Polling Observatory conference updates #2: Labour – how secure is Ed Miliband’s lead?

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

Nick Clegg: the wrong sort of Liberal?

It has been an uncomfortable week for Nick Clegg. Opinion polls continue to show him to be (by some distance) the least popular of the party leaders, and his public apology for his Party’s failure to keep its election pledge on tuition fees has seen him inadvertently propelled into the world of pop stardom.

But perhaps things are turning around for the beleaguered Liberal Democrat leader. This week has seen Clegg backed by Boris Johnson, and that news follows the publication of a wholehearted endorsement from his former Director of Strategy, Richard Reeves. The article, published in the latest edition of the New Statesman (and as a pamphlet by Demos), argues that the Liberal Democrats’ political future depends on Clegg remaining leader.

Reeves’ central contention is that the best hope for the Liberal Democrats is to carve out a distinctive identity as a genuinely ‘liberal’ party rather than as a soft-left alternative to Labour. This means pushing through the process of policy reform that began after Clegg became leader in 2007. And for this ‘liberalisation’ of Liberal Democrat policy to be completed, Reeves argues, it is vital that Clegg remain in post.

This, as Reeves acknowledges, will not be an easy agenda to fulfil. Quite apart from the difficult economic environment, and the reality of a coalition with a Conservative Party unsympathetic to many liberal instincts, Clegg will also need to face down many within his own ranks if he to transform the Liberal Democrats into a ‘party promoting real liberalism’. For, according to Reeves, many Liberal Democrats are not liberals at all – they are social democrats.

Of course, the presence within the Liberal Democrats of a substantial group of social democrats should come as a surprise to no one – the party is, after all, the result of the amalgamation of the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party in 1988. Many ex-Social Democrats continue to occupy prominent positions in the Party (the most notable being the Business Secretary, Vince Cable) and while the distinction between Liberals and Social Democrats is not as important as is often supposed, it is nevertheless worth remembering that the Liberal Democrats are an ideological hybrid. The party’s intellectual and ideological roots lie in both the many and varied strands of British liberalism, and also in the revisionist social democracy of the 1960s. Any history of the party must include the names of Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams alongside those of Jo Grimond and David Steel, and it is unwise for any Liberal Democrat leader to neglect this heritage.

Equally problematic is the fact that the precise nature of the Liberal Democrats’ liberalism is profoundly contested, especially on issues connected to the role of the state and the management of the economy. While calls for higher taxation on ‘unearned wealth’ have an air of John Stuart Mill about them, and are likely to win widespread internal support, many Liberal Democrats will be far more sceptical about Reeves’ calls for further reform of the public services. Though the reform of the NHS and the introduction of free schools are portrayed as attempts to redistribute power from centralised bureaucracies to ordinary individuals, those on the ‘social liberal’ left of the party are far more likely to see them as a continuation of the Blairite reforms of the 1990s and 2000s. Rather than representing a genuine redistribution of power, these reforms have been perceived as a further extension of consumerism into the public sector at the expense of equality of access – an argument made by Richard Grayson earlier this year in an essay for the pressure group Liberal Left.

Though these social liberals also want to see reform of the public services, they would prefer to see power passed into the hands of stronger and more dynamic local authorities, rather than seeing local government bypassed altogether. This is an approach that focuses on the political control of public services through local democracy, rather than through the extension of individual choice and the introduction of new service providers. And it is an approach that was criticised by leading Liberal Democrat (and Clegg ally) David Laws earlier this year.

Any attempt to ‘liberalise’ the Liberal Democrats may, therefore, run into considerable internal difficulties from those who do not share the particular vision of liberal democracy articulated by Reeves and (apparently) held by Clegg. Reeves objects that Clegg is ‘wrongly portrayed as more conservative than his party’, when the ‘truth is that he is simply more liberal’. This may well be the case – the problem is that he may turn out to be the wrong sort of liberal.

Matthew Francis – who has recently been awarded a PhD for his thesis on the influence of neo-liberalism on British party politics.

Sitcoms and the politics of disillusion

The return, for a final season, of The Thick of It and news that Yes Minister is to be revived for the small screen might suggest that comedies about politics are back with a vengance.

However, the first new episode of The Thick of It, broadcast on BBC2, was watched by just over 1.5 million, less than a repeat of Dad’s Army shown earlier that Saturday evening; while Yes Minister is to be screened by the subscription channel Gold, so audiences are set to be smaller still.

There was a time however when politics was depicted in situation comedies about everyday life, ones shown at peak times and so watched by millions. In this post on my personal blog I highlight the role that politics played in some of them, including, most notably, Steptoe and Son.

Steven Fielding

Polling Observatory conference updates #1: Lib Dems & UKIP battling for third place in 2015

This is the first 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.

UKIP’s annual conference, which kicks off in Birmingham today, does not normally attract much attention. The Eurosceptic right wing party has in the past been dismissed as an ineffective fringe organisation, whose impressive results in European Parliament elections, used by British voters to vent their frustrations with Brussels and Westminster alike, would never translate into serious domestic political influence.

This year is different. The party written off not so long ago by the current Prime Minister as a collection of ‘loonies, fruitcakes and racists’ has surged in the polls, and in outlets as diverse as the Guardian, the Daily Mail and Radio 4’s Today programme journalists debate its potential influence on the outcome of the next election. Our first chart estimating UKIP support since the last election, pooling all the available evidence, confirms that a growing share of the electorate are now turning to the purple people. The party’s support has grown in two spurts. The first came at the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011, when UKIP support roughly doubled from around 2% to 4%. The most likely cause was the greatly elevated visibility of the EU, which was in the news nearly continuously during this period due to serial debt crises culminating in bailouts to  Greece (May 2010); Ireland (November 2010) and Portugal (May 2011). Withdrawal from the EU is UKIP’s signature issue, so it is easy to see why endless stories of debt and despair in the Eurozone increased the party’s appeal).

After the Portugese bailout in May 2011, the Eurozone faded from the headlines for a while, and UKIP’s support levelled off at around 4%, where it remained until spring 2012, when it suddenly doubled to around 7-8%, where it has remained since. Although the Eurozone was yet again in the news around this time with a second bailout for Greece, the likeliest explanation for this second surge was domestic politics: UKIP’s rise coincided with a sharp drop in Conservative support in the wake of the “omnishambles” budget and other political scandals and set backs. UKIP seem to have been the big beneficiary from this opinion shift, and have retained their added support as public opinion settled down over the summer, leaving them within striking distance of the Liberal Democrats.

While UKIP’s story is one of advance in two spurts, the Liberal Democrats’ story since joining the Coalition is one of decline followed by stagnation. Our estimates suggest the party’s decision to ally with the Conservatives, and then to support policies such as tuition fee increases which they had opposed prior to Coalition, has decimated their support. From a peak of close to 25% immediately after the election, the Lib Dems fell relentlessly to a level of around 8% at the end of 2010, losing two thirds of their former support and have been stuck at this level ever since. The good news for Clegg and his party is that what remains of their support seems to be pretty loyal – their support has not shifted at all in the last 18 months despite steadily declining rating for the government in general, and Nick Clegg in particular. The bad news is that support has stablised at a level which would bring annihilation in a general election, as it already has in local and Scottish elections. No wonder Nick Clegg feels the need to say “sorry”.

UKIP’s surge and the Lib Dems collapse has added an intriguing undercard fight to the tradition main event of Labour vs Conservative. Can Nigel Farage’s blazered and pinstriped Brussels bashers really overtake the dominant third force in British politics for a generation? Current polling suggests it is certainly possible, but there are also reasons for skepticism. Firstly, Liberal Democrat MPs may be able to fall back on their local popularity to offset the effects of their party’s national toxicity. MPs generally enjoy some incumbency bonus, reflecting their profile and popularity among local constituents, and Liberal Democrats may enjoy a larger than typical advantage here. Many represent seats in areas which on paper look like hostile territory – such as Simon Hughes in normally heavily Labour inner London or Chris Huhne in Eastleigh, a formerly deep blue Hampshire seat. Such seats were often won on a large anti-government swing at by-election and then held through assiduous local service  by MPs unusually well aware that they need to win and hold local loyalties to survive. Incumbent who have cultivated strong local roots of this kind may perform better than the polls suggest.

The Liberal Democrats also understand better than UKIP the hard realities of electoral geography. It is no use in British politics getting 20% of the vote in every seat – you are left with a large crop of losing candidates, a grievance against the electoral system, and no political representation at all. Returning MPs to Westminster requires geographically concentrated support, which for an insurgent party normally means a long slog in local politics, building a profile and an activist base to enable a break through at Westminster. Many Lib Dem MPs owe their support either to intensive local work of this kind, or to the residual Liberal loyalties of areas like South West England and the Scottish Highlands, which have been returning Liberal MP’s since William Gladstone’s time.

Building such a local support base will also be vital for UKIP,  as their support is unusually evenly spread. Although UKIP won close to a million votes in 2010, they did not get more than 10% in any seat contested by the main parties, and only managed three third place finishes. Those predicting a UKIP surge in Westminster should remember there are no seats at all in Britain where UKIP are the main challenger to the incumbent. It might be possible to overcome such a position with a determined, locally focussed activist push, perhaps beginning in the South Western districts where UKIP has performed strongest in the past. But, as yet, there is little evidence of a serious push by UKIP to build strong local profiles. Although the party won record levels of support in the 2011 and 2012 local elections, this was once again spread evenly over the country, and UKIP still has no representatives on any of Britain’s district or metropolitan councils, and only a smattering of representatives on smaller, lower profile town councils (often through defection rather than election).

Without concentrated local bases of support and activism it will be very hard for UKIP to break through nationally in the next general election. How many of UKIP’s new supporters will remain willing to support an unknown candidate wearing the rosette of a party which came fourth in the last election and has never managed to even elect a local councillor? UKIP’s poll ratings are impressive, and probably sufficient to deliver another strong showing in the 2014 European Parliament elections, but without local strongholds it remains likely that the purple tide will recede when voters come to elect their new MPs in 2015.

Rob FordWill JenningsMark Pickup

Cameron, Miliband and the politics of the past

In her column in the Daily Telegraph last week, Mary Riddell drew on my book to argue that David Cameron is at risk of destroying his party’s link to the national past; of concreting over the connection to the native soil reawakened by the Olympics.

Part of the argument of my book is that Margaret Thatcher (and those who came after her) had already lost the reverence for the past that marked previous generations of Westminster’s political class. Instead, they made free use of ‘heritage’, drawing together certain elements of the past to underpin their intentions in the present – whether of Victorian values or an ‘historic’ progressive alliance, more authentic than the hard left’s class politics. The past here served the present; it did not challenge or unsettle it.

Yet, as Riddell points out, Cameron seems at risk of jettisoning even this rather weak and instrumental sense of the past. He is taking inspiration from the iconoclasm of the Thatcher and Blair years, without realising that they were built upon a very subtle negotiation with the past: rejection, rewriting and reclaiming went hand in hand.

Thatcher was described by Maurice Cowling as having ‘only a low-level, Neville Chamberlain-type conception of the spiritual glue which is one of the Conservative Party’s special needs’. Yet, she was able to weave together her own myth, based on pickings from Conservative and Liberal history, and from national and intensely personal heritage. Even Blair, the arch-moderniser, was more nuanced than might first appear. In the debates over party modernisation, he first dismissed the appeal of Labour’s past, casting his opponents as simply sentimental and nostalgic. But then he rewrote it –claiming an alternate heritage, based on co-operative values and the Edwardian progressive alliance. Because this pre-dated the commitment to public ownership, it could be claimed as necessarily more authentic.

As Riddell notes, Ed Miliband seems to have grasped this better than Cameron. As I wrote about his appearance at the Durham Miners’ Gala, he too is managing to construct a sense of shared heritage based on local and national identities, which draws together a narrative that is both partisan and patriotic.

In doing so, Miliband could do worse than take inspiration from Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony. For all the cries of ‘socialism’, this was intended as a unifying portrayal of the national past – in fact it was its presentation of the multicultural present which seem to have caused the most upset on the Tory right. Boyle’s image of the pastoral idyll destroyed by capital could have come straight from the socialist pageants of the 1930s. Yet, this past was also presented as the fount of national greatness and technological progress. It was the route by which, for good or ill, we came to be the country we are today. And by the end of the performance we were left in little doubt that this was undeniably for good. Even the references to the great touchstones of radical history – the Jarrow marchers, the Suffragettes, the NHS – were placed in a nostalgic frame of ‘pastness’. They could be celebrated as part of our heritage, without challenging the basis of the present.

This attitude to the past – affirmative, celebratory – is very much in tune with wider cultural attitudes. Tracing our history and preserving our heritage has become a way of enhancing and affirming our sense of who we are, both individually and collectively. While the past may no longer impose any obligations on us, instead it serves as an inspiration. And the wisest of our politicians know how to appeal to just this sentiment.

History, Heritage and Tradition in Contemporary British Politics: past politics and present histories (Manchester University Press, 2012), was launched last week at the House of Lords.

Emily Robinson