Brown vs Miliband

Both ICM and YouGov asked people about Brown and Miliband in their recent polls. In YouGov’s poll 21% of people thought Miliband would be a better Prime Minister than Brown (unfortunately YouGov didn’t give the alternative of him being worse than Brown – only of not being better). 11% of people told YouGov they would be more likely to vote Labour with Miliband as leader, 9% less likely.

ICM asked people to pick the best PM from Brown/Cameron and from Miliband/Cameron. In both cases Cameron lead by 21 points. 18% of respondents were more likely to vote Labour with Miliband as leader, 14% more likely to vote Labour with Brown. ICM also asked people to compare Brown and Miliband on various measures. Brown outranked Miliband in terms of honesty, making a stand on difficult isues and being a competent manager. He was also seen as more substantial and less likely to spin than Miliband. Miliband outranked Brown in terms of being “on my wavelength”, looking to the future and having the widest appeal. Whether this is particularly meaningful is a different question – how many of us really have any idea how competent a manager David Miliband is?

As Mike Smithson over on Political Betting has been saying these more likely/less likely questions aren’t particularly enlightening. Slightly better would be the sort of questions Mike is holding out for – hypothetical voting intention questions with alternative Labour leaders. The only poll to include hypothetical match up questions so far is YouGov’s for the Daily Telegraph at the end of July which showed Miliband doing marginally worse than Brown. Now, strictly speaking even these figures weren’t comparable. A poll asking how people will vote with David Miliband as Labour leader by definition includes David Miliband as a prompt in the question, wheras normal voting intention figures do not include Gordon Brown’s name in the question. A really comparative question should prompt with the name of the party leader in both questions. Even then, people are not necessarily good judges of how they will react to future events. Even if we did get good, solid comparable questions, they wouldn’t be that useful.

Polls before Gordon Brown became Prime Minister used to show a larger Conservative lead than under Tony Blair and now there is a big Conservative lead, lots of people have concluded these questions are useful. It ain’t necessarily so. In different ways those polls were both right and very, very wrong. They were wrong in the sense that Gordon Brown becoming Labour leader actually transformed the position of the political parties and put the Labour party into a strong lead, it was accompanied by lots of positive press coverage, eye-catching first moves like Brown bringing in his ‘G.O.A.T’s’ and a general willingness to give Gordon Brown a chance. It wasn’t too hard to predict that Brown would get this sort of honeymoon, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the polls that preceeded it and – if Gordon Brown had gone to the country at the beginning of that honeymoon period he may have been able to win an election on the back of that goodwill. Then we really would have been cursing all those pre-Brown hypothetical polls.

In the longer term though people were right about Gordon Brown having worse ratings than Tony Blair. My guess is that those poor ratings before Brown became leader were a reflection of people’s negative reactions toward’s Brown personality. It certainly wasn’t because they thought him weak, indecisive or incompetent, however poor his ratings on those fronts are now: back then Brown was still very highly rated in terms of competence, efficiency and strength. People must have been reacting negatively to his personality and my view is that a lot of negative feelings towards Brown now are for the same reason.

So, how much trust should we place in any hypothetical questions about how people would vote with David Miliband as leader? Well, firstly we should not place any trust at all in them predicting what the short term effect of a change of leader would be. A second chance of leader may or may not produce the same sort of boost in Labour’s ratings as Gordon Brown’s accession did. Some of the media coverage of Gordon Brown in Summer 2007 bordered on hagiography, I’d like to think that in hindsight the media realised they went rather over the top and would be more controlled in their reactions to a second new Labour leader, but never the less, I would expect a strong boost in Labour’s ratings were Gordon Brown to actually go. His net approval rating stands at minus 55 in YouGov’s latest poll, minus 47 in Ipsos MORI’s. The removal of such a strongly negative factor should improve Labour’s ratings unless replaced by someone similarly repellent to voters and in nearly all cases people will give some benefit of the doubt to even an unsympathetic replacement. How much of an initial boost a new Labour leader gets may be the important question if they go for an immediate election, not what the longer term picture would be.

Moving beyond that, can any question tell us how people will react to David Miliband in the longer term as it did with Gordon Brown? Obviously we don’t know for sure. It is possible they are showing something meaningful – perhaps people have decided that they don’t like David Miliband either – too young or too geeky – and he’d be no improvement. Perhaps people have decided that Labour should definitely go regardless of who their leader is, and therefore they will vote the same regardless of who leads them. In either of these hypotheses figures predicting Labour would do just as badly would be a good guide, but I don’t think either are right.

Hypothetical polls now are not likely to be the result of a negative reaction to Miliband himself, or at least, not an accurate one, since people don’t know him well enough to make a judgement. In an ICM poll earlier this month only 53% of people said they would even recognise Miliband, and it seems unlikely that all that 53% have a good idea of what Miliband is like and what he stands for. When people reacted negatively to Gordon Brown’s personality they had 10 years experience of him as a senior minister. In the case of David Miliband they have just over 1. This lack of recognition for Miliband is the reason Nick Sparrow of ICM gives for why ICM haven’t run any questions of this sort. In the second case, it is inconcievable that every swing voter in the country decides their vote purely on government performance. To some degree or other things like leadership, party image, party priorities and policies will all be major factors and David Miliband as leader would change all these things to a degree: people might not believe he would now, but he may yet surprise them.

While I don’t think hypothetical polls of this type would be particularly useful when the alternative leader is not particularly well known to the public, they would nevertheless be important. If these polls did show Miliband doing better they would bolster the courage of people within Labour considering whether to move against Brown. If not they would act against a real Miliband bandwagon from building up in the press (the same thing was evident before Tony Blair stood down – media speculation over a would be alternative would start building up, newspapers would start running lovely soft-focus stories about Alan Johnson, David Miliband or whoever, then polls would suggest that they would be just as bad as Brown and the media would drop them and move on to the next would be alternative!). Given the combination of being not very enlightening, but potentially having great influence, perhaps its not a bad thing no one has been commissioning them!


5 Responses to “Brown vs Miliband”

  1. Interesting article. However, in speculating about what effect Miliband (or any other Labour aspirant to Brown’s leadership role) might have on Labour’s fortunes I think there is a dimension you have overlooked that would likely dictate the theme of Brown’s replacement prior to a General election.

    It is simply that Brown’s replacement would be in the pretty unique position of being the second unelected Prime Minister in succession. Given the likely furore any gains made by the change in leadership could be engulfed in a cacophony of outrage and calls for an immediate General Election.

    Perhaps, when asking these Labour leadership questions they should also be asking a question about whether people think that if Labour do change leaders whether they think there should be an immediate General Election.

    It might just give an inkling as to what the new leader’s chances of some relative success might be.

    Of course if we are talking about after a General Election then that’s a completely different ball game.

  2. Been asked – a large majority thought there should be. It was the same before Blair went though, so it doesn’t necessarily mean the pressure won’t be resisted. I suspect it is not pressure from the public that will determine that particular decision.

  3. Second unelected president is why it is a problem.

  4. It may be that Labour are drawing some comfort from the fact the polls have stopped getting steadily worse. A little optimism will come from the awareness that the ship has stopped sinking further.

    But I think this is a relative lull before the storm. The black clouds of a worsening economy will cause their ship to begin sinking deeper again. This will bring about a measure of panic which MIGHT trigger the start of a leadership contest before the end of the year.

  5. The Labour Party will need to be very convincing at the party conference and GB will have his work cut out to convince voters that he is the best option to lead labour come the next election. The economic situation might well trigger a leadership contest for Labour even so David Miliband will need to show that he has more to offer other than the odd press interview loaded in his favour.Miliband in his role as foreign secretary has not stood out as outstanding so perhaps GB is still the best Labour can hope for to lead them into the next election.