Sunday, 4 December 2011

Historical perspectives on the Government's shock 'poll lead'

There have been some sharp intakes of breath this week at opinion polling showing the Conservatives taking the lead.

You can almost hear commentators wondering: 'how can this be?' The Government's economic policy has just come spectacularly unstuck. They have just a tiny, tiny bit of wiggle room about their key pledge - to see Britain's debts falling as a proportion of GDP this Parliament. It's part of the Chancellor's 'fiscal mandate' that's set in concrete and that he can't nuance or massage - unlike his five-year rolling horizon on the deficit.

Does anyone actually believe they'll manage it? No, not really. So all that pain? It'll push us forward precisely, well, not a single inch.

But yet they lead in ICM's monitor - the most reliable poll of all for many years.

Perhaps voters are holding tight to nurse for fear of something worse. Perhaps the fact that the pain is mostly still to come shelters the Government's rating. Labour is certainly blamed by the electorate for 'spending all the money' - an economically illiterate untruth that the party is unlikely to slough off under its present Miliband-and-Balls economics team.

But I'd like to look at this a bit more historically. We're now eighteen months into this Parliament. How have governments fared at this point after a change in the governing party since 1945? Well, there's no real pattern. Suffice to say they've usually looked quite good. Only the Conservative government of 1979-83 did worse than the present one, which on most measures is probably still two or three points behind Labour. And that took a massive and more sudden manufacturing catastrophe, and sharply rising unemployment - and an unpopular pre-Falklands Margaret Thatcher as the Conservatives' leader.

On average (and I know this is skewed by Tony Blair's extraordinary electoral honeymoon, that lasted well into 1999) governments in the post-war era have been about two or three points behind at this stage. Harold Wilson's government managed to be eleven points ahead, going into a new and early General Election, despite having been buffeted by financial crisis and at least two rounds of spending cuts.

So you know what? This isn't unusual. It seems strange, but new governments often get the benefit of the doubt. Nothing is predetermined. Only what happens next in politics and governance that will tell us whether the main two parties' balance of polling terror will last.

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