Polling Observatory #21: is David Cameron picking the wrong fights?

Nott 01-02-13 low res smallThis is the twenty-first in 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 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.

What do gay marriage and the European Union have in common? They are both issues which the Conservative leadership have brought to the top of the political agenda in the past few weeks. And both are issues which interest the average Conservative MP a great deal more than the average voter. David Cameron’s long awaited, and heavily promoted, “Big Speech” on Europe won near universal praise from Eurosceptic politicians and journalists despite proposing no concrete reforms to the EU and no concrete change in Britain’s relationships with Brussels this side of the 2015 general election.

In the aftermath of the Big Speech, which its supporters claimed settled the issue of Europe once and for all for Conservatives, all eyes turned to the polls for evidence that Cameron had reversed the leak of votes to UKIP which most likely helped push the issue on the agenda in the first place. This ploy had worked before, after all: Cameron started 2012 with a spring in his step, after his largely meaningless “veto” at the December 2011 EU summit produced a substantial “bounce” in his party’s poll ratings (and his personal ratings as leader). For a short while, the Conservatives and Labour were neck and neck. It didn’t last though – within a few months normal service resumed, with the Tories slowly deflating, UKIP drifting upwards and Labour back in a comfortable pole position.

In 2013, the benefits of Brussels bashing look even more meagre. Our estimate has the Conservatives at 31.9% this month, up a mere 1.3 point on early December. Labour have shifted even less, down 0.7% at 40.7%, while UKIP have proved resilient to the Big Speech, coming in at 8.8%, exactly where we had them nearly two months ago. This isn’t a big surprise, as a growing body of research and polling shows that, unlike Conservative backbenchers, UKIP voters don’t see Europe as the burning issue of the day. Their support for Nigel Farage’s party is more to do with anxiety about immigration and a general negativity about the current government. The Conservatives should know this, as their largest funder Lord Ashcroft provided a detailed and convincing report on the concerns of UKIP voters just a few months ago. Nor have the Tories benefited at the expense of their pro-EU coalition partners – the Lib Dems’ are at 8.8%, up 0.3 points on our December reading. Some Conservative MPs seem to believe making the next election a referendum about the EU is a winning strategy. On this point, the polling evidence is pretty clear: it isn’t.

How about gay marriage? We will have polling evidence on that next month, but again there are strong reasons to be sceptical that it will help the Conservatives. As with Europe, this is an issue where voters broadly agree with the Conservatives’ policy proposals, but also regard it as a pretty low priority. YouGov polling suggests only around 7% of voters think the introduction of gay marriage will influence their vote, and as Anthony Wells points out even that low number is likely to be exaggerated, as voters tend to have an inflated sense of the impact passing issues will have on their political choices. Legalising gay marriage won’t win armies of new voters to the Tory banner.

Will it help the image of the Conservative party, as a progressive, inclusive, modernised organisation? The idea that it might was surely a strong motive for bringing the issue on to the agenda, but there are good reasons to suspect Cameron may have scored an own goal on this front. Voters already think he is more liberal than his party, and the gay marriage debate has provided ample evidence to support this view. Conservative opponents have had a great deal of media airtime, which they have used to broadcast some rather antiquated views about marriage and gay relationships. In Tuesday’s vote more than half of Conservative MPs voted against the proposal, or abstained, even as the other parties voted overwhelmingly in favour.

The image of “senior local Conservatives” – all men, all grey haired, in suits and Barbour jackets – delivering a petition in opposition to gay marriage at No 10 on Sunday is not likely to encourage voters to see the Conservatives as a modernised, inclusive party. Rather than convince voters the party had changed, the gay marriage debate looks set to reinforce the perception that a socially liberal PM has tried, but failed, to bring the grumpy old men in his party into line with mainstream British public opinion.

The gay marriage debate may also worsen a second image problem for the Conservatives. As MPs and prominent media figures queue up to assail their Prime Minister, the issue is likely to reinforce perceptions that the Conservatives are divided. There is no shortage of other evidence for this – backbench plots against the leadership on the front pages of newspapers, and a regular drumbeat of criticism of the government over all manner of policies from discontents who blame Cameron for failing to win a majority, or failing to stand up to the Liberal Democrats, or failing on the deficit, or economic growth, or welfare reform. The list goes on and on.

The endless criticism and internal strife has started to register strongly with the electorate – in a YouGov poll on 5th February 71% of voters said they regarded the Conservatives as divided – the highest figure YouGov have recorded since starting to ask the question in 2003, and 54 point up on 2008. This is an ominous figure: public perceptions of government competence are a key driver of vote choice, and divided parties are generally regarded as less competent than unified ones. News reports showing a large cast of Tory MPs attacking their leader over gay marriage will not help rebuild an image of unity. Meanwhile, UKIP stand ready to welcome socially conservative voters opposed to the change with open arms, having expressed strong opposition to gay marriage (an interesting position given their professed “libertarian” ideology).

Our polling suggests David Cameron’s first big idea of 2013 – the Big Fat Euro Referendum – did nothing to boost his party’s prospects, while his second big idea – gay marriage – may damage them. The prospect of a pasting in the 2014 European Parliament elections will loom ever larger as 2013 wears on. If Cameron wants to turn around his party’s fortunes, and stem the leak of voters to UKIP, he needs to find some proposals that are popular with his MPs, his activists and the electorate at large, and acceptable to his coalition partners. No one ever said being Prime Minister was easy.

Rob Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup

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