Ford, Mark Pickup and Will Jennings