Today’s YouGov poll was also reported as showing that any alternative Labour leader would perform even worse than Gordon Brown. YouGov gave respondents a list of other politicians and asked if people would be more or less likely to vote Labour in a general election if they were leader – all had a negative net score, with more people saying they would be less likely to vote Labour with them in charge than more likely.

I would be very dubious indeed about these questions for two reasons. Firstly there’s the question design – less or more likely doesn’t tell you that much. Many of the people who said they would be more likely to vote Labour with X in charge already vote Labour, so yes – having that person in charge might firm up their support but isn’t winning more votes. Many people who say they would be less likely to vote Labour with X in charge are already not voting Labour, so it may be driving them even further away, but since they aren’t voting Labour anyway it’s not necessarily much of a loss. If you must do questions like this, it’s better to ask people how they would vote if X, Y and Z were party leaders, giving alternative Labour leaders in different versions of the question.

Even then though (and I’d be amazed if some questions like that didn’t come along sooner or later), the questions would be pretty meaningless. Regular readers will remember the questions we had when Tony Blair was Prime Minister that asked how people would vote if Gordon Brown was leader. Back then I had to laden down the results with lots of caveats about people not being very good predictors of how they would react to future events and that, in practice, Brown would probably get a big boost upon being leader. In the event he did, but a few months later he was trailing in the polls in much the way those pre-Brown polls had predicted. Those were a special case though, since Brown had been a very prominent politician for the previous decade and the public knew him well and knew what he was like. It could have turned out very differently and Brown could have shown a completely different side of his personality as Prime Minister… he didn’t, he was the same Gordon Brown and people reacted in the way they thought they would. But the fact remains he could have surprised them.

In this case, with the possible exception of Jack Straw, none of the possible replacements for Brown are widely known by the public. YouGov took this into account to some extent in today’s poll by giving respondents the option of saying they didn’t know enough about each person (38% gave that response for James Purnell and Andy Burnham, 16% for David Miliband, 6% for Jack Straw), but the problem is really unsurmountable. People can’t say how their opinions would really change were Andy Burnham or James Purnell Prime Minister since they’ve little or no idea of who they are, what they are like or what on earth they would do or change as Prime Minister.

If Brown’s leadership starts to come under real pressure then expect more polls like this…but unless they are about very well known politicians treat them as just a bit of fun.


13 Responses to “Would every other leader do worse?”

  1. It’s all completely academic at any rate.
    If the Conservative Party did not see fit to remove John Major as their leader with their ratings falling as low as 18.5% (Gallup, January 1995), I cannot see Labour removing Gordon Brown, not least because the Labour Party rules make it harder to do so.

  2. They weren’t really as low as that, were they?

  3. They were – but the polling methodology was wrong.

    In 1995 opinion polls also said that the Conservatives would do worse if Major was replaced.

    As to Burnham and Purnell even I (who takes an interst in politics) am very vague as to who they are. Didn’t one of them fake some photos?

  4. Yes Andy S, it was Lab 62, C 18.5, LD 14, Oth 5.5. That was THE record.

    The Tories bounced up to 23.5 a few weeks later though.

  5. Andy D

    I don’t think it is academic because, unlike the Tories in the 1990s,the Labour Party isn’t fundamentally divided. The prospect of loss of power and the loss of seats for many Labour MPs is likely to concentrate minds and if things are still as bad by the autumn things are likely to start to happen.

  6. I think it’s in Labour’s best interests to keep Brown. I don’t think they can take that risk. The public just aren’t getting any feelers of members of the cabinet who are likeable, media-savvy and charismatic enough to somehow weather the storm for Labour. However, i would say in this day and age of more intense media scrutiny, that being for the sheer TV hours and availiability of news, and MP’s having to learn to be more media-savvy, i would say Brown has a more likely chance of getting booted out than Major had in 1995. The polls can’t detect everything, just because Major did marginally worse. But that’s not to say it will happen.

  7. ANDY D – I completely rebuff your figures in the 80’s of a 43.5% gap between Labour and the Tories – even the media are saying there is no comparison in history to the 26% gap between the main parties now. Only the Labour Party has fallen below their core vote into the mid 20’s – even in their worst times after 1992 – the Tories still POLLED in actual GE results over 31% – Labour were POLLING in actual results in the early 80’s as low as the mid 20’s.

  8. I fully acknowledge that polling methodology has improved since the 1990s. I am simply quoting a Gallup poll to reinforce my point, which as far as I’m aware was the only one in history to show the Conservatives under 20% – a bit of an extreme case.
    In fact I also think Labour’s lead was grossly exaggerated between 1997 and 2001 – all those polls putting Labour well over 20% ahead and their lead in the popular vote in the 2001 election was in fact 9%.

    I don’t think there will be any serious challenge to Gordon Brown within the Labour Party, especially since he was the only candidate at the leadership election last year. Cabinet ministers would be risking the ruin their political careers by standing against him and potentially losing. If anything does happen at all, it is more likely he will do what John Major did in 1995, ie. resign and successfully seek re-election.

  9. I can’t see a situation where the ‘men in grey suits’ remove Brown but I can where the ‘men in white coats’ do. All prime ministers go a bit odd and Gordon doesn’t look a well man.

  10. Richard

    I don’t know whether you are being serious or not, but as far as GB is concerned I have my doubts about whether he has the character or personality to cope with with the sort of approbrium that is being heaped upon him. We all went along with the GB gruffness when he was Chancellor because everything seemed to be going well and to be honest he wasn’t really tested. If he is ‘congenitally’ unable to give straight answers to straight questions until it is impossible to do otherwise I can’t see things getting much better. Better to go quietly than to go mad!

  11. should have done the poll with alan johnson. Comes from london from a poor background, was a postman and worked his way up and then a union man, represents a northern constituency and he is english – what a story against a southern based tory toff who has never had a proper job – if i were labour party member i know what i would be wishing for

  12. Black country lad – they did. He too did worse than Brown (though as I said above, I don’t think that means much).

  13. I posted somewhere else re this…..

    Gallup used to show massive Labour leads of around 40 points from the end of 1994 to 1996 apart from a narrowing over John Major’s re-election in his leadership contest (1995), and
    Harriet Harman’s education row in 1996 (I remember thinking how awful things had become that a huge 7% swing back to the Tories still left a gap of around 26 points).

    But they changed their methods around the end of 1996 – mainly a switch to tel which reduced the gap to around 18-20.

    But there were many other polls around this time showing Labour about 25 points ahead, so I don’t think the current government is in such a hole.