Saturday, 27 August 2011

Labour should still be doing better in the polls

One of the most remarkable elements of British politics at the moment is just how robust the Conservative Party's polling numbers really are. For they've not moved much below their General Election figure of 36% - 37% at all since they entered power a year-and-a-bit ago.

And the most recent indications are that the Conservatives are catching Labour, and (among the most prestigious and accurate pollsters) may even be more popular than the only major Opposition party.

It's an enormous achievement for both the Party and their leader. Public confidence in the economy is ebbing away. Unemployment is going up. Inflation is very high by recent standards. The international economic outlook is uncertain at best, and scary at worst. There are some straws in the wind that show the Government's support ebbing in hard-hit industrial areas and in the East Midlands. But in general, the major party in power floats above it all.

At this rate, and given a redistribution of Parliamentary seats that will hurt Labour, the most likely outcome of the next General Election is a small Conservative overall majority. That'll produce its own problems for the Prime Minister. But more of that in a later post. For now, we have to ask (as historians do) the big why question: how has this been possible?

Well, post-riots public opinion seems to be running in a strongly punitive direction. And that helps both the 'natural party of law and order', and a Prime Minister who was quite willing to drop his earlier liberal rhetoric about family policy and crime and promise to 'get tough'. NATO's military intervention in Libya, for which both David Cameron and French President Nicholas Sarkozy personally pressed, does seem to have paid off. That's helped him look like a national leader.

But I think the explanation lies deeper than current events, and away from the Conservatives' and the Prime Minster's strengths. It's the significant polling weakness of the Opposition that's the most noticeable. Despite a Liberal Democrat polling implosion (reversed to some extent in recent weeks), and left-leaning voters everywhere looking for a lead, both the Labour Party and its leader have failed to make much impression.

The personal ratings of Labour leader Ed Miliabd (above), though advancing a little during his generally sure-footed handling of the 'hackgate' affair, are still poor, and poorer than the Prime Minister's. The public are still unconvinced that he's a potential national leader. This might actually help him a little in the years to come - if he can confound expectations. It might give him an opportunity in the Leaders' Debates of March/ April 2015 (if this Parliament makes it that far). If he outruns his public image as a young, slight and perhaps rather nerdy operator, he may gather momentum just when he needs it. But for now, he's a drag on the party's popularity.

Beyond this, there's the critical question of Labour's economic strategy. Polls show that Britons do indeed prefer an Osborne-Cameron team to a Balls-Miliband one when it comes to thinking about who should run the economy. Like it or not, and agree with it or not, the Coalition partners - partly by the very virtue of their partnership - have successfully painted Labour as a party of crazy spenders who 'maxed out the nation's credit card'. This is almost entirely nonsense, but Labour has little answer to it at a moment when the Party is right to argue that the Government should be spending more and intervening more to support growth.

Labour needs an updated and more credible economic strategy and rhetoric, that admits the deficit is high, accepts that any government in this Parliament would have had to make deep cuts in public spending, and talks candidly about worrying elements that don't even appear in the overall deficit figure - public sector pensions, the Private Finance Initiative, Student Loans and the prospects for elderly care among them. We're going to have make painful choices about these issues, and ignoring that will assist the Coalition in making them on the wrong ideological basis, forcing the wrong people to pay, and refusing to accept collective and collaborative solutions.

Until Labour retools in this way, the Prime Minister can recline in confidence as he does pretty much as he pleases.