Friday, 4 February 2011

Should Labour be further ahead in the polls?

So it does seem as if there's been a tipping point in the opinion polls over the last few weeks, and Labour now does have a lead in the high single figures over the Conservative Party.

So should Ed Miliband (above) start to measure up his curtains for No. 10?

Probably not.

There's a great deal of comment around that actually thinks that Labour should be doing rather better than it is. They're now usually in the low- to mid-40s in the polls, and after probable victories in forthcoming council, Scottish and Welsh elections (and more cuts) they'll move further ahead still. It's hard to imagine how much higher they might go - even Tony Blair in the mid-1990s only hit the low 60s in some opinion polls, and now different methodologies re-apportioning 'don't knows' mean it's hard to hit those heights.

So the talk of Labour doing 'poorly' is probably a bit exaggerated. Of course they'd rather be hitting 50 per cent - but a year after stumbling exhausted out of office, in the midst of a fierce economic crisis, that was always a bit unlikely.

Still, concerns remain about their performance. Their leader's personal ratings, though not catastrophic by any means, are almost always negative. Focus group evidence in southern England - in marginals like Harlow, that they must win if they are ever to return to power - reveals that the party's economic credibility is shot and that, culturally, it is just not seen as 'relevant' to the people of southern England. Most of the people of Harlow will have done fairly well out of Labour's tax and spending policies while in office (Child Benefit, Working Families' Tax Credit etc.) but it's a measure of the party's disconnection with southern voters that they are given little credit. Council by-election results suggest a swing of two per cent to Labour at the moment, so even at a moment when radical neo-liberal policies are doling out pain with little gain, the party would only be the biggest in a hung Parliament.

Lastly, and most concerning for Labour, the mood of economic and social pessimism that prevails at the moment seems to be undermining trust in government and governance as a whole, not rejuvenating people's desire for Keynesian solutions.

The combination of public ambivalence about Labour's leadership, legacy, outlook and abilities is still holding back their ratings. Their numbers are 'soft', as the Americans would say. That's not yet a bar to re-entering office four years from now, but it's a problem. Everything still depends on the outcome of the Chancellor's budgetary gamble, but Opposition isn't just about waiting for things to go - or stay - wrong.

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