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Polling Observatory #4: Sound and fury, signifying nothing?

This is the fourth of 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 noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and 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.

It has been a trying month for the main parties’ leaders. David Cameron faced a barrage of criticism for his alleged U-turns over NHS and criminal justice reform, and had to contend with the largest public sector strikes since the 1980s. Ed Miliband struggled with poor personal poll ratings and rising discontent from his party’s rank and file, with poor media performances feeding growing speculation that he should be replaced. Nick Clegg enraged his coalition partners by publicly attacking the Conservatives’ NHS proposals, and then had to endure a savage cross-party verbal beating from the Lords over his proposals to reform their chamber, his only comfort being that peers at least enjoy less public sympathy than do enraged students.

What effect have these dramatic events had on the polls? None whatsoever.

Our model suggests that the electoral balance of power barely budged over the course of the month: the Conservatives on 35.2% (down 0.5%), Labour on 40.5% (down 0.1%) and the Liberal Democrats on 8.1% (down 0.2%). Why have the policy u-turns, mass strikes and public humiliations of the past month had so little effect on the electorate? This is not an easy question to answer, but we can venture some theories. For one thing, voters take much less interest in many of the events which captivate Westminster journalists. Those whose job it is to watch politicians day in day out may read one leader’s slip up, or another’s backtracking as a grave portent but the average voter notices little, and cares less.

For another, the past month’s political events told voters little they didn’t already know. David Cameron backtracked over NHS reforms voters perceived to be too free market, and criminal justice reforms perceived to be too liberal. In both cases, he moved policy towards the electorate’s preferences, demonstrating his sensitivity to public opinion and confirming a preference for governing in the centre ground. This was unlikely to hurt him with voters. The public sector strikes evenly divided the electorate, who were sympathetic to the strikers but also to the need for reform. Cameron adopted a pose of cautious opposition, Miliband of cautious support – positions neatly in line with their voters. Miliband’s struggles in the media in part reflect the structural weakness of an opposition leader – governments make all the news so it is hard to get your message across. Clegg’s attacks on the NHS reforms reminded LibDem voters that the party served a purpose within the coalition, while his appearance in the Lords reassured them of his commitment to electoral reform, a core issue for LibDem supporters but of little interest to everyone else.

Of the three leaders, the status quo is possibly most troubling for Ed Miliband. David Cameron will be relieved that his party’s support is continuing to hold up as tough spending cuts bite. Nick Clegg will be relieved that LibDem support has stabilised, albeit at a low level, after the drubbing in May’s local, Scottish and Welsh elections. Ed Miliband’s party will be asking why he is not profiting more from the economic pain most voters continue to endure, but he may reasonably respond that his party has not been out of power long, and many voters still blame Labour for their current problems. He can also point out that Labour have maintained a small, but consistent lead in the polls for over half a year. This is not a bad record for a new opposition: in mid-1998, the Conservatives still trailed New Labour by 20 points.

Rob FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Published inBritish PoliticsPolling Observatory

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