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Polling Observatory #6: riots leave Coalition unscathed

This is the sixth 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.

Harold Wilson famously quipped that a week is a long time in politics. During the eventful summer of 2011, a month seemed like an eternity. When we last reported on the state of polling, David Cameron’s Conservatives were on the ropes, following weeks of frenzied media coverage of the fall of News Corp, and the links of senior advisors to the stricken Murdoch empire. At one point, bookmakers rated Cameron’s chances of being out of office before the end of 2011 at 20%.

August brought relief, in strange forms. England erupted with riots. The rioters chose the week when most of Britain’s political class was on holiday, but despite being slow to recognise the gravity of the situation, Cameron’s Conservatives channelled the vengeful public mood effectively in calling for harsh penalties on participants. Soon after this, public disorder of a different kind erupted in Libya, as the NATO-supported rebels entered Tripoli and ended the 42 year reign of Colonel Gadaffi. This brought a good deal of positive press for the Coalition, and some relief from growing criticism that another foreign adventure was a bad use of public money in austere times.

Dramatic events often focus media attention on the government, and in August Labour leader Ed Miliband struggled. The strident, agenda-setting leader of the month before found himself floundering in the wake of the riots, unable to articulate a clear alternative. Nick Clegg faced mainly negative headlines as well, being heckled when touring riot struck areas of the country, and then splattered with blue paint when visiting Scotland, the scene of his party’s spring election rout. However, Clegg’s speeches in support of human rights, higher taxes for the rich and his commissioning of an inquiry into the causes of the riots all seemed to be relatively warmly received.

Last month’s polling showed Labour close to a post-election high, and the Tories near to a post-election low. This month, the polls tightened, with Labour falling 1.8 point to 39.9 and the Conservatives rising 1.4 points to 35.4. The Liberal Democrats rise 0.1 points to 9.0. Frankly, at this stage, it is impossible to know for sure if these shifts are due to the fading of a hack-gate “bump” for Labour or a new pro-government “bump” following the events of the past month – or something else entirely.

What, however, is clear is that the overall position of all three parties has remained remarkably stable for over six months. Our model updates its trend estimates as new polls come in, and looking back at the six months since we began our observatory updates, we find that Labour’s estimated share has fallen consistently between 40% and 42%, the Conservatives between 34% and 36% and the Liberal Democrats between 8% and 10%.

In other words, an eventful six months has produced nothing to alter the settled views of the electorate. However, with conference season approaching and the economic recovery faltering, who knows if this stability will be sustained?

Rob FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

A version of this post can also be found at Polling Observatory.

Published inBritish PoliticsPolling Observatory

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