This is the second in a series of reviews of the state of public opinion for each of the parties to coincide with the conference season. 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 random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which 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. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.
Ed Miliband and his colleagues head to Manchester this weekend knowing their party is in its strongest polling position for over seven years. Labour have held a consistent 10 point lead, their strongest showing since the Conservatives elected David Cameron their leader in the autumn of 2005. In the polls were translated into votes, Ed Miliband would deliver Labour’s strongest election performance since Tony Blair’s second landslide in 2001. Yet this strong polling position does not seem to have generated much confidence among Labour’s leaders and their media supporters. There is an enduring belief that Labour’s position is weaker than the polls suggest.
Part of the reason for this is that the pattern of polling advance suggests Labour are not really masters of their own destiny. As can be seen in the polling chart, Labour’s polling since the last election has been a story of surge, decline, and surge again. The first surge came in the first months after the election, when Liberal Democrat voters reacted to their party’s decision to ally with the Conservatives, and then to vote in favour of increased tuition fees, by defecting in large numbers to Labour. Labour’s poll rating increased nearly 15 percentage points in the first six months of the government, from the high twenties to a peak of around 43% at the height of the tuition fees battle. After this, Labour support went into a long steady slide, falling throughout 2011 and into the early months of 2012 by about one percentage point every two months. This decline abruptly reversed in the spring of 2012, when an avalanche of negative headlines – the “omnishambles” budget, Abu Qatada, fuel prices, cash for access and many others – sent ratings of Cameron’s Conservatives into a nosedive. Labour recovered the ground lost in the previous year in just two months, and have since levelled off at around 42%, close to their highest levels for this Parliament.
The worrying thing about this pattern for Ed Miliband and his colleagues is that neither of the surges in their support have much to do with anything they have said or done. Labour’s first surge resulted from revulsion among centre-left Lib Dem voters at the prospect of governing with the Conservatives, while the second surge followed a series of disasters befalling the government. During 2011, Labour steadily declined despite economic stagnation, rising unemployment, the News of the World scandal and a war in Libya. It seemed there was nothing the opposition could do to win voters round, until George Osborne made the fateful decision to tax Cornish pasties.
So one source of Labour’s anxiety is a nagging fear that they are not masters of their own destiny – they have benefitted from the missteps of their opponents, but if the Coalition get their act together and manage a string of scandal free months, the long slide of 2011 will recommence. Mid-term blues can also dissipate as an election approaches – Cameron’s party held even larger leads during 2009, only for the polls to tighten as election day approached.
Another worry is that the polls may be over-stating Labour’s position. Before 2010, there had been a consistent pro-Labour bias in polling in every election going back to 1987, and party veterans remember the bitter disappointment of 1992, when a narrow Labour lead in the polls vanished on election day and John Major was returned to lead a fourth successive Conservative majority government.
A third source of concern is Ed Miliband’s personal ratings as leader – these have been consistently negative and generally not much better than David Cameron’s (although they are a lot better than Nick Clegg’s disastrous ratings).
These sources of concern may be overstated. Opposition parties never have full control of their fates, as the focus of voter and media attention is always on the government. The saying “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them” has a grain of truth to it. While a strong economic recovery may yet boost the government, further cuts in public services may weigh it down. While polling bias was an ongoing concern before 2010, in the last election there was no evidence that the pollsters overstated Labour support. On leadership ratings, Ed Miliband can take comfort from an unlikely source: Margaret Thatcher. She consistently trailed the incumbent Prime Minister James “Sunny Jim” Callaghan in leadership ratings, but still won the 1979 general election handily.
Labour will also be cheered by how the electoral system is likely to translate votes into seats. In recent elections, this process has benefitted Labour: in 2005 Tony Blair converted a three point lead in the polls into a comfortable majority; five years later David Cameron failed to win a majority of seats despite winning a larger lead and share of the vote. Nick Clegg has done Labour a large favour by announcing he will not support boundary changes which would have reduced this bias. As a result, Miliband can be confident that any lead in vote share will translate into a large lead in Westminster seats.
A degree of paranoia among Labour’s leadership is perhaps understandable – many of them cut their teeth politically during Tony Blair’s time as opposition leader in 1994-7. Blair was convinced that his commanding opinion poll leads were exaggerated and unstable, and never really believed that a Labour landslide was on the cards until the results were in. Ed Miliband’s polling position is not as overwhelming as Blair’s was, but by historical standards his lead is strong. In modern British history only Neil Kinnock has held such large leads in the polls at mid-term and gone on to lose, and his polling strength partly reflected hostility to Margaret Thatcher, who the Conservatives removed before election day.
David Cameron is not as hated, and does not look likely to go (though Nick Clegg is, and might). A large poll lead; a fractious and unpopular governing Coalition with a moribund junior partner; a stagnant economy with large cuts austerity cuts still looming; a massive head start from a biased electoral system – Labour have many reasons to be confident. But memories of last year’s Scottish Parliament elections are fresh: Labour had the same combination of strong polling but weak leadership in and lost in a landslide an election they looked set to win easily Many will also look across the Atlantic, where an incumbent who looked in serious trouble two years ago in pole position, as steady economic recovery and an unloved opponent have brought the voters streaming back. Ed Miliband, like Mitt Romney and Iain Grey, struggles to connect with the average voter. Given these ominous precedents, it is no wonder the Manchester delegates still look anxious.
Rob Ford, Will Jennings, Mark Pickup