The part of tomorrow’s ComRes poll that will no doubt get the most attention is a series of questions asking how people would vote with a different leader. These appear to show that Labour would do better with any alternate leader, and that most of them would produce a hung Parliament instead of a Conservative victory. Looking more carefully though, the figures don’t appear to be comparable, and shouldn’t be compared to standard voting intentions or taken as voting predictions.

Generally speaking the “how would you vote if X was leader” sort of question is very popular with the press, but there are a bucketload of problems in carrying them out and interpreting them. Firstly, there is how to ask them. A normal voting intention question does not mention the leaders of the party by name, and adding their names does have an effect (Populus tested it when it was all the rage to ask questions about how people would vote with Brown as leader). Therefore one cannot ask “how would you vote if X was Labour leader” and then compare it to the standard voting intention question, since that did not include Gordon Brown’s name in the question, and would have given a different answer if it had.

On top of that, just including the name of the putative Labour party leader in the question itself skews the question, because it is not mentioning the names of David Cameron or Nick Clegg. Mention one, you should mention them all (and that too makes a difference, so shouldn’t be taken to seriously either.)

Thirdly, there is whether the questions are asked on an equal footing. For most of the polling companies voting intention is actually quite a cumbersome question, they ask how likely people are to vote, how they would vote, and in some cases a squeeze question too. If you want to ask a series of truly comparable “alternative leader” questions you’d need to ask again how likely people are to vote with each leader, then who they would vote for. Understandably this is sometimes skipped and it assumed that likelihood to vote remains the same, but that’s probably a false assumption.

Even if you do all this, it’s questionable how meaningful the answers are. People probably have a fair idea of what Jack Straw or Harriet Harman are like, they’ve both been in the public eye a long time… but Ed Miliband? Equally, while they may have an idea what sort of chap Jack Straw is, few have any real idea of what he, or any other alternative leader, might actually do were to to become Prime Minister or, to be honest, how they would react to it.

So, with all that in mind, let’s turn to the actual questions in the ComRes poll. ComRes asked “If there were a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for if each of the following were leader of the Labour Party?”, so the question prompted by the name of the Labour party leader, but not the leaders of the other two parties. Most importantly their standard question is filtered and weighted by turnout, however as far as I can tell the questions for alternative leaders weren’t.

In other words, the questions aren’t comparable. Filtering by likelihood to vote almost always helps the Conservatives and hurts Labour, so it’s no great surprise that questions that aren’t filtered by likelihood to vote show Labour doing better (and that’s before the effect of prompting by only the Labour leader’s name is taken into account). We cannot conclude from these questions that the alternative leaders would do better than Brown.

What the poll is useful for is comparing the alternate Labour party leaders to one another. It’s not that useful of course, since several of the people asked about aren’t very well known to the public and the public are not necessarily very good at predicting what they would do or how they would perform if they did become Prime Minister. For the record though, Jack Straw did the best, followed by David Miliband, closely followed by his brother Ed. Behind that was Ed Balls and Harriet Harman, then Alan Johnson, then Peter Mandleson. The least impressive figures were for Jon Cruddas, probably because he is the least well known.


15 Responses to “ComRes poll of alternate Labour leaders”

  1. Well it may not be very scientific and the reality may be that there really is nothing to be gleaned from this data but I am sure it will spice up the conference this week

  2. So you don’t think the fact that the LibDems have drawn level with Labour, merits a mention then?

    I would have thought that was pretty significant.

  3. That was Anthony’s previous post, Hunter…

  4. Oh right! Thanks Wes. I apologise to you Anthony, I jumped the gun there.

  5. There is no prospect of an alternative leader. It is too late. Any election of a new leader would be time wasting and divisive.

    It used to be the establishment view that in ours, (the best of all possible parliaments) to ensure that the natural party of Government (the Conservatives) didn’t become overconfident, stale and extreme, it had to be accepted that (now and again) the reserve team had to get its chance to go in to bat. It’s only fair play isn’t it?

    If to-day you believe that is a good system, others will tell you that you are a stupid old git, but let me assure you that that notion was formerly the received wisdom and regarded as implicit in, even almost part of, the (unwritten so as to be flexible) constitution.

    http://members.shaw.ca/jeanaltemeyer/drbob/Introduction_links.pdf

    is the introduction to an e-book about the religious and political right in America, but the insights contained therin explain how the Labour party has gotten in this mess, as the Conservatives did before them.

    Almost every part of the Westminster parliament’s constitution needs to change to prevent the same mistake being made over and over again.

    The model has been provided in Donald Dewars Home Rule Parliament as he intended. Unlike the other, it has a written constitution (the Scotland Act) and four founding principles. That’s not many, but it’s four more than the UK parlaiment.

  6. ComRes Con lead in LVI 15, not 14.

  7. John B Dick
    “There is no prospect of an alternative leader. It is too late.”

    I suspect that next spring, whe the daffodils are in bloom and our spirits are risng, Labour will quietly appoint a new leader and go to a GE on the bounce.

  8. ComRes = Folly !

  9. Anthony makes many valid and important points about the difficulty of framing questions about alternative leaders.

    I am not sure how much difference appointing another member of the cabinet as Prime Minister would actually make. One of Labour’s big problems is it how badly it fares in relation to public opinion when it comes to measuring trust. People will not believe what any member of the current cabinet says. The “dodgy dossier” over Iraq, and its sordid accompanying effects, still burdens Labour. And Labour has simply failed to redistribute wealth from the rich (including bankers) to the poor.

    So nobody will listen to Labour promises now.

    If Labour wished to regain ground, they would actually have to implement emergency policies, probably under a new leader, to stary tackling the economic crisis. And specifically they would have to do something that would rapidly reduce unemployment. But the current cabinet are perceived as having too many business links to take on vested interests (nobody expects the Tories to do so!).

    I “let my hair down” on this site ten days ago and wrote that a failing organisation outside Westminster would look for a leader from outside. Such a person could cut the Government adrift from baggage like Iraq. The is no provision for such an appointment in the Labour constitution, but if need really arose such now impossibly time-consuming arrangements could go out of the window (even by technically forming a new party). But who sutable is available?

    Paul is right. If Labour did something totally original to find a new Prime Minister, implemented as an emergency one or two really big new actions to address the economic crisis, and then called an election immediately, then they could still win on the bounce. The situation was much less extreme, but Eden did well at the polls as a new Prime Minister in 1955.

  10. Frederick,

    Comparison with 1955 is utterly misplaced. This may have worked in 2005, or even 2007, but not now.

    Eden was in a similar position to Brown in that he was the heir apparent in the shadow of a more charismatic leader whom he served dutifully in the expectation that the crown would pass to him when the time came. Moreover, when he did become PM, he proved a major disappointment.

    But there the similarities end. While sometimes impatient, Eden had always been loyal to Churchill. More importantly, the 1955 election was held within weeks of Eden’s appointment as PM, and at a time when Churchill (despite his age) would almost certainly have been re-elected had he chosen to stay on. Would Labour still led by Blair be leading in the polls now ? Would Blair have won comfortably in 2007 ?

  11. You are right to point out the limitations of the potential comparison between the near future and 1955, Paul, including your rhetorical questions.

    However, it is relavant to look at 1955 as the most recent time a new Prime Minister went to the polls within months.

    And I do think that a Labour Prime Minister appointed from outside Westminster, if such a person with the right abilities and experience were available, combined with a new answer to current economic problems, could possibly turn things around quickly for Labour. One reason is that support for the Tories is, whilst strong in terms of numbers, weak in terms of enthusiasm: it does appear to be a case of the Government losing rather than the Opposition winning. But we will probably never know.

    There really is an awful lot of “baggage” in Parliament that needs to be swept away if the Uk is to get an effective Government. I didn’t even mention MPs’ expenses imy last post.

  12. I think of all those you mention, John Cruddas would be the best… the most honestly passionate and socialist anyway.

    None of the others are going to appeal to the Old Labourites… New Labour and all associated with it who remain are going to be tinged with failure and the past.

    Cruddas though, has to survive the election, and with the BNP active in his part of the world, he’d got to fight on several fronts to do that. There may well be a couple of no-chance Old Labour candidates who break the ice for a real challenger to emerge. John McDonnell could be a candidate for that thankless task.

  13. Frederick,

    But my point was that Eden in 1955 was not a case of a new leader taking over and then winning his own mandate. Had Churchill called the election before retiring, the Conservatives would have done just as well, and the public would have been equally aware that Eden would become PM soon after anyway. Indeed, it is possible that had Eden taken over in 1954 and waited until the final date 1956 before going to the polls, the Tories may have lost.

    By far the better comparisons are Douglas-Home in 1964 (oops) and John Major in 1992 – but he waited 15 months before going to the polls, and only two months before he would have had to anyway. [Plus, most pundits thought Major would lose in 1992 – until Kinnock apparently blew it at Sheffield.] Macmillan on the other hand waited 3 years to secure his 1959 victory. The only Labour precedent is Jim Callaghan (oops again).

    Whichever way you look at it, the historical omens are not that good for Brown or any other leader Labour manage to put in place before May.

  14. There are a lot of ifs and buts in these precedents e.g. (1) Douglas-Home did very much better than anybody expect would be possible after the 1963 Profumo scandal (2) Callaghan would probably have won in Autumn 2008, before the “Winter of Discontent”.

    One thing that is clearly true is that the omens are not good for Gordon Brown.