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.
The summer saw a slight revival in the fortunes of the Conservatives, clawing back some ground lost during the UKIP surge of the spring of 2013. At their low ebb, immediately after UKIP’s local election breakthrough in May, we estimated the Conservatives at around 28% – they have picked up about 4 points since then.
Although support for the Conservatives has recovered slightly in the last few months, the longer term trend is much less encouraging, as our chart of support since the last general election makes clear. There are short term rises and falls, but the long term trend is clearly in a downward direction. Each slump in support hits new lows, and each rally peaks below the last. In particular, it is clear that the Conservatives lost a large chunk of support following the “omnishambles” budget of March 2012 that they have been unable to recover. Prior to this budget, we estimated Conservative support in the high 30’s. Since it was delivered, the Conservatives have struggled to reach 30%, and even after their latest rally they are still below 32%. Over the past 18 months, Conservative support has fluctuated between 28% and 32%, well below the level of support they need to be the largest party in parliament at the next election, let alone win a majority. Where might hope of a political recovery lie for the Conservatives?
One of the areas where the Conservatives are widely agreed to be in a position of strength is their leader, David Cameron, who consistently out-polls his party and his fellow party leaders with the electorate. Much political science research has highlighted the importance of leaders in electoral success, but the impact on voters is very often over-stated – and is often factored into current support for the parties anyway. Further, while Ed Miliband’s poor ratings with the public signal a vulnerability that the Conservatives might seek to exploit, taking advantage of this is not always straightforward. With recent measures such as the proposed freeze on energy prizes, Miliband has staked out a brand of economic populism that may be difficult to counter – requiring the Conservatives to decide whether to paint him as either weak or dangerous, where the latter may perversely serve to improve his reputation for strong leadership with voters – on issues where the Labour leader also appears to have public opinion on his side. Meanwhile, the self-imposed constraints of austerity budgeting will make it difficult for the Conservatives to offer popular but expensive gifts to the electorate themselves, without undermining their argument that tough budget cuts are economically essential.
Unable to offer voters many gifts in the current economic climate, the Conservatives must therefore place their bets on a recovery before polling day. Economic optimism has been on the rise in recent times, which suggests the government is at least less likely to be punished for its austerity agenda than looked the case when the UK economy was flatlining. With Labour continuing to be blamed by a large section of the public for the state of the economy, the battle for economic credibility will be important as 2015 nears. Indeed, the economy seems to offer most scope to the government for selling a constructive story to voters about its achievements: a recovery will enable the party to claim vindication for its austerity policies and perhaps even offer a few goodies to the electorate. Without recovery, the Conservatives will struggle for a compelling message to win new support. It is not clear that a continued focus on right wing social issues like welfare and immigration can deliver many gains. The electorate has long known where the party stands on these issues, and growing discontent from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners will make further right wing reform in these areas difficult to accomplish, and if the Conservatives campaign on these issues without being able to act on them they risk increasing the appeal of UKIP to frustrated voters. The Conservatives will be looking to set out a clear agenda for a second term, starting with this year’s conference, but the nature of this agenda and their chances of being in government to implement it are now very much in the gift of economic forces beyond their control.