I have a particular loathing for arguments that involve the words “at this stage in the cycle”. It implies that public support automatically moves in certain directions depending upon how distant or close an election appears, as opposed to people changing their opinions in response to events. The big daddy of this sort of argument is the belief that governments always recover as an election approaches, or that oppositions have to be X points ahead at “this stage in the cycle” to be Y points ahead come the election.
Now, there is some logic in the argument. After all, to some extent governments have the ability to time the announcement of policies and tax cuts so unpopular things happen mid term and popular things happen in the run up to elections (though this does rather depend upon there being ideas in the making and money in the kitty). I expect there is also a causal link in the other direction: governments see they have had a good run in the polls recently and take the opportunity to call an election. But anyway, theoretical arguments aside, lets look at what has actually happened at past elections.
We’ll start with 1992 – often a popular point of comparison, for we really did have a government that was trailing by over 25 points in the polls, yet came back to win. You can see on the graph that the Conservative deficit peaked at 24.5 points, and their average deficit in 1990 was around 12 points… yet they came back to win by 8 points. However, as we know, it wasn’t a gradual clawing back of support, it was a sudden transformation after the replacement of Margaret Thatcher with John Major. Moving into 1991 the Conservatives were on average roughly level with Labour in the polls. Normally this might suggest that the government recovered even further in the run up to the 1992 election, but of course, if one looks at the polls they didn’t. By the eve of the election the polls are still showing the parties roughly even – it wasn’t that Major’s government recovered in that last year, it’s just that the polls were wrong.
Moving onto 1997, in this graph I’ve taken only ICM polls, since they were the only company who immediately learnt the lessons of 1992 and corrected their methodology enough to get things right in 1997. Here the government’s deficit against the Labour opposition peaks at 29 points, and the average deficit across the worst year, 1995, is almost 20 points. The Conservatives certainly recover somewhat from that position, eventually losing to Labour by 13 points, but while that is a substantial recovery from 1995, it’s a more modest clamber back from the 16 or so point deficits they averaged in 1996.
Onwards to 2001 and a Labour incumbent. Labour’s worst point here is obvious – a brief 8 point deficit at the height of the 2000 fuel strikes. That is very brief however, and on average even in that, their worst year, they are on average 11 points ahead in the polls. They end up winning by 9 points. So there is no recovery here – apart from that brief blip Labour’s lead gradually falls throughout the Parliament. (Some of the pollsters are still making post-1992 adjustments to their methodology in this Parliament, particularly MORI who start filtering by likelihood to vote and Gallup who drop out alltogether to be replaced by YouGov. If you take just ICM, as I did for 1992-1997, the picture isn’t too different. Their average Labour lead in 2000 is 8.4, so there is a neglible government recovery).
For the 2001-2005 Parliament we really don’t see much of a recovery at all. The government’s lead over the Conservatives plummets as they lose support over the Iraq war. Their worst position in the polls (which they hit several times) is a 5 point deficit. In 2003 their average position is 3.8 points ahead of the Tories, in 2004 it is 2.4 points ahead. In reality they win by 2.9 points – so again, there is no significant improvement from their mid-term position.
So looking at past years, there is a big government recovery in 1992… but it is caused by changing a leader. In 2005 and 2001 there is no significant recovery at all. Only in 1997 do we see a government clamber back from its very worst ratings and stage something of a recovery and, as we know, it wasn’t nearly enough to win. What is true is that governments have always recovered from their very worst position – in every case its possible to cherry pick some awful moment of hideous unpopularity from which the government recovered, but that’s no great surprise (for starters, in most cases the most extreme outlying poll results were probably rogues anyway). What it doesn’t mean is that one can take any mid-term (or now late term) position and assume the government must do better.
So, let’s look at the same graph for the position now, and see what that looks like in comparison.
We’ve got a rather excitable graph here to begin with, with the big peak of the “Brown Bounce” in the middle of 2007. Labour’s worst point is a 28 point deficit in 2008 – they’d have to go to some effort not to do better than that at the election. Their average in 2008 and 2009 is a deficit of around 12 points. If they ended up with roughly the same sort of deficit as that at the next election it would fit the pattern of the last two elections. Then again, perhaps they could recover as the Tories did in 1997 – or perhaps they could drift down further.
That’s the point – there isn’t an automatic cycle where governments are guaranteed to recover X points at the Y part of the cycle. We’ve seem them recover, we’ve seen them fail to recover; if you take one date as your reference point they go up again, if you take another as your reference point they don’t. There is no guaranteed rallying of support – if the government wants to recover support it needs to do something to earn it (or hope the Conservative do something to drive it away).