This is the fifth 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.
July 2011 will be forever remembered as the month Rupert Murdoch crashed to earth, but it wasn’t a great month for David Cameron either. He has endured a barrage of media and opposition criticism for his uncomfortably close connections to senior News Corp staff, including the two editors in charge of the News of the World when the worst of the phone hacking activities which have scandalised the nation occurred. The worst of times for Dave proved the best of times for Ed, as the leader of the opposition won praise across the political spectrum for leading the charge against Murdoch, successfully forcing News Corp to abandon its bid for BSkyB with the threat of a Commons vote, and then winning a judicial enquiry into the crimes committed at the News of the World. He gained a further boost from the continued success and of Labour MPs Tom Watson and Chris Bryant in their efforts to push the phone hacking story forward and draw blood from the Murdoch empire. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg, who had a good start to the month after successfully forcing a change of course over NHS reform, found himself pushed to the margins (not unfamiliar territory for a Lib Dem leader) as the Murdoch scandal dominated the media.
How has all of this impacted on the polls? Have Ed Miliband’s party enjoyed a phone hacking ‘bounce’? Has the scandal damaged Cameron and his party? Our figures suggest a tentative ‘yes’ on both counts, but the effect is not dramatic. We estimate the Conservatives poll share at 34.2%, down 1.0% on last month and close to their low this cycle of 34.0%, which came in late February. Labour are up 1.2% at 41.7%, within touching distance of their high water mark of 41.9% which also came late last winter. The Lib Dems may also have benefitted from their lack of Murdoch taint: they are up 0.8% at 8.9%, their highest figure for several months.
So, after being gripped for several weeks by one of the most dramatic scandals in decades, taking in corruption in high places, law breaking, and the destruction of the careers of many senior policemen and newspapermen, the public verdict rendered is an underwhelming 1.1% swing from the government to the opposition. This fits with our observation from last month – the stories which drive the political and media classes into a frenzy don’t matter all that much to most voters. Certainly, Cameron has been damaged by his associations with Brookes, Coulson and Murdoch – this is evident also in the polling on his personal ratings with the public – but the damage is not terminal, and may fade over time as the news agenda moves on.
Voters care much more about the state of their schools and hospitals, and the security of their jobs, than the behaviour of their journalists and the politicians who court them. Mr Murdoch’s defenestration may change the style of politics in Britain for good, but when polling day comes the electorate will deliver its judgement, as it always does, on the substance.