This is the twenty-ninth 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.
In this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.
We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties vote shares have never been lower, a previously marginal party is polling consistently above 10% and the geography of the main parties’ voters is highly polarised, meaning that comparisons with how poll leads have translated into results in previous elections potentially are very misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time insecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.
A year ago, when we reported on the party conference season, Labour’s vote share stood at around 42.2%. Our estimates now put it almost five points lower, at 37.3%. As we noted at the time, Labour suffers from the same problem as any party in opposition – not being master of its own destiny, but instead depending on the favourable wind of events and government cock-ups. It is not so much anything that Labour has done recently that has led to this easing of support. Indeed, Labour’s level of support has hardly shifted at all in the past five months, despite the kerfuffle over Syria, the seeming fallout with the unions over events in Falkirk, and mutterings about Miliband’s leadership. The slump happened in the spring of 2013, and may reflect UKIP’s surging popularity and the newfound celebrity of its leader, Nigel Farage. The Eurosceptic populist party has attracted a lot of the voters dissatisfied by the government, particularly older working class voters, who might otherwise (reluctantly) be backing Ed Miliband’s Labour.
The public has not been paying much attention to Labour or its leader. But this is quite normal for a party that was in government so recently, despite a quite pathological obsession of some commentators with Miliband – the public were tired of Labour in 2010 after thirteen years of government, and these negative memories have not faded sufficiently for voters to think they deserve another turn in Number 10. For an opposition, it is difficult to define yourself when you lack control of the daily news agenda – and the communications machinery of government is not at your fingertips.
In a number of important political battles, Miliband has shown himself to have some mettle and a calm strategic mind where other opposition leaders would have folded. Labour is seeing a gradual loss of fair-weather supporters gained during a period when the economy was struggling, it had the Prime Minister on the run over the phone-hacking scandal, and the Chancellor had delivered the infamous omnishambles budget of March 2012. Where Miliband and Labour are struggling, is to define what they stand for. It needs to provide a clear alternative, but there are risks attached to revealing their cards too far before the next election. One should also be careful interpreting the numbers. People know what David Cameron stands for, but many of them do not like it – with 48% thinking he is ‘out of touch’ compared to 15% for Miliband. In assessing the popularity of party leaders, one has to be careful making historical comparisons, too – as the public are increasingly negative about the political class in general. Indeed, the ratings of all the party leaders have been in decline during the current parliament, with both Labour and the Conservatives seen as ‘rather old and tired’ by voters.
There are dangers, too, in Labour dancing to the tune of an unfavourably disposed media that is never likely to be won over – as illustrated by the journalistic appetite for leadership crisis stories during the summer silly season, and its overreaction to Labour’s position on Syria, which was in line with public opinion. Labour’s strongest attributes with voters are its reputation for its heart being in the right place and caring for the more vulnerable in society. Despite the evidence that social attitudes have become increasingly unsympathetic towards issues such as welfare, much of this comes down to the dominant framing of these issues – which have immense power to shape public opinion. The Conservatives have suffered from this too – where attempts to deliver more hardline policies on Europe (the veto) and immigration have only served to prime public opinion to demand more and more undeliverable reforms – and hence fuel UKIP, who are happy to promise the impossible as they will never have to deliver it. Both parties are being dragged in different directions – and need to stop trying to appeal to the short-attention spans of commentators pushing their own visions of what the parties should be doing. Labour needs to stop trying to appeal to the hardcore Blairite fringe (Dan Hodges et al) that wants to treat 2015 as a re-run of 1997, and pretends nothing has changed in between. The Conservatives need to be wary of commentators using the threat of UKIP to drag them to the right and into unelectable territory – in the same way that the Tea Party has done serious damage to the long-term electoral prospects of the Republican Party in the US.
While Labour could be performing better, it could also be performing a lot worse. The political landscape has changed considerably in recent times – meaning there should be great caution in historical comparisons. The often referenced past elections when oppositions built up towering leads at mid-term were in the days when the combined Labour and Conservative share of the vote regularly exceeded 80%, so voters unhappy with the party in charge had only one place to go. Today, British politics has become fractured, and voters more polarized in their assessments of party leaders, driven by widespread disillusionment with politics, and fed up voters can switch to UKIP, the Greens or other minor party options rather than lending their support to the opposition. Today, the combined three-party vote of the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Labour barely reaches the 80% figure habitually achieved by the two main parties in the past – and their combined share has been in steady decline over the course of this parliament. Between 1945 and 2010 it averaged 95% of the vote. It now stands below 80%. No party can expect to have the sorts of leads that Blair or even Kinnock saw in opposition particularly when 10-15% of the most dissatisfied voters are opting instead for UKIP’s “none of the above” option.