The Labour leadership bandwagon seems to be rolling again. So, do the polls tell us anything about whether Labour would be better off without Brown? The answer, I’m afraid, is often no.

Questions in polls about alternative leaders normally take two forms. The first is a straightfoward “who would you like to be leader of X”, which is normally no more than a recognition contest. People like Jack Straw invariably head the list since people recognise their name, whereas few if any know who James Purnell or Jon Cruddas, for example, are. They should never be taken as a sign that, were people like Purnell or Cruddas as widely recognised as Straw, they wouldn’t be as popular as him.

The same problem also affects the other main type of “pre-leadership election polling” – hypothetical questions asking how people would vote if X became leader of the party. Generally speaking people simply don’t know enough about the alternate leaders and lots of people who might well consider voting Labour with a new leader accurately say “don’t know”, giving the impression that the party would do badly under less well known leaders when it isn’t necessarily the case.

Even when the alternate leader under consideration is well known there are still problems, because people are not very good at imagining how they will react to future events. Take the example of Gordon Brown, prior to his election polls universally suggested that he would perform very badly indeed in comparison to Tony Blair. Yet most observers correctly predicted that he would in fact receive a healthy boost upon becoming leader. The public were answering the question simply by transferring Gordon Brown’s head onto the existing Labour government, with everything else remaining the same. In reality a new Prime Minister also brings changes of policy, emphasis and party image – and in the case of Gordon Brown at least a huge swell of sympathetic media coverage.

Gordon Brown is an interesting example though because in the long term he has done very badly in the polls. Does this suggest the polls were right all along, and hence would be just as useful this time? The answer is partially yes, but no. I wrote at the time that those hypothetical polls probably were a very bad sign for Gordon Brown because of the reasons behind them: he wasn’t polling badly because people thought he was weak, incompetent or had the wrong ideas, to the contrary, people back then still had extremely positive perceptions of Gordon Brown as a strong, experienced and capable Chancellor. The reason he polled so badly appeared to be that people just didn’t like him.

I said back then that a politican could probably make themselves look strong or capable by performing well in office, but if they weren’t likeable there was little or nothing they could do about it. Brown’s figures boded ill for him because they appeared to be based on something that he couldn’t correct. In contrast, if we see polls showing Alan Johnson, James Purnell, Jack Straw or A.N.Other wouldn’t do as well as Gordon it doesn’t follow that it is for the same reason. It may be because they aren’t well known enough, or people don’t think they’d perform well in office, or haven’t got good ideas or other percieved failings that a potential leader could correct in the future.

I would urge great caution in reading too much into these sort of leadership polls if they do turn up, which given the recent news coverage of the Labour government, should be quite soon! I would not, however, ignore them completely – while I don’t think they show much, they do seem to carry a lot of weight with MPs and the media, in the early part of 2007 there was a period where the media would build up an alternative to Gordon, eventually do some polling on them, find they wouldn’t do any better than Brown, and move on to the next alt-Gordon. So, even if leadership polls like this are rubbish, they shape the debate – just wait till the day comes when a poll does finally show X performing significantly better as Labour leader than Brown would.


98 Responses to “A word about leadership polling”

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  1. Interesting analysis.

    My guess is that post-Brown Labour in opposition will go through what the Tories went through – a succession of leaders who weren’t right for the job until eventually someone comes through the ranks who has got what it takes to win a general election. Who that someone will be is anyone’s guess. They may not even be an MP yet.

  2. The fact that people just don’t like someone is pretty strong evidence that they won’t do well in an election.

  3. Actually, I don’t think the Tory party leaders were necessarily ‘not right for the job’ – I think it’s more that a party goes through a natural process of rediscovering itself.

    After a landslide defeat what a party needs is a number of caretaker leaders to guide it back to electability. If I was a Labour supporter (I’m not), then I would be horrified to see James Purnell take over the leadership either now or after a general election defeat – it could wreck his chances in the future (see William Hague).

    I don’t think a leadership change is going to help the party, it’s too late for that – and a year ago it didn’t stand much chance. In fact, I don’t think there is any way back – they can only rely on the Conservatives messing up.

  4. Isn’t some of this a case of the media making the story? Asking if Labour would do better under a new leader is a bit like the “when did you stop beating your wife?” question. I notice that no pollsters are asking if the Tories would do better under a new leader.

    Sure GB is doing badly in the eyes of the public but the media define the narrative. They could choose to portray Brown’s position as secure – as they did last autumn – or can seek destabilising stories and spin, as they did to John Major in 1996/97. I know that they will claim that they are only reflecting the Westminster village but I don’t buy that.

  5. I guess the only interesting question could be to ask whether a change of leader would be more or less likely to change the way you vote. The Blair V. Brown would be an interesting one tho. Methinks the Conservatives would still be in the lead, but by a smaller margin

  6. BTW, it is nice to see everyone back on thread and not discussing dental matters!

  7. Leslie,
    ” I know that they will claim that they are only reflecting the Westminster village but I don’t buy that.”

    When Cabinet ministers, new and old, write articles in the papers that undermine their leader (Stephen Byers, Charles Clarke, Jacqui Smith) you have to expect the media to pick up on it.

    Sure, the press make a mountain out of it but you’ve got to admit that there is a real story here. Many among Labours ranks are not happy with Brown. It’s not just hype.

    The very fact such leadership speculation abounds makes his position, even if he does the job better, less tenable by the day. It’s self-fullfilling now I suspect.

  8. @Leslie – in todays media savy world, you will find that a good government is one that gets the media on side. Labour have managed to do this for a very long time. So long some may say that it became habbitual.

    The fact that the narative has changed another HIGNFY bruising backing this up, then you can understand that the Government is losing it’s levers. Either the media knows that people won’t buyy the story or they themselves are no longer concerned about missing briefings etc – this makes it more a buyers market for stories and Governments tend to lose the monopoly. This creates an avalanche effect with the media pushing for more and more bad news.

    Unfortunately it not true of the reverese and you will have to that the British public and our joy of finding out bad stuff (they wouldn’t print it if we didn’t buy it – except of course the Indy and grauniad who will keep printing until the money runs out – fairly soon by all accounts)

    @Anthony – You indicate that we should ignore the polls and yet put store in them at the same time :-) nice

  9. One point, Anthony, you say “Take the example of Gordon Brown, prior to his election polls universally suggested that he would perform very badly indeed in comparison to Tony Blair.”

    Brown was not elected, except in some technical sense which is meaningless to most voters. People were prepared to put up with that, but when the Depression hit, I think many voters would think “Who is this guy? I didn’t vote for him.”

    Whether we like it or not, General Elections are often decided on the relative likability of the respective leaders. As Brown has not been through this process, his government was always going to be weak, as was John Major’s. I know Major did manage to (just) win the following General Election, but he had managed to get the economy onto a firm footing. The chances of this happening by the time of the next General Election are minimal.

  10. Difference with John Major, he was my MP, is that people largely still liked him, it was the Party they had come to dislike. He received a huge amount of mail saying it wasn’t him they voted against but the Party which had become stale and bitter as all Governments do in the end. Also he won the leadership, won an election, with more votes than anyone, and even stood again when the infighting over Europe became too bad. What has Gordon ever won except his own constituency and I have never met anyone who likes him, not even in Scotland now from what I hear from my relatives.

  11. @ Simon – <<>>

    Yes, you’re right. What I should have said was “right for winning a general election”. Caretaker leaders have an important role in the recovery process.

  12. You also have to consider the effect of non-labour voters on this, who would like to see Gordon Brown remain in place, as they see this will help to completely wipe out Labour at the next election. These people would support Brown in a poll for leader of the party, but that doesn’t mean it is good for Labour to keep him in place.

  13. I seem to remember a poll during the 2005 election campaign that said Labour would have won 60% of the vote if Brown had been leader!

    I agree with Leslie about the blatant media bias. It is especially true in Brown’s career. While Blair was PM, Brown got great media coverage which made him highly popular. That persisted until the press found a new darling in David Cameron, and Brown’s popularity plummeted. He then had a short revival while the media decided to be nice to him during his first few months in office. Then they turned on him after he disappointed them by not calling the general election they had be lobbying hard for.

    30-40% of the public are saps who’ll vote for whoever the media portray as the good guy.

  14. what will a new labour leaders message be.
    they have a hopeless task.

    a new labour message,result disfunctional country
    b old labour message,result disfunctional country

    they have a real problem.if they win in the next 15 years,people and capital will leave the uk for our lifetimes.

  15. It’s no good blaming Brown’s problems on the Press.

    You only have to watch PMQs from yesterday to form a judgement on the man. He was caught by a blistering attack on him by Cameron ( which was overdone in my view) , and a superb destruction of his latest policy announcement ( schools ) by Clegg.

    He looked a beaten man-wooden, repetitive & unconvincing.His response to the ” bullying in the workplace” joke question was definitive.

    If he lets himself become a joke, he cannot complain when cartoonists portray him as such, and journalists follow suit.

    He suffers from never having had the experience of promoting his leadership in an election-but that’s the fault of Labour MPs.

  16. Jakob – your view of the “general public”, as you call them, is sad, cynical and plain wrong. The media would like to think that it leads opinion, but for the most part it simply looks at which way the tide is flowing and follows it. At most it simply amplifies. This was so in 1997, and is just the same now. You would have to be a party apparachik or an osterich not to realise that the Labour party is out of time, and a high percentage of the “general public” realise this.

  17. @Jakob – “30-40% of the public are saps who’ll vote for whoever the media portray as the good guy” or as NigelJ puts it – the media portray the good guy as the person we would all vote for?

    Sorry but you have to understand that the media (with the noteable exception of the BBC to a large degree) require stories that people will buy, both with currency and spirit. It is no good trying to sell a story that Gordon is great when the actually quite savy public know he is not. There is no point trying to sell stories that Gordon has the actual backing of his party – he does not. Which is why the narative has changed.

    I do not see a way out of this for Labour and imagine that June will be a very interesting month in how they shape their polotics over the coming months.

    They are now battling: –

    1, Internal Corruption
    2, Leadership doubt
    3, Lack of authority of party and leader

    but most notably the call for “change”. This is what will kill them off in reality “change”.

  18. Jakob – sad, cynical and just about spot on, in my view.

    The press are almost certainly holding back on stories so that they can be used during the GE campaign – not all anti-Labour by any means. What drives the media are news stories (which need to be worked up / manufactured) rather than events (which just happen and so don’t require work), and they get mightily peeved when a promised event (GE) which produces stories for them gets cancelled.

    When they finally get their interesting (and easy) period in the run-up, they’ll wheel out all manner of stories about everyone, red, blue, green or yellow.

  19. @Keir

    What “change”?

  20. “30-40% of the public are saps “-
    JAKOB

    “The people have spoken, the bastards.” –
    -Dick Tuck-s concession speech following his loss in the 1966 California State Senate election.

  21. I think the media have another -more personal-agenda.

    Media & Arty types gladly embraced Blair’s version of left wing politics because it allowed them to parade their egalitarian social consciences, safe in the knowledge that their un-egalitarian salaries were safe with Tony.

    Brown just changed that & these people don’t like the look of Brown’s back to the future version of socialism, because it hurts them in their wallets in a nasty unequal sort of way.

  22. Colin :

    1945 , on the Labour GE victory, “The Lady in The Ritz” :

    “Labour in power? The country will never stand for it!”

  23. Jakob,

    Maybe the 30-40% of the public who are saps and follow the media are the same 30-40% of the public who don’t bother voting anyway ?

    If a party has a valid message, it will be heard. If it is just a projection of smoke and mirrors without substance, the veil will be penetrated as the smoke dissipates.

    Blaming a party’s woes on media reporting instead of analysing the (lack of) substance of its policy is a sure-fire route to electoral disaster.

    The public may often be disinteressed, but to accuse them of stupidity is to invite their wrath.

  24. John TT,

    In the long term, the Lady in the Ritz was right wasn’t she ?

  25. ‘New PolHome poll shows Johnson popularity has soared’

    “Full details will be released later, but we have been given a sneak preview of the latest PolHome.com poll on the Labour leadership.

    Quick headlines are that Jack Straw is still seen by the punters as the best choice on 16 per cent. But Johnno is snapping at his heels on 13 per cent and the gap between them has narrowed dramatically from 10 points to just three.”

  26. John tt

    I’m not sure what the relevance of your 1945 quote is-but I had not heard it before so thanks.

    Are there such things as “Ladies” nowadays?-and the Ritz as a bellweather of UK political opinion has surely been consigned to history.

    Clement Attlee,said “Right, we’ve done one job now. We’ve won the war. Now we’ve got to do the social job.”

    That’s why “The Lady” was wrong. I think Cameron knows-and Brown cannot see , that “the social job” still has to be done.

    Perhaps it always will?

  27. Paul – In the long term, “the country won’t stand for” any-one. Unless you’re in Cuba.

    Stuart – for a moment I had visions of Boris. Don’t do that to me!

    Keir – re stories the media “sell”. You exempt the BBC. However, do you remember the oil price peaking last summer? It went up to 140, then started falling. Consistently, over weeks and weeks. Largely un-reported.

    The BBC were so fixated on the story of rising oil prices that they organised a day for a reporter to attend an oil-trading room , and find out how easy it was to make money out of the inexorable rise . By that time the price was around 126. the reporter lost money that day, because no-one had thought to check where the trend in prices was going. Despite the evidence the jolly old BBC 5-Live team lost over £200 because they believed their own narrative and not what was actually happening.

  28. The odds (from political betting) have Alan Johnson, 4-1, followed closely by Harriet Harman, 11-2, as most likely to take over next.

    Straw is a meager 10-1 so the money is not where the polling tells us it should be.

    If Stuart Dickson is right about Johnson gaining in the polling too his backers in the party could use a bad show at the Euros as cover for a decapitation as early as this summer?

    I hope not. Brown would have been the Tories best ‘asset’ in a general election!

  29. Ivan,

    Sounds like Johnson has some powerful backers who have money – unions perchance ?

    If Johnson himself is allowing his supporters to promote him, then that suggets that he believes not only that Lbour will lose, but that it will be out of power so long that he will be too old to lead it to recovery.

    Is it really better to be PM for a few weeks / months than never at all ? What other explanation can there be ?

  30. Paul,
    “Is it really better to be PM for a few weeks / months than never at all ?”

    I guess if you had the Ego to think youself fit to represent ‘the people’ in parliament in the first place then the answer would have to be always be yes!

    If a new leader takes over soon they wouldn’t be replaced after a lost election anyway so they would have a small chance of winning back premiership in 4/5 years.

  31. I don’t think any potential leader believes this is a two-term problem. The incumbent Govt gets a drubbing because the recession happened on their watch (will be their belief if not mine as I’m not being partisan)

    Recovery will come, but painfully slowly, and the narrative will turn against the next Govt. If I were a Tory, I’d be hoping for a narrow defeat in 2010, so that I could look forward to 20 years of Govt from 2015.

  32. From the current lead, such a defeat woould probably only come about because the Dillitante Tendency had stuck their necks out too far and demanded education vouchers, tax relief for private health and all those thing we were so wrong to reject in 1997.

  33. @Colin – “what “Change”” – does it matter? That’s the problem with the change argument, people want change, you either encapsulate it or lose. It’s really hard for incumbent parties to shout “look we are change” when well lets face it they aren’t.

    @John T T – I only excempted them on the basis that they will largely continue no matter what their audience levels. I would also say that the BBC have fallen foul on many occassion of being the news rather than reporting it – see Robert Peston and to some extent Nick Robbinson who seems unable to shake peoples veiw that he is pro labour (irrespective of his roots) – in promoting balance, they forget sometimes that it does mean 1 bad bit of news for another bad bit for the other side, but simple reporting of “facts” and not just media breifings from any side (sorry anti BBC Rant)

    @John T T – your kindding yourself if you think labour can come back after 1 term. Sorry but after the probable defeat next year, Labour will need to do a lot of soul searching to find out who they really are. Ex New Lab people will be more likely to move to Lib Dem to shake off their current shackles and continue the political “career” they have before them.

  34. Keir – as I said in my non-partisan way, any potential leader of New Labour will believe they can win either next June, or in the following GE, whenever that is. Do you think I include myself in that group?

    Try to keep it neutral, Keir I know it’s tough for you, but do try.

  35. I don’t believe the old cycle will continue. Hung parliaments will become more common, although the next election will not necessarily produce one. I think we will see minor parties becoming more popular as society fragments into various pressure groups, some of them immature and petty-minded, others perfectly understandable responses to the failure of the main parties.

  36. @John TT – sorry – they must be kidding themselves if they think they can win within one term if they do as is likely lose the next general election. It’s lucky they have you to help them in understanding how silly they are :-)

  37. Keir – nice to know you that i’ve helped you to understand…

    Cameron must be a little worried that triumphalism and complacency are going to blow the whole project up in his face. Not that such an explosion would make much of a bang.

  38. Andy,

    OR… The Tories will deliver some much needed law and order and moral direction to our ‘broken society’ and win the trust of a greater voter base at a subsequent election.

    I honestly don’t think we’re quite at the ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ stage just yet.

  39. @John T T – I doubt he is unaware of the danger.
    Does anyone know when the next poll is out?

  40. This Gurkha issue can’t be doing Gordon Brown much good. Is anyone polling on this issue?

  41. John TT said:

    “If I were a Tory, I’d be hoping for a narrow defeat in 2010…”

    “Keir – as I said in my non-partisan way…”

    “Try to keep it neutral, Keir I know it’s tough for you, but do try.”

    “education vouchers, tax relief for private health and all those thing we were so wrong to reject in 1997” (Very non-partisan of you John.)

    “Cameron must be a little worried that triumphalism and complacency are going to blow the whole project up in his face. Not that such an explosion would make much of a bang.” (Very neutral of you John.)

    “Keir – nice to know you that i’ve helped you to understand…”

    LOL. You do talk some condescending and plain ridiculous nonsense. I bet you are about as popular as Gordon Brown. Certainly about as competent. No wonder you need a Labour government in power redistributing wealth.

  42. @M – Surely john was simply being informative for which I thank him.

    However I do believe John will be have difficulty stating that he is crying for non partisan reasons in June when (in my most non partisan voice) as the polls suggest Labour get smashed in the votes in June.

    @John TT – actually any government who wish for defeat don’t deserve to win, the Tories are quite obvioulsy looking to win have the ability to win and more importantly have the political levity to win. So no I absolutely refute your claim that the tories don’t want to win or are secretly hoping not to win, as another 4 years of this and we’ll all be moving to iceland.

  43. Hear Hear! (In a non-partisan sense of course!)

  44. While we are waiting for the next poll I thought it would be worthwhile throwing out a little analyses I made concerning past polls, namely, a comparison of polls from April this year with those of April 2004 regarding Labour’s position.

    April 2004 is the same distance in time to the last GE as is April 2009 to the coming GE (probably).

    In April 2004 Labour polled 34,38,36,35 averaging 35.75 and in the GE Labour only slightly improved on this by gaining 36.16

    In April 2009 there have been nine polls – 34,30, 26,26,30,28,27,27,26 averaging when discounting the very first poll 27.5 (the first poll of 34 can and should be safely discounted not simply because it is the oldest but more importantly because it is inconsistent with the rest of the eight polls that followed).

    The main point being is that there is very little difference between what Labour was polling 13 months before the last GE and what they actually gained, only an improvement of 0.41. Therefore for Labour to get 35% of the votes at the next GE they will need to improve by 7.5, a figure 18 times higher than last time.

    Actually, I’m inclined to believe that Labour will do worse than 27.5 for the economy is very likely to feel worse by the time the GE is held.

  45. In case anyone notices I typed that Labour got 36.16 at the last GE whereas they actually gained 36.19. I never said I was infullable, I mean infallible :-)

  46. “triumphalism and complacency ”

    I don’t see any sign of this john & Cameron warns against them constantly. But I agree that both would be very counterproductive.

    I wish he was as wary of “Flashmanism”-a condition which can be more unedifying than either triumphalism or complacency.

  47. M _ My words were addressed to Keir (Not Voting Labour). We enjoy occasional exchanges and deal with each other in a tongue-in-cheek tone. I think that’s OK, and given his name, I think he’s all right about it too. I don’t normally respond to facile rubbish, which is a compliment to his style, if not his views. Your post(s) in contrast contain nothing apart from guidance as to yourself

    Thanks Colin – you’ve made me look up a word (again!). Flashman I understand was quite a sort!

  48. John TT

    He was also a fictional caricature – which about sums up the tone of the ad hominem attacks on Cameron – they are trying to portray him as something other than he is for purely political ends.

    Personally, I think the class-war anti-toff soak the rich approach is woefully misguided, but I am happy for Labour to persist as it compounds the general impression of incompetence.

  49. Paul – I was tempted to draw allusions to Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but resisted. I think both sides are capable of caricaturing the opposition. Look up to M’s “comment” about me!

    However, you make quite a leap when you package fictionalisation and character-assassination with a “soak the rich” attitude, which is not at all fictional. If the average public actually understood the different ways in which their taxes are effectively hoovered up by the very wealthy there would be riots.

    How many have actually heard of a vulture fund and how it makes money for its investors, let alone understand?

  50. I think the big question now is “Can Joanna Lumley bring down the government?”

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