This 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?” (politics.co.uk, 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 Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup