Let’s start with what the polls are actually showing. The Conservatives level of support has fallen to around 39%. Of the ten polls this month, 7 have put them below forty, when every single poll in October had them at 40 or above, so it’s pretty clear they have dropped slightly (though to put this in context, they were polls showing them below 40 in September and almost all of of June). There also appears to have been an increase for Labour, more often than not they are now polling in the high twenties. Despite a couple of big increases in individual polls this month though, their average in November’s polls (27%) is actually fractionally down on October (27.6%). Labour are clearly doing better in the polls than they were earlier in the year, but it’s a more longstanding advance and we can trace it back to around about conference season.

So, what’s causing it? The harsh reality is that voting intention polls only tell us how people say they’d vote. They don’t tell us why, or why they might have changed their mind, so the rest of this post is by necessity conjecture.

I should start by knocking down some things that it almost certainly isn’t – whenever there is a move in the polls I tend to see comments saying it is the result of the story in the Mirror that morning about David Cameron beating his butler, or the MP for Backwoods West having claimed a plunger on expenses or whatever. I think I spotted one comment saying it wasZac Goldsmith’s tax status (a story that came out half way through ComRes’s fieldwork and only really got traction once it had finished!). Trivialities do not change the polls, they may have a cumulative effect upon how the parties and politicians are perceived, but taken alone they are not significant factors.

Here’s what I see as the four main hypothesis for what is going on:

1) David Cameron’s “reverse” on Lisbon has resulted in the Conservatives losing support to UKIP. In theory this seems plausible. Europe is an issue with very low salience as Ipsos MORI’s monthly issues monitor repeatedly shows (this month’s poll found 3% of people think it is an important issue), however, that tiny minority do care about it a very great deal and it is possible that it would shift their vote. The theory looks very strong if we look at ComRes’s polling over the last two months – prior to David Cameron’s announcement at the beginning of November they were showing UKIP at around 3% of the vote. In their two polls since then they have shown UKIP at 5% and 6%. However, other polling doesn’t back it up – prior to Cameron’s announcement YouGov were consistently showing UKIP at 4%, and in their two polls since the announcement UKIP have stuck resolutely at 4%. The other companies have also failed to pick up any great jump in UKIP support. Taken alone ComRes’s polls are pretty convincing, looked at in the wider context, I’m not so sure.

2) Increased economic optimism and confidence has brought people back to Labour. On the face of it this would seem a good explanation, the problem comes with the timing. Economic optimism has been strongly recovering since the spring, but hasn’t made much further advance in the autumn – yet that’s when we saw the narrowing of the gap. Perhaps it is just a slow burner and it takes a while for increased economic confidence to translate into support for the government. If this is the reason, and economic recovery is translating into government support, it raises two very interesting possibilities. Firstly, the formal end of the recession is still to come, and as regular readers will know, I think think that announcement has the potential to have a real impact on public opinion. Secondly, if we cast our minds back to the end of last year, back then we saw the government’s popularity increasing on the back of economic confidence, and we saw both of them collapse when a series of high street stories went to the wall in January. Earlier this week there were reports that insolvency practitioners were predicting another wave of closures this January as stores who fail to do well enough over Christmas fold. I’m no economist, so I’ve no idea how much water that holds – but it suggests we have the potential for further increases… or knocks to consumer confidence in the months ahead.

3) Labour have been performing better. Sometimes it isn’t what is happening that affects the polls, it’s what hasn’t been happening. The Labour party had a pretty good conference, and since then there haven’t really been any great plots or infighting, speculation about Brown’s future has largely faded, to use their own phrase, they’ve been getting on with the job. Disunity and incompetence are hugely damaging to a party’s image and support, so I think it is quite possible that this is a factor in the narrowing lead.

4) Oh those horrible Tories, run away! Strangely explanations for the narrowing polls I see proposed on blogs and forums tend to more often focus on the Conservatives having done something to drive people away than Labour having done things to win back support. My view is that voting intention will still largely be governed by people’s attitudes and opinions of the Labour government, it is a vote against Labour, not in favour of the Conservatives – as the well worn cliche goes, it is governments that lose elections, not oppositions who win them. Most things the opposition parties say and do are probably noticed by very few people anyway. For that reason, and because the Conservatives haven’t done anything overwhelmingly disastrous that would impinge on the public consciousness, I think it’s far more likely that a better performance from Labour and increased economic optimism are behind their recovery, but as I wrote at the beginning of the piece, we can’t tell for sure.

225 Responses to “Why the polls are narrowing”

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  1. @COLIN
    There is so much in what you say regarding selective memory and downright refusal to believe what you dont want to believe.
    The Spectator stats are a classic example of “dont tell me that”
    for government supporters, as will be the Daily Telegraphs headline this AM, borrowing will cost every family in Britain £5k
    per annum. “Wood”, will of course say the figures are fixed.
    The problem “Wood” and co will have with the public at large, is a complete refusal to believe anything any Labour politician says about anything, as a result of the last 12 years behaviour.

    When I said the other day that my children grew up under Thatcher and my grandchildren are growing up under Brown.
    I drew a comparison which is not complementry to Brown.
    If this were not the case I would not be a “tory troll” (thanks Wood) now. The “diabolical Thatcher years” make me feel like
    Ossy Osbourne, in that I just do not remember the poverty degradation and fear these people crack on about.

  2. @wood

    I disagree – you think the size of deficit matters less if we have a v big government – the reverse is true.

    There is a limit to how much tax a government can take before the private sector collapses under the weight of an oversized public sector. It stops functioning effectively, tax evasion increases, tax take falls. Therefore…

    Big government + big deficit = out of control, because tax just cannot be raised.

    Small government + big deficit = not so bad taxes can be increased.

    (small government + small deficit = prosperity!!!)

  3. Will be interesting to see how the recent revelations of the incompetence at the treasury prior to and during the Lloyds/HBOS takeover pan out in the polls.

    The Iraq inquiry is turning up lots of what, in normal circumstances, would be regarding as shocking revelation about the basis on which the government took the country to war. I don’t, however, expect this to impact Labour position in the polls as they seem to have successfully defined this a ‘Tony’s war’ rather than the governments.

  4. @TONY M
    I agree with you and wonder how these things will run.
    As for “Tonys War”, I think the Tories should jump on that one very hard. It is impossible that Mr Chancellor Brown was not involved in the matter, to name only one.
    Had the Germans won in 1942 and shot Churchill, could Attlee
    have said to the German CinC “nothing to do with me gov” and got away with it. I dont think so.

  5. @Colin, figures were rough remembered to give an example….they’re somewhere in the ballpark but don’t quote me on them :)

    I generally agree (well dur) that the deficit is a problem (although shouldn’t take the steepest part of the red line and extend it straight down to 2020)…..I was just generally cautioning about reading too much from graphs in openly biased publications, they’ll always be designed to fit in with what their readers want to hear.

    Like the Suns thing lately, with that poll……sure, the figures they used were all true….but it wasn’t exactly an accurate representation…..ya look at the tables (or come here) yourself….not trust the sun when they say labour are winning, or the times when they say the tories have the largest lead so far this year….

    @King Harold, I am not a Labour supporter, nor a Guardian reader, also….if you’d care to check….I specifically said I thought you weren’t trolling…..and thankyou so much for listening to my plea for a return to polite discussion.

    @James I can see your point….but that government…er..’saturation’…example doesn’t really apply in this case.

  6. Re the various repsonses from Colin and others to my last post where I mentioned ‘savage’ cuts and IHT etc. I wasn’t making a value judgement about the relative level of IHT thresholds between Lab/Con policy, nor was I saying that the Tories have claimed they will make ‘savage’ cuts (in fact my criticism of them is that the cuts they have mentioned are tiny, while they claim to be honest and bold about the truth). All I was saying is that they have allowed Labour to fill in the gaps for them by some poor politics and I believe this has already had or will have impact on the polls. The apparently disparate issues of non dom candidates, IHT thresholds, cuts, privileged background, imposed A list candidates, parroting Murdoch’s media policies , opaque fundraising activity etc, all fit into a narrative of wealthy Tories in it for their own kind while pretending to be ‘of the people’. The danger for Cameron is the juxaposition of his carefully crafted ‘ordinary bloke’ image and how this sits alongside these other stories. In this it reopens the exsting doubts about his sincerity and whether he is just a PR creation. In a similar vein, someone on here mentioned that whatever the merits of the referendum decision, after it cameron was no longer ‘new’ – he just joined the ranks of all the other politicians. There is a greater danger presenting yourself as the change, Mr Clean etc, if the perception starts to change.

    @ James Ludlow – I don’t see this as “silly, trivial nonsense..”. In particular the coincidence of Cameron’s media policy with Murdoch’s views and the Tory fundraising City Club that sells dinner with the leader for £50,000 raises in my mind extremely serious questions over whether Cameron really is committed to cleaning up British politics or whether he really does just care about image. Many lobbying professionals are predicting a huge fall out from this in due course. Worth applying the ‘Opposition Test’ on this one. Would you think it was silly criticising Gordon Brown for taking £50,000 for lunch with businessmen and refusing to say who they were? I somehow think this would have made it to the pages of this site already, but I could be wrong – you might think this would be perfectly acceptable?

  7. Anthony-apologies -got a bit enthusiastic with the numbers!

  8. @ALEC
    Your remarks to James Ludlow encapsulate my comments the other day regarding what is inportant to one person means very little to another. As far as I am concerned if someone thinks having dinner with DC is worth 50 grand more fool them.
    If the Tories are stupid enough to allow questionable people to attend they will suffer for it. Any press which does not see Brown as the worlds saviour, is now “Murdoch lies” but was quite ok when John Major was a “Major W….r” according to the Sun. The whole tenet of this whinging seems to based on jealousy rather like the class war Labour are rehashing.
    The Tories have a war chest Labour are broke. Big business largely supports the Tories, despite NuLabs sucking up.
    Labour have never recovered financially from their former paymasters the Trade Union movement withdrawing a good deal of support. They then turned to highly questionable dealings
    which you choose not to worry about because the Tories just might be doing something they should’nt. With people like Mandelson & Campbell running the Labour campaign, I should concentrate on Labours moral well being.

  9. @ Alec – Labour also raised funds by inviting paying guests to dinner parties with ministers and backbenchers. They only managed to get £500 per head though (Google “The $500 Dinner Date” if you don’t believe me).

    Perhaps all politicians are whores but at least the Tories aren’t cheap whores :D

  10. Labour may be recovering slightly, but winning a bye-election in Glasgow is neither the cause not evidence of it.

    Only centenarians in that constituency remember voting in an election when Labour wern’t returned.

    Labour winning in Glasgow isn’t news. Man bites dog is news.

    All Scottish parties are regional to some extent and if you look at the 2005 result you can see what FPTP does to the Conservatives to marginalise them and that LibDem + SNP get much less than half the seats of Labour with much the same number of votes.

  11. A swing of 10% according to target seats would give the Conservatives 190 more seats so why does everyone seem to believe this lie that they need such a massive swing for victory?

  12. Paul B

    You are confusing “swing” and “lead”.

    In 2005 Lab led Con by a mere 3%. If Cons now have a lead of 10%, that only represents a swing of 6.5% [(3+10)/2 = 6.5] not 10%.

    A 10% swing implies a Con lead of 17% in polls – at which point nobody doubts Cons would win an outright majority.

  13. @KH and james Ludlow – a couple of points. Firstly, I was, and am, highly critical of Labour for both their supine accceptance of the Murdoch machine (although they certainly haven’t given Murdoch everything he wants, I don’t feel they were bold enough in tackling media dominance by a small number of businesses) and also their cash for access record. I think it is disgraceful for any elected representative to take cash in exchange for their time and is a clear sign of how far removed from real people the political class have become. Please don’t assume that if I criticise Cameron I am de facto supporting Labour – I am not. One way to view my thinking is that I found Blair highly distasteful and two faced in much of the way he operated, and said so at the time (although i wasn’t on this site then) and now I see cameron making exactly the same errors.

    Secondly, for someone who has stated his aim is to ‘clean up politics’ it is simply not good enough for him or his supporters when questioned about dubious practices to say ‘it’s OK because the other lot do it as well’. Cameron has made part of his image as the uncorruptible new broom – he has set himself up for a major fall which will be all the worse when it happens because of the image he has sought to project.

  14. @Paul B
    In addition to the other Pauls explanation may I add that the current Tory lead in the maginals gives them advantage to the extent that the need to get an 8% lead to merely draw level with Labour in terms of seats, reduces somewhat to a 6.5 to 7% lead.
    Therefore as Anthony has explained, if the election went on the last poll basis with YOU GOV’s marginal figures, 10% would give the Tories an overall majority. And probably not a bad one.

  15. @ Alec – “Secondly, for someone who has stated his aim is to ‘clean up politics’ it is simply not good enough”

    No offence but you’re sounding like Colonel Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells.

    All higher tier politicians have been stating their aim to “clean up politics”. And if politics are so dirty, the fact is that it’s been Labour at the helm for 12 years.

  16. We need some new polls.
    Anybody know if any due Sunday?

  17. There’s a slight issue with the argument put forward that “Gaffs don’t matter to the common folk who don’t pay attention to politics”…

    The “common folk who don’t pay attention to politics” by definition, *don’t vote* or *vote with disregard to what’s going on*. (ie, they vote for Labour/Conservatives because they always have done, but couldn’t tell you what either parties policies are…)

    The “common folk who don’t pay attention to politics” thus make up a small amount of the vote, and those that do are not swing voters who change the outcome of elections.

    But the Gaffs do have an impact with people who pay some attention to politics. Even if they don’t pay attention to the policies, they read headlines saying such-and-such MP stumbles over so-and-so. And they’re the bulk of swing voters.

  18. @Jim Jam

    I’d say we’re due a bunch some time in the next few days or so… ICM/Sunday Telegraph, Populus/Times and past due on the next BPIX/Mail on Sunday.

  19. @JAY BLANC
    We have had this argument before, when you were kind enough to give me the Clapham postcode and property valuations.
    However, if I had any doubts that I am right, that is to say largely
    in disagreement with you, they were put straight to bed by Anthonys post to shop keeperman 2 days ago.
    In the present circumstances, with Labour having been in power for 12 years, one either ignores the huge number of brickbats and lies because you hate the Tories. Or, you like the Tories, or
    and this is the most likely, you are prepared to give them a chance in order to get rid of Labour.
    Of course there are floaters, there always have been, but “Cameron gets a servant to peddle his bike” is not going to change the political polls.
    A very interesting matter in my view is that Lib Dem voters, when given a strait choice between Brown/Labour & Dave/Tory, in the recent YOU GOV poll, have nationally, (just 2 points) gone back to Labour.
    However in those key marginals the poll discussed, the same Lib Dem supporters are pro Cameron/Tory to the tune of 16%.
    Now that is a factor.

  20. @James Ludlow – “No offence but you’re sounding like Colonel Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells.” I did rather, didn’t I. Now why oh why oh why did I say that…?

  21. An other explanation is…. Xmas! Last year people were running into Xmas with a depressing feeling that 2009 would be bad. This year, as most of the financial crisis seems to fade, people are feeling a bit more confident about next year, and therefore think that, after all, the Labour government is not doing that bad…

  22. A swing of 3.6% and Labour would loose there majority some seats Labour hold by less than 100 votes. They have a majority of just over 60 seats so the Conservatives would only need to take just over 60 seats from them. Also since Labour are probably going to do better in Scotland and the Tories only have one seat there you can easily say that 2% or so can be added on the the Polls for England and wales where the Tories probably are stronger than polls suggest. What matters is where the votes are not the overall projection so looking at key marginals would be better for a poll.

  23. @PAUL B
    Yes, I think that is the Tory plan Lord Ashcroft has adopted and its working at present.

  24. @VONRIC

    Try telling the 1700 Chorus Steel workers in Teeside that the economy is getting better. I think you will find they will disagree

    It is no thanks to this Labour Government either.

  25. Mark R – The data suggests improving confidence. I’ve re-named this site “The Anti-Govt Partisan Post” in my favourites.

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