Tony Benn: A Reflection on a Life in Politics


Tony Benn always divided politicians into signposts and weathercocks: those who hold firm to deeply-held principles and point the way forward, or those who flap about in response to events. Benn was most definitely a signpost.

He rose to fame due to his brave decision to renounce his father’s hereditary peerage. He did so in defiance of the law of the land, and battled until this feudal system was ended in 1963. Thereafter, Anthony Wedgwood Benn was just plain Tony Benn.

By that stage, Benn had become a rising star of the Labour Party, appearing in slick party election broadcasts with Hugh Gaitskell and Woodrow Wyatt at the 1959 election. He found favour under Harold Wilson, and was made Postmaster General when Labour won in 1964. However, it was Benn’s next job as Minister of Technology that he enjoyed the most, starting a lifelong fascination with all manner of gadgets.

Benn actually began his political life as a moderate centrist. It was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that his views shifted to the left. He soon began to call for the nationalisation of all major companies and for withdrawal from the European Economic Community, which Edward Heath had joined in 1973. Harold Wilson, facing huge splits in his party, called a referendum in 1975, making the fateful decision to allow his Cabinet to pick either side of the debate. Benn joined other leading figures of the left, including Michael Foot and Barbara Castle in a passionate no campaign. Outgunned and underfunded, they lost.

Wilson had chosen to side line his old ally, and it was in this period that Benn was portrayed in the Conservative tabloid press as a bogeyman figure. He claimed that his rubbish had been raked through by the security services. My own mother wrote to relatives in America at the time, genuinely worried that ‘Wedgie’ Benn (a favourite nickname of his opponents) was going to take over the country. Early in 1975, as Secretary of State for Industry he penned the ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ which proposed creating essentially a siege economy, imposing tariffs on imported goods. A year later, he bitterly imposed the public spending cuts imposed by the Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey.

The early 1980s saw Benn wield his greatest period of influence over the Labour Party. In what became known as the Bennite Ascendancy, leftist elements took over local Labour parties, attempting to deselect more right-wing Labour MPs. Several left in disgust to form the breakaway Social Democratic Party. In September 1981, Benn stood for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party against the right-winger Denis Healey. He lost by less than one percent.

However, Benn’s left-wingers now wielded enormous sway in the National Executive Committee (NEC), the party ruling body. The culmination of his influence was the radical 1983 Labour manifesto which called for the nationalisation of the banks, unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC. Gerald Kaufman, on the right of the party, famously dubbed it ‘the longest suicide note in history’. The Labour Party was crushed at the 1983 General Election.

Neil Kinnock spent the next nine years trying to win back control of the party from the left. Benn routinely stood for the party leadership until 1988 when Kinnock raised from 5% to 20% the threshold of MPs required to put themselves forward as a candidate. No Labour leader has been challenged since. Gradually, Kinnock won back control of the party from Benn. By the 1992 election, only Benn and his friend Dennis Skinner were left on the NEC.

That didn’t mean that Benn gave up. His skills as an orator in the House of Commons were still legendary. During the parliamentary ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, I vividly recall sitting in the Commons gallery, silently stamping my feet at Benn’s oratory, even though I disagreed with every word he said. A favourite phrase in relation to Europe was: ‘These powers are not ours to give away.’ In that distinctive, slushy voice of his, he would take a stand over the ‘ishoos’ (issues) of the day.

Nevertheless, Benn had many faults. He rarely stuck to collective Cabinet responsibility under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He was neglectful of his constituencies, losing Bristol East in 1983 and running down his later seat of Chesterfield (which he held from 1984) so badly that it was taken by the Liberal Democrats on Benn’s retirement in 2001.

Benn stood down from the House of Commons, saying he wanted to devote more time to politics. It was a revealing insight into the extent of his marginalisation that he felt he could achieve more outside the House of Commons than within it. In many respects, he was correct. His political diaries, kept since a schoolboy in the autumn of 1941 right through his political career, and lovingly edited by Ruth Winstone, will remain one of his most enduring legacies.

In his retirement, Benn bitterly opposed many of the changes that Tony Blair wrought on the Labour Party.  In 2003, he was particularly virulent in his opposition to the Iraq War. I had the great luck to interview Benn for a book I was writing about John Smith. At the time, the firefighters’ union were taking industrial action, and Benn railed that Blair was ‘lighting fires in Baghdad’ but wasn’t prepared to pay people properly to put them out at home. That was one of the infuriating things about Benn: he always twisted the conversation around to his agenda, regardless of the question you asked him.

In his dotage, Benn was at his most charming. A younger generation saw him as harmless figure who believed in his principles. He even went on a hugely successful one-man tour of the country. ‘Dare to be a Daniel’, he told packed audiences, reflecting his deep religious faith.

But Benn wasn’t a harmless figure. My mother was right. Had Denis Healey not won that Deputy Leadership contest in 1981 by ‘the hair of an eyebrow’, the Labour Party under ‘Wedgie Benn’ would have descended into a mire of dogma from which it would never have recovered.


Mark Stuart is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Nottingham.

Polling Observatory 31: No joy from the polls as festive season approaches


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This is the thirty-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.

Both of the largest parties have had something to crow about in November – the Conservatives have trumpeted growing statistical evidence of a recovery as vindication of their economic strategy, while Labour have received a shot in the arm from the surprisingly strong response to their proposals to freeze energy bills, which have pushed the government onto the back foot. Yet our most recent look at the polling evidence suggests that, despite all the shouting from their cheerleaders, neither party has yet received any meaningful boost in support as a result of these developments. Labour’s support has fallen half a point to 37.8%, giving up half of the one point bounce we noted last month. Over the past six months or so commentators have claimed that Labour, among other things, is in crisis, is resurgent, is surging ahead, is slipping back and is melting away. Yet when the poll data is considered in the aggregate, there is almost no movement at all: Labour have been dead steady at around 37% to 38% for more than six months. The last significant shift in its support came in early spring, around the time of Margaret Thatcher’s death, when Labour lost 2 percentage points of support that they have failed to win back since. It is not clear if the Iron Lady’s demise really lead some voters to rethink their view of Labour, but it is as plausible a theory as any of the others floating around in the comment pages, and has the notable advantage of actually fitting the evidence.

What little movement there is in blue support is also in the wrong direction – and our most recent estimates find Conservative support at 30.9%, down 0.9% on last month. Support for the Conservatives among the electorate has moved around more in 2013 compared to Labour, largely because of a strong link with UKIP support – when Nigel Farage’s party has been up in the polls, this has tended to hurt the Conservatives. This pattern continues this month – as the Tories fall by nearly a point, UKIP have rebounded by 0.6% to 11.9%. UKIP tend to do better when immigration is high on the agenda and when Nigel Farage is highly visible in the media. Both have been the case this month, with the proposal of new restrictive immigration reforms and escalating speculation about migration from Bulgaria and Romania following the lifting of restrictions on January 1st. Mr Farage has been a regular presence across the media spectrum, weighing in on both these issues, and his party seems to be benefitting in the polls once more. The European Parliament elections in May next year will likely produce a similar virtuous circle of rising poll ratings and increased media attention.

The main source of speculation regarding the Liberal Democrats continues to be whether their performance come election day will really be as awful as the polling suggests. The party lost nearly two-thirds of its 2010 support in the months after joining the government, and this month provides no respite. As in nearly every month since early 2011, the Lib Dems are treading water just under 10% – we have them at 8.0%, up 0.6% on last month.

None of the political leaders will enter the festive season with many reasons to be cheerful – aside from the knowledge that 2014 begins with everything still to play for.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup


Spot the difference: noticing the change that austerity is making to public services.


“Public service cuts – did we notice?” asked BBC News back in October, publishing the results of a recent ICM Poll. The item parallels a commonly circulated argument that the unprecedented 28% cuts to local government’s central grant have been delivered without significantly impacting local services.  Can this really be true?

For the Coalition, such polls provide evidence that cuts are necessary for creating streamlined services.  The local government trade press prefer a heroic narrative, focussing on local authorities as the ‘most efficient part of the public sector’.  From an academic perspective, John (2013) has termed local government the ‘great survivor’; out-competing other local organisations through its resilient political and managerial core and flexible menu of administrative functions. The problem with these interpretations is that they share a tendency to over simplify the multi-layered process of delivering local savings.  They also negate deep-seated changes that are occurring under a veneer of stability.

So why haven’t spending reductions translated tangibly to service reductions?

Firstly, it depends on your perspective.  Research by Sheffield Hallam University and Joseph Rowntree Foundation has demonstrated that cuts have ‘hit the poorest areas hardest’, whilst more affluent areas have experienced lower levels of change. Secondly, local authorities themselves are contributing to the impression that ‘nothing has happened’ by delivering massive savings through a root and branch re-appraisal of local services.

Shared services across two or more authorities are increasingly common, raising questions about local political accountability.  ‘Commercialism’ is the contemporary buzz-word as services compete to produce ever leaner business models and lever-in income.  Contracts with the private and voluntary sectors are coming under pressure as authorities adopt a tougher approach to commissioning, rather than the partnership ethos espoused in better-resourced era of ‘network governance’.  Fundamental re-thinking is occurring on the extent to which local authorities can support the ‘big ticket’ issues such as social care, libraries and leisure. Whilst many would applaud such ‘efficiencies’, these changes are not value-free, and represent an extensive reappraisal of the way we deliver public services.

However, efficiencies are not the whole story.  There is also evidence of a continuous, but subtle resistance at an individual and institutional level to mitigate the worst effects of degradation of services.  Janet Newman reminds us that there are “multiple spaces of power and resistance with which actors engage – pragmatically as well as politically” and in some cases these spaces of power are being exploited at a local level to protect the most vulnerable.

For example from a political perspective, decisions have been made in some councils to instigate a living wage for the lowest paid staff, whilst pay freezes have been accepted by higher paid staff as a necessary trade-off.  There has been evidence of ‘gaming’ around elements of welfare reform with authorities exploring the re-designation of bedrooms in order to protect tenants from the bedroom tax, or directly employing benefit claimants to avert a benefits cap.  Despite cynicism about the ‘big society’, new spaces are also opening up for faith and citizens groups to engage with service delivery – organisations such as the Trussel Trust and Citizens UK have seen their national influence grow as the state contracts.

In short, the perception that ‘nothing has happened’ is arguably the result of continuous and strenuous effort by many actors at myriad levels.  This goes beyond a recycling of previous ideas and solutions to genuine attempts to design and enact alternative outcomes.  However, these changes are occurring in a piecemeal fashion, with varying impacts, internal contradictions, and limited national debate or direction.

The LGA and Parliamentary Political and Constitutional Reform Committee have called for a fundamental re-think on Councils’ role and functions; and debate on the powers of English local government will be fuelled by fresh negotiations on settlements for Wales and Scotland.  In the meantime the apparent capacity of Councils to absorb the spending cuts allows constitutional innovation to be metaphorically kicked down the road by successive administrations, whilst spending cuts carve subterranean caverns within local government’s future capabilities. If we fail to spot the differences occurring to our public services now, we may one day awake to find that the local picture of public services we want and expect to see has been altered out of recognition.

Alison Gardner is a doctoral research student in the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics, studying how local public services are responding to conditions of austerity.  Prior to starting her PhD she worked for 14 years as a policy advisor and consultant in and around local and national government.

Polling Observatory #30: Good news for all the parties… except the Lib Dems

UK 05-11-13 low res croppedtytThis is the thirtieth 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.


As the dust settles after conference season the state of support for the parties as 2014 approaches appears to have crystallised a little. Despite the supposed conference bounces and bumps that media commentators identified following Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze pledge and David Cameron’s conference speech, when all the underlying noise has been accounted for there has only been a slight shift since the end of the summer (and – as we have noted before – vote intentions for the main parties had been stable for some time before this).

If there is a winner from conference season, it is Labour, who after making the political weather ever since putting energy prices top of the political agenda have seen their support increase to 38.3%, up one point from our last report at the time of their conference in mid-September. This marks a reversal of the recent trend of a decline in Labour support. Despite the fanfare around the Conservative Party conference and the Godfrey Bloom side show at the UKIP conference, support for both parties has been static in the last six weeks – with no sign of a lasting conference bounce. Support for the Conservatives stands at 31.8% (with no change since our report at the time of their conference in late September), and UKIP at 11.3% (unchanged). There is worse news for the Liberal Democrats who now stand at 7.4% (down 0.3 points since their conference) – close to the all-time low for this parliament. Despite efforts to put clear blue water between them and their coalition partners – such as on green taxes on energy and qualifications for teachers – they are still paying the price for their abandonment of key election pledges early in the parliament. It is increasingly significant that the UKIP vote has been consistently higher than the Lib Dems for six months now – suggesting that there has been a rebalancing of electoral support for the third and fourth parties.

In previous posts (here, here and here), we have sought to urge caution on the lazy anecdotal use of past precedent to predict the outcome of the general election due to be held in 2015. We are keen forecasters ourselves, and some of these important qualifications will also apply to statistical models that look to forecast the likely swing towards or against the governing and opposition parties as the election nears. It is not uncommon for the statistical relationships that underpin these forecasts are context-variant. In other words, the economy might be a critical factor in one election but not in the next. Or leader ratings might matter for some parties but not others. Or voters might move back towards the governing party late on for some election cycles, but not others. In short, aphorisms such as ‘it’s the economy stupid’ and ‘leaders matter’ are based on sound political science, but may not always hold and may lead forecasters to go badly astray when predicting the result. They also provide journalists and opponents a convenient stick to beat parties and their leaders with, when the foundations of electoral support are often more nuanced. There are several reasons why forecasts for 2015 might not stick to the expected script that the Westminster Village has been reciting so far.

Firstly, it is undeniable that both the Conservative and Labour parties have a much lower ‘ceiling’ than in past elections. The Conservatives last won over 40% of the vote in 1992 (and Labour in 2001), and have not looked likely to do so in 2015 so at any point in the current parliament. They would likely have to beat this figure to secure a majority. Yet the party still suffers from an image problem with large swathes of the electorate and has done little to widen its appeal while in office. This makes the prospect of a large final year swing towards the government improbable despite the historical trend for mid-term movement away from the government in the polls to return as Election Day nears. Labour’s prospective pool of support has also looked much lower than its time in opposition during the 1987-1992 and 1992-1997 election cycles, where its poll numbers exceeded 50%. It cannot count on protest votes against the coalition because of the presence of UKIP, and its traditional base is shrinking, and also vulnerable to the challenge from Nigel Farage’s party.

Secondly, it is over-simplistic to suggest that a growing economy will assure a Conservative victory. It would certainly make it more likely, given that many people will be better off as a result, but it still depends on who benefits from the economic recovery. Personal (‘pocketbook’) economic judgments have been shown to be a significant determinant of voting. Even then, parties that have overseen sustained periods of economic growth are not always rewarded by voters. This perhaps explains why the Labour Party have been keen to push the economic debate towards the question of living standards (and the cost of living) rather than focus on the Coalition’s record on reducing the deficit and the impacts of austerity cuts. While much of the public still blame Labour for the economic problems left after the financial crisis, they also are strongly of the opinion that the Coalition is handling the economy badly. This again points to the argument that the sort of pro-government swing experienced at past elections will have to be achieved against much stronger headwinds.

Thirdly, David Cameron has tended to enjoy a comfortable lead over Ed Miliband in survey questions both about the ‘preferred Prime Minister’ and leader approval or satisfaction. Cameron also receives much more positive evaluations on his performance from supporters of his own party. Miliband has not made an impact on substantial parts of the electorate. For some, this state of affairs might point towards a clear-cut advantage on the basis of the importance of party leaders for voters making up their mind late. However, these advantages are observed in a context where all of the party leaders in Westminster have had persistently negative net ratings for the past three years. Indeed, Cameron currently has lower approval ratings (38%) than the St-Remy brandy-swigging and crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford (44%) (no relation) [HT @JoeTwyman]. It is worth remembering that Cleggmania in 2010 stemmed from the public’s previous relative lack of exposure to Nick Clegg. If Ed Miliband is similarly able to put in a strong performance on the campaign trail and also during the election debates that surprises the expectations of voters, it may deliver a last-minute bounce and negate the recent trends.

In short, 2015 remains difficult to call, and it will be a challenge for any party to win a workable parliamentary majority.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

80s nostalgia for the Labour victory of 1945

This post originally appeared on the Observing the 80s blog.

In the wake of Labour’s disastrous 1983 campaign Tony Benn informed readers of the Guardian newspaper that despite appearances it was a great achievement, because, ‘for the first time since 1945, a political party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people’.

During the 1980s Benn was not alone on the left and centre-left in looking at Labour’s first majority administration through rose-tinted glasses. The more Margaret Thatcher dismantled a post-war ‘consensus’ largely cast in the image of Clement Attlee’s government, the better 1945 looked. Benn’s claim that Labour’s 1945 programme represented ‘socialism’ in the same ways as did its 1983 manifesto was however contested. Certainly those Labour right-wingers who formed the Social Democratic Party in 1981 – among whom numbered Attlee’s own son – argued they were the legitimate legatees of the 1945 government. Yet, as Mass-Observation’s research at the time suggested, at least as interpreted by historians like me, few of those who voted Labour in 1945 were overtly socialist or social democratic.

How many Britons were enthralled by these attempts to appropriate the spirit of ‘45 is uncertain. Between 1982 and 1985, however, millions of ITV viewers watched the series Shine on Harvey Moon, written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, one of a number of fictions about politics that I look at in my forthcoming book A State of Play.  As Gran recalled in 2009, he and Marks wrote Shine on Harvey Moon:

because people were so miserable in this country, so sorry for themselves we thought we’d write about a time which was really hard,  but a time when there was hope and we made the central character into a campaigning Labour councillor.  That was really written as an Attleeist piece, full of hope and righteous indignation and a certain amount of laughs.  It was written from the point of view of us actually believing that politics was not a completely ignoble undertaking and actually could do good and, at times in our history, has done good.

It was a remarkably partisan series, one that would have found little favour with the Prime Minister. Yet, because Marks and Gran wrote in a popular idiom, those who reviewed television in the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph did not take it seriously, seeing it as ‘low brow drama’ or ‘a nostalgic little comedy’. Possibly for that reason, even the Daily Express liked it – although one of its critics was irritated by a ‘Dickens-like factory scenes with Harvey arguing trade unionism’. Sadly, Mass Observation’s 1980s surveys failed to pick up what its respondents thought about Shine on Harvey Moon. But responses to its autumn 1988 directive on television watching suggest the series was likely to have spawned hundreds if not thousands of conversations in households across the country.

Interviewed in the Daily Star in 1984, Marks claimed Harvey ‘is just Mr. Average. He’s a Joe Bloggs who’s struggling to get by’. Returning home in Hackney after the war to an estranged wife and two children, Harvey’s is a world of austerity.  But it is also one of optimism, thanks to the Attlee government, one with which Harvey closely identifies. Ambitious for himself and his family, Harvey is however no selfish individualist, and believes his aspirations can be fulfilled only as part of the more general improvement of conditions for the working class, something he hopes will occur under Labour. The series moreover sides with Harvey and his view of the world by pointing out the realities of falling sick before the National Health Service and even, to the chagrin of the Express, showed the role unions played in improving working conditions.

While positive about Attlee’s achievements, and definitely anti-Tory, Marks and Gran present Labour as a rather flawed vehicle of change. On first entering the party Harvey dislikes being referred to as ‘comrade’ and finds its procedures irritating and po-faced. Many Labour members are also middle class. Indeed one leading activist is a posh solicitor who employs Harvey as his clerk and when he becomes a Parliamentary candidate he has Harvey serve drinks at a celebratory reception. There, Harvey engages with a group of left-wing intellectuals so alienating he quotes George Orwell’s comment that socialists were often the reason many people disliked socialism. Moreover, while Harvey hopes for a ‘classless society’, even under Labour, privilege remains, leading him to make a pointed remark about Cabinet ministers sending their sons to Eton. Furthermore, on the night he is elected councilor, Harvey meets Herbert Morrison who mistakenly believes he has won his ward thanks to dirty tricks – of which Morrison thoroughly approves – thereby contrasting Harvey’s idealism with the cynicism of Labour’s real Deputy leader.

This is, then, a strange kind of nostalgia, one that sees the 1940s through the prism of a populist mistrust of representative politics, a sentiment the writers more vigorously mined in their later 1980s comedy series The New Statesman. Running on ITV from 1987 to 1992, this was set in contemporary Westminster and was a work of utter cynicism, which depicted politics as ineffably corrupt. If the central character, Alan B’Stard, is the ultimate personification of Thatcherism, the series’ few Labour characters do not emerge with much credit either.

The vision Marks and Gran have of politics in the 1940s is notably more optimistic than their view of 1980s politics. To them 1945 was a moment of possibility and considerable achievement. But while open to the participation of ‘ordinary’ working men (if not women), Labour is nonetheless shown as over-populated by doctrinaire middle-class intellectuals and cynical machine politicians. In some ways however Marks and Gran better evoked the uncertainty, hope and skepticism that actually existed in 1945 – and which Mass Observation notably picked up in its reports on popular feeling – than did the self-interested perspectives articulated by Benn and the SDP in the 1980s, or much later, in Ken Loach’s 2013 film The Spirit of ‘45.

Steven Fielding

Special Edition: Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat’ speech fifty years on

Harold_Wilson_3_Allan_Warren (1)To mark the 50th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s iconic ‘white heat’ speech, the Centre for British Politics held a conference this summer at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. Ahead of the conference we ran a series of blog posts on Ballots & Bullets.

In ‘White heat and low politics‘, Steven Fielding provides the context for Wilson’s speech, which was delivering to a Labour party that was trying to reach out to intermediate voters and distance itself from its image as the party for workers and manual labourers.

In the next post in the series, ‘Communicating the white heat of technology‘, Andrew Crines looks at the rhetorical devices Wilson used to convey his message of ‘science for socialism’ and how these devices aimed to create a sense of hope.

In ‘Wilson, Benn and Blair and the narrative of technological change‘, Matthew Francis looks at how Wilson’s narrative of ‘scientific revolution and technological change’ was later adopted by Tony Benn and Tony Blair. All three portrayed technology as a distinct historic force that Britain had no choice but to adapt to.

In the final post in the series, ‘Harold Wilson and the difficulties of democratic planning‘, Henry Irving looks at Wilson’s democratic approach to economic planning and Labour’s failed attempts to engage the public with economic policy – a lesson, Irving argues, government today can learn from.

Following the conference, it was featured in an article in the Telegraph, ‘Ed Miliband needs a blast of Wilson’s white heat‘.

More recently, the Guardian’s Political Science blog ran a series of posts on Wilson’s ‘white heat’ speech, and, the People’s History Museum hosted a re-enactment of the speech, with an actor playing the part of Harold Wilson. You can watch the re-enactment, along with an introduction from Steven Fielding, here:


Polling Observatory conference season update #3 – Labour

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.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Why party conferences still matter


The annual Party Conference season is now well and truly under way. It’s a time when each political party’s enthusiasts – what I call the badge wearers – spend a week debating obscure composites, resolutions and amendments. Little wonder then that the general public generally switches channels to see if there is a decent repeat available on Dave.

To their detractors like Tony Benn, party conferences have become like American political conventions in which ‘we just let off balloons, sing pop songs, greet showbiz celebrities and, if you’re lucky, have the occasional debate.’

So, do party conferences still matter?

The answer partly depends on whether a party is in Opposition or in Government. Opposition parties and their leaders are generally ignored by the media for the rest of the year, so the party conference becomes a vital occasion for Leaders of the Opposition to explain to the voters what they stand for. But if the party is in Government, conference defeats can be more easily discounted, as in 2003 when Tony Blair simply brushed off a conference defeat on foundations hospitals, and pressed on with the enabling legislation regardless.

In reality, the power of the annual conference largely depends on which political party we are discussing. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, currently gathered in Glasgow, genuine democracy prevails. As Nick Clegg admitted this week, ‘one of the joys’ of the Liberal Democrats is that their party conference truly decides matters of policy. Party delegates will largely determine the content of the next Liberal Democrat manifesto; at least in terms of policy, if not priorities. It matters, then, that Clegg narrowly won Monday’s debate on economic policy, not least to avoid the appearance of disunity.

If we go far back into its early twentieth century roots, the Labour conference was the sovereign body of the party. Labour MPs were seen as delegates whose role was to implement Labour party policy in the House of Commons. In theory, that part of the Labour rulebook – Clause 5 – still remains in place (‘The work of the party shall be under the direction and control of the party conference’)  But in practice, as the parliamentary Labour party grew in size, so its MPs started to flex their muscles. Initially, Conference defeats were rare, as the union block vote rallied behind the leadership. Indeed, between 1949 and 1960, the Labour leadership only suffered one defeat. It was only in the era of Hugh Gaitskell that the Labour leadership suffered a couple of serious reverses on the issues of Clause IV and nuclear disarmament. Since the Gaitskell era, defeats have simply been ignored.

Despite suffering these defeats, successive Labour leaders since Gaitskell have understood the true value of party conference speeches: they give Leaders of the Opposition a chance to be seen to be facing down critics in their own party. Famously, Neil Kinnock’s speech against the Militant Tendency in Bournemouth in 1985 demonstrated to the wider electorate that Labour was serious about modernization. His successor, John Smith, risked the leadership of his Party in 1993 in order to secure One Member, One Vote for the same reason. Twenty years later, Ed Miliband faces a similar challenge to that presented by Smith: he must show the public that he is serious about reforming Labour’s historic link with the unions.

In theory at least, the Conservative party conference is one in which the leadership is all powerful. But in practice, Tory conferences have shown a marked tendency to spark into life. Back in1978 when the Tories gathered in Brighton, a vigorous debate ensued in which delegates called for the lifting of economic sanctions against Ian Smith, the white supremacist ruler in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Replying to the debate, Tory frontbench John Davies gave a rambling speech, during which he was heckled loudly from the Conference floor. Sadly, the splitting headache he suffered from on that occasion was not the result of the heated debate, but a malignant brain tumour, from which he died a few months later. But no senior Tory frontbench still alive can forget the mauling Davies received from delegates on that occasion.

For decades following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, the annual capital punishment debates at the Tory Party Conference became awkward events requiring careful handling by the conference platform. In his memoirs, William Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher’s first Home Secretary, acknowledged that his over-emotional response to the capital punishment debate at the 1981 Conference damaged his standing in his party. Later on in the decade, Douglas Hurd, a consistent opponent of capital punishment, recalled having to contend with emotive speeches from retired police sergeants who were capable of stirring the Conference delegates into a froth. Mrs. Thatcher felt she had to attend these law and order debates, even if she took a different view from her Home Secretary. As speaker after speaker called for the restoration of the death penalty, she would clap her hands under the platform table, out of sight of the delegates.

Unluckily, it was Douglas Hurd, by this stage Foreign Secretary, who had to cope with yet another lively Conference debate in 1992, this time over Europe. On that occasion, the Party hierarchy allowed Norman Tebbit to make a poisonous speech against the Prime Minister, John Major. As Hurd prepared his reply to the debate, Major peppered him with ‘Give ‘em hell’ notes. Hurd was able to face down his conference critics, but only just.

The very fact that the Tory leadership has to respond to the occasional bout of sustained criticism from their members is surely good for our democratic system. Granted, the party leadership normally gets its way. But what the public don’t see are the fraught negotiations behind-the-scenes between delegates and the leadership over the wording of those aforementioned composites, resolutions and amendments. It’s what Richard Kelly in his seminal 1989 work on Conservative Party Conferences called The Hidden System.

Hardly the sort of political intrigue to persuade the public to miss a repeat of Would I Lie to You? on Dave, but important nonetheless.

Mark Stuart

Polling Observatory #27: Labour in crisis? Tories resurgent? Not really.

UK 05-08-13 low res croppedThis is the twenty-seventh 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.

The big topic of national conversation over the past month has been the weather, with the hottest, driest conditions in recent memory. The political climate, however, has returned to normal. UKIP’s surge after the local elections has faded away – Nigel Farage and his party are no longer enjoying blanket media coverage as the press moves on to the traditional silly season fare of cyclists, cricketers, royal babies and expensive footballers. We now estimate UKIP support at 11.7%, down 1.1 points on last month and over 3 points on their June peak. This still leaves support for Farage’s party well above the levels seen at the start of the year, and well ahead of the Liberal Democrats in the battle for third place. We estimate support for Clegg’s party at 8.4%, up 0.1 points on last month.

UKIP’s surge was accompanied by a dip in support for the Conservatives, who have rebounded as the Eurosceptics have fallen back. This month we estimate Tory support at 31.2%, up a percentage point on last month and three points on their June low point. We cannot prove the link with aggregate data, but the mirror image pattern of UKIP and Conservative support in the past few months suggests the burst of publicity for Farage attracted the interest of disgruntled Tories who have drifted back to their traditional home as UKIP have fallen off the front page. This may be a worrying trend for Cameron given the near-certainty of renewed interest in UKIP next year as the European Parliament elections approach.

The recovery in Conservative figures has, however, produced a swathe of negative headlines for Labour : “Labour’s lead tumbles after difficult month for Ed Miliband” (Independent, August 6th); “Labour’s shrinking poll lead increases party jitters” (New Statesman, 23rd July); “Where is Labour?” (, 31st July); “Labour slips in the polls as Miliband aide admits party fears over next election” (Daily Mail, 6th August). Long time Miliband critic Dan Hodges went one further in the Telegraph, declaring “the next election is becoming Mr Cameron’s to lose” A casual reader of such articles would be forgiven for thinking that Labour had lost the support of a significant chunk of the electorate, and that this was somehow related to things the Labour leadership had said or done. Yet there is little evidence for either.

In fact, our estimate, incorporating all the polling data, suggests Labour support is up half a point on last month, at 38.1%. The previous two months’ readings were almost identical: 38.4% in June, 37.7% in May. Labour have barely budged in our figures in four months. So why all the fuss? The problem seems to lie in two longstanding journalistic habits: the tendency to focus on poll leads, rather than shares, and to interpret the poll leads in terms of the prevailing Westminster Village narrative. Labour’s poll lead has indeed fallen, but as we have seen that is more down to the Conservative share recovering, which in turn is down to Tory voters who flirted with UKIP returning to the fold. The most likely explanation for the narrowing Labour poll lead therefore has nothing to do with anything Ed Miliband has said or done, but the dominant political narrative in recent weeks has been “Labour in crisis” following the public spat between Miliband and the leader of the Unite union Len McClusky over the unions’ role in Labour politics, and so journalists have framed the polling shift in these terms.

The mistake journalists make in doing this is to assume that the average voter pays attention to the same issues they do. The union row which so excited the Westminster Village barely registered with voters. Less than a fifth of the members of McLusky’s own union could recognise the man at the centre of the row (many thought he was Sir Alex Ferguson); the figure among the general electorate is surely even lower. Voters seldom base their decisions on internal party feuds that they don’t understand or care about. It is therefore no surprise to anyone except the political media to see that Labour’s poll share has not budged at all in the wake of these supposedly toxic feuds.

The underlying political equilibrium has barely changed in over a year: 35-40% of voters favour Labour, giving them a small but consistent lead over the Tories, who are settled in the low 30′s. This balance of forces won’t be shifted by funding fights, racist vans, NHS rows or any of the other emphemera that excite our columnists headline writers yet barely register with the average voter. Our fellow polling analyst Nate Silver has observed: that “most political pundits are completely useless”, and systematic research in the US suggests he is right. Readers looking for clues on the prospects for the main parties would be well advised to ignore the spin put on the polling by the professional tea-leaf readers in the op-ed section, and just focus on the data itself. The signals are there, but often all the pundits add is noise.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Public care about the source of MPs’ second incomes just as much as the amount earned

5116060964_c118f83d00_oIt was an interesting leap from the shenanigans in Falkirk Constituency Labour Party to proposing a restriction on MP’s outside interests, but it was a leap Ed Miliband made two weeks ago. Arguing that this would help clean up politics, and renew public faith, he proposed a limitation on MPs’ second incomes, to no more than 15% of their total income. This is one of those issues where MPs might be forgiven for thinking they can never get it right. When many MPs had second incomes, the criticism was that they were not spending enough time at Westminster. When we got more full-time politicians, the complaint became that we had not enough politicians with experience of the ‘real world’.

We know that the public say they don’t like MPs with second incomes. A recent YouGov poll for the Sunday Times found a majority of the public opposed to MPs having second jobs and in favour of an outright ban. But MPs second incomes – where they exist – come in lots of different forms. Some involve fairly small sums of money. Some, on the other hand, have ‘second’ incomes larger than their parliamentary incomes. Plus, some of these second jobs are in fact first jobs, at least in the sense that they were the MP’s job before they became an MP – and exactly the sort of ‘real world’ professions that people often say they want to see represented at Westminster. (Miliband himself had previously argued that he wanted to see more entrepreneurs stand for Labour; an income cap would presumably limit the Party just to the unsuccessful ones, or to those who agreed to sell their companies for the pleasure of becoming a backbench MP). Other second incomes are directorships or such like picked up after becoming an MP.

To try to get at some of these differences, we ran a series of split-sample surveys, in which we tested the public’s reactions to small changes to the profiles of hypothetical politicians. To begin, we showed half of respondents to a survey two politicians:

Politician A is 48 years old.  After university, where he studied physics, he trained as an accountant, and set up a company, which he then sold.  He is married with three children.  He is an avid cricket fan, and a keen player in his youth; he is now a passionate advocate for sporting facilities for young people. He also has interests in the health service and pensions. He became an MP in 2001 and is a member of the Heath Select Committee and is known to be a hard-working constituency MP.

Politician B is 45 years old. Before entering politics he was a lawyer, although he no longer practices.  He is passionate about the environment and education. His wife is a primary school teacher and they have two children and he is a trustee of an educational charity that supports apprenticeships.  He has been an MP since 2005 and he is known for his focus on education policy, and is the one of the more rebellious and independent-minded MPs in the House of Commons.

We asked them, without knowing what party these politicians stood for, which would they prefer. Shown the profiles above, we found 38% of the public preferred A, 45% went for B, and 17% said neither. In other words, B led by 7 points. It doesn’t especially matter why B led by 7 points; this is just a baseline, with which we then compare other similar profiles.

So, for example, the other half of the same survey saw the same text as above, except we changed the second line of B’s profile so that it read ‘and he continues to practice, arguing that this keeps him in touch with the world outside Westminster’. Support for A over B was now 1 point. In other words, continuing to practice as a lawyer damaged B’s popularity among potential voters; his lead of 7 was now a lead for A of 1. In a further survey, we then changed B’s profile yet again to add a sum of money, earned as a result of this work. Half of the sample saw: ‘This brings him in approximately an additional £10,000 per year in income’. A’s lead now extended to +6. The other half saw the sum of £50,000; A’s lead extended even further to +11. That’s a difference of 18 percentage points between the baseline for the non-practicing lawyer and the one who’s still earning £50,000 from the work, suggesting a hefty electoral penalty for continuing a career in law once elected, magnified by the sums of money earned.

Some of our previous work has shown that GPs make very popular election candidates with the public. So in another set of experiments, we changed the text of candidate B replacing ‘a lawyer’ with ‘a GP’. As expected, this made a huge difference. Whereas in our first experiment, B had initially led A by 7 percentage points, B’s lead was now 23 points. But when we changed the extent to which our fictional GP still worked as a GP, their popularity began to wane. Continuing to practice, but with no mention of money, and the lead dropped to 18 points; earning £10,000 and the lead was 13 points; an income of £50,000 reduced the lead to seven points. Even then, they were still the preferred politician (and by exactly the same amount as a lawyer who didn’t practice any longer), but that is because GPs make – rightly or wrongly – such popular candidates to begin with. The overall negative effect of increasing the extent to which they worked as a GP from not at all to earning £50,000 was 16 percentage points, basically the same as when we changed the income of the lawyer.

But this seems not always to be true. A third experiment took our initial profiles, and we changed the text of politician A. Instead of having sold his company, the text read ‘which he continues to run, arguing that this keeps him in touch with the world outside Westminster’. And, again, we altered the income levels, from no mention of money, to £10k, and then to £50k. This time, the effect was non-existent. Politician B’s lead varied from six to 10 points, never statistically significantly different from the base-line. The additional income did not make him more popular, but it appears to have done no harm.

And finally, we tested for the effect of directorships gained since becoming an MP. Again, we split a survey, and randomly added the following text to the profile of politician A:

Since becoming an MP he has become a non-executive director of a company who pay him £10,000 per year. He argues that this keeps him in touch with the world outside Westminster.

Without that text, in our baseline survey B had led A by seven points. Adding that text to A’s profile, extended that lead to 34 points. In other words, it made a difference of 27 points. When we changed the amount to £50,000 we produced a lead of 29 points, a difference of 22 points. This is a much larger effect than we found for any of the GP, lawyer, or accountant experiments. In other words, the public reacted with much more hostility to income gained since becoming an MP than they did from income from pre-existing occupations. But with directorships the sum of money didn’t especially matter. The politician who earned £50k from directorships was no less popular than the one who earned £10k. If anything, on the raw figures they were marginally more popular, although the differences were not statistically significant. It basically didn’t matter whether they earned £10,000 or £50,000. Both were equally unpopular.

We found the sums of money involved did matter, however, if both earned money from directorships. In our final experiment, we first added £50k in directorships to profile A and £10k to B; and then we swapped the sums around. When A trousered £50k from directorships, and B just 10k, B led A by 32 points, which is a deviation from the baseline of 25 points. The other way round, and A led B by 20 points, a deviation from the baseline of 27 points. We also found, once both candidates earned money from directorships that the percentage of respondents selecting ‘Neither’ increased to at least 30% of respondents, higher than in any of the other experiment.

If the aim of any income cap is to make politicians more popular, then we need to realise that the issue for the public is not just the sums of money involved but both the sums and the source. Continue to earn £50k from a company that you had set up before becoming an MP, and the public do not especially seem to mind. But earn even £10k from continuing your profession as a lawyer or a GP, they do. They object even more to directorships – the spoils of electoral war for some MPs – but again the sum doesn’t hugely matter; £10k earned from directorships is worse than £50k earned from pre-existing occupations. But in terms of just the sums: for a backbench MP £10,000 would be below the proposed 15% cap. In other words, it won’t do much good.

Rosie Campbell and Philip Cowley

We ran questions with YouGov over five days, between 15-19 July 2013.  In total, we tested 15 variants of the profiles.  Each survey was weighted according to YouGov’s standard weighting.