Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Has Labour's polling bubble finally burst?

The most significant UK political news overnight is the publication of opinion polls putting Britain's main governing party, the Conservatives, ahead of the rival Labour Party.

Polling gurus and statisticians have got used to Labour leads for more than two years. Every time the Conservatives got close, there'd be a flurry of excitement. Then they'd drop back again. It did seem as if Labour had effected a semi-permanent realignment of the British electoral landscape, with a chunk of left-leaning Liberal Democrats defecting to their banner and ensuring that they always polled in the mid-30s - at least.

But now we know that's not true. Both of yesterday's telephone polls - which tend to be the most accurate - had the Conservatives two percentage points ahead. You can quibble all you like with methodology - the poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft does have a suspiciously large number of non-respondents, while the accompanying numbers when ICM asked about the forthcoming Euro-elections look like a massive change on their last poll. But ICM has always been regarded as the pollsters' 'gold standard', and the most likely to get the final result right. These numbers can't be wished away, much as Labour's incoming strategy guru, David Axelrod, will want to see them in the context of the wider polling landscape, which points at the moment to a virtual dead heat. But you know what? Regular readers will know that any more general view of the electoral landscape has shown us Labour's electoral incapacity for years. Remember their weak performance in the 2011 local and Scottish Parliament elections, only slightly mitigated by a better outcome a year later? This blog decided about a year ago that 'Labour probably can't win the next election... outright. But it still has an evens (or better) shot at emerging as the largest party'.

Now things look even bleaker for Her Majesty's Opposition. The more detailed numbers we have have seen George Osborne's figures as Chancellor continue to rise. The economic recovery is at last being felt in a political spring for the Conservative Party - one that seems quite likely to sustain them in power for quite some time to come. The problem that Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband (above) has is that he does not seem to have a synthesising, coherent macroeconomic message. Attacking deficit reduction that was 'too far and too fast' was right - and popular. Bashing train companies, energy providers and landlords is pretty likely to get voters nodding too. But what does it all add up to? What is the big idea? No-one seems quite clear, quite yet. They're going to have to get clearer, or Labour risks doing just as badly as they did in 2010.

That's right - the election of the apparently 'derided' and 'hated' Gordon Brown. For too long Labour Party strategists have assumed that they had a base or bedrock of 29 or 30 per cent that they could then build on with Liberal Democrats, younger voters and previous non-voters. They were wrong. Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling were tough, experienced, familiar figures who seemed, in 2010, to have brought the UK through the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Sure, they weren't that popular, but their numbers were often better than those of Mr Miliband and his Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls. Mr Brown was rated as doing a 'bad' rather than a 'good' job by a net 24 of voters on the eve of the last General Election: Mr Miliband's rating right now is -25. Labour planners appear to think that their numbers just have to go up, a dangerous illusion that envisages the electorate as a series of segments or blocs that can be moved around at will. In fact, things are much more fluid than this, and Labour could nearly as easily go backwards as forwards in 2015.

We've tended to rely, up to now, on statistical models that assume that a government will advance in the year before a General Election, and that the main Opposition Party will fall back. That has tended to produce models suggesting a very tight contest next May, with both Labour and the Conservatives having a chance of being the largest party. But the models are of uncertain veracity this time (which is why it's good that their authors publish and test them, to tell us what's the same as before, and what's changed). The Conservatives haven't been moving forward. It's Labour that's been falling back. A deep dive into yesterday's data shows that their latest precipitate falls are partly due (opens as PDF) to 'their' voters moving over to the United Kingdom Independence Party. If we're allowed to speculate for a bit, UKIP polling at ten per cent or so might hurt the Conservatives; up in the mid-teens, its support might start to eat into Labour's scores as well. If this is right, once the UKIP wave of the Euro-elections is over, we might go back to some Labour leads. But there'll be small, and very vulnerable to the Government's continued trumpeting of the (very rapid and vigorous) economic recovery.

The rise of UKIP, and the general mood of disenchantment with all politics and politicians, is changing all the rules. The Government isn't much liked. Now we know that Labour's support is very patchy and very soft too. What that means is that it is now pretty likely that Mr Cameron will be able to continue in No. 10 after the next General Election, albeit as a minority Prime Minister. But one has to ask: who would want to?

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