Tuesday, 20 May 2014

What's behind Labour's poll gloom?

There's no doubt about it: the UK Labour Party's polling is pretty poor. Not really poor, not so bad that we can write them off at the next General Election (at least in terms of having most seats), but their performance is underwhelming for the main party of Opposition, faced with not one but two governing parties who always get the blame for 'events', and presented with an open policy goal almost every day of the week.

The polls can be pretty difficult to interpret at the moment, leading to commentators and observers throwing up their hands and saying 'oh, they're all over the place', or pointing to methodological differences between the pollsters. The two main parties seem to swap or share places in the lead, at least for Westminster elections, all the time. But there's really no mystery. Labour's ratings have been falling since the summer of 2012, when they plateaued in the low-40s, before coming to rest in the high 30s for most of last year, and now dropping into the mid-30s at the moment. There's been little or no sign of a matching Conservative recovery, with at best a gentle upward trajectory noticeable since the start of this year - a fact for which Labour can be grateful, and perhaps can be accounted for by defections to the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip).

And Labour's numbers are deflating everywhere, like air being steadily let out of a balloon - only today, news came from Wales that Labour's numbers were down there, too, dialling hopes of six to eight Parliamentary gains down to five. That's pretty good (Cardiff North and Cardiff Central are as close to racing certainties that you're going to get, come election night), but not spectacular. Given that we know that the pendulum usually, but not always, swings back towards governments in the run-up to polling day, it's a sign that Labour's going to have to go some to be the largest party in the House of Commons.

Are they going to do it? It seems less likely now than it once did. Statistical analyses building in previous governments' pre-poll recoveries suggest that the Conservatives are now gradually, very gradually, crawling into a position where they might even claim a tiny overall majority (though this remains pretty much at the outer horizons of their ambitions).

Just as Labour's polling decline has been gradual, and not the sudden wake-up call that the Conservatives' new polling leads might suggest, so its causes are also deep-seated and structural. We've been tracking them for about a year here at Public Policy and the Past, and not much can be done to change the battlefield now.

The main element? The economy is recovering, very rapidly. It's that simple. There's been a massive 34-point leap towards the coalition when voters are asked whether they're managing the economy well or badly - and the Chancellor is more popular than either the Prime Minister or Ed Miliband (above), Labour's leader. Then there's Labour's leader. He's quite a good leader, really - getting all the major calls right, making a coherent case about 'predator capitalism', attacking unpopular payday lenders and train operating companies. Certainly not many Oppositions have been anywhere near dreaming about No. 10 just one term into the wilderness, and Labour still has a shot at returning to power next year. But Mr Miliband's main problem is that the public just don't warm to him - a problem that's getting worse, and not better. Voters may have preferred Prime Ministers to their opponents before - they liked Jim Callaghan more than Mrs Thatcher in 1979 - but never by such a margin, and never in conjunction with such dire assessments of the Opposition's economic agenda. Then, thirdly, there's Labour's problems with its grass roots. Put simply, Ukip (and, at a time of European elections fought under proportional voting) the Greens are beginning to eat into their support base.

Put it all together, and Labour are going to struggle to stay in the mid-30s. They're going to make some advances in May 2015, but will they be enough? Right now, it seems doubtful - and a government that brought you the chaos of Universal Credit, a botched reorganisation of the National Health Service and an economic Plan A that quietly morphed into a Plan B they could have kept to the whole time will sail on regardless.

It's a rum old world, politics.