In November I listed four “known unknowns” that I thought had the most chance of changing the political landscape before the election – the end of the recession, the budget, the leaders debates and the last chance for Labour to oust Brown. January was always really the last opportunity for Labour to remove him, and to be honest I was starting to think that it would go quietly without a final attempt by Labour rebels – but lo and behold, here it is.
So, would getting rid of Brown help Labour? On the positive side, I’m certain Brown is dragging down Labour. The polling questions that are normally used to test this are hypothetical questions asking how people would vote with X as Labour leader, and don’t suggest any great transformation with another leader. I’ve rubbished these questions many, many times before and I don’t want to rehearse the same arguments – essentially they are very hard to do if you want to make them really comparable. More importantly, they are expecting people to predict how they will react to alternative leaders they probably don’t know much about.
Look instead at these polls. Firstly a question from MORI in July 2008 – an excellent question that they sadly don’t seem to have asked since. They asked people whether they liked Brown and Labour, Brown but not Labour, Labour but not Brown, or neither of them. 21% of people liked Labour, but not Brown. 11% liked Brown but not Labour. Overall 29% of people liked Brown, but 39% liked Labour. In comparison, only 8% liked the Conservatives but not Cameron, 19% liked him but not his party. The totals there were 43% liked the Conservatives, but 54% liked Cameron. Brown is dragging his party down, Cameron is boosting his.
Secondly, look at Brown’s personal ratings. One could pick any of huge numbers of polls for this, they are uniformly awful, but my example here is Populus’s 2009 conference poll. 63% thought he was weak, 69% not up to the job, 69% out of touch, 67% dithering, 56% unlikeable, 86% dull, 61% a liability, and so on – there are pages of negative ratings. David Cameron outranked him on every single one, even things like substantial vs lightweight that were once Brown’s strongest cards.
Labour have improved in the polls since these two examples, and the chances are there is some improvement in Brown’s own scores… but even quite a chunky improvement would still leave them as pretty horrific.
Finally, take the figures about halfway down this page, and compare them with the actual voting intention figures from the Summer of 2006. Before Gordon Brown became leader people told pollsters it would make them less likely to vote Labour. When he did become leader, Labour immediately soared in the polls and enjoyed a few months solidly ahead of the Conservatives.
The moral is, don’t look at hypothetical polls of how people think they might vote with X in charge. People are rubbish at predicting how they will react, especially how they would react to a politician most of them know little about, becoming PM and doing things none of the respondents can predict. We don’t really know how the public would react in practice to Alan Johnson, or David Miliband as leader, but we do know what they think of Gordon Brown.
The opposite side of the argument is, of course, the damage done to Labour by the process of removing Gordon Brown and the opportunity cost of having a leadership election, which could drag on for many weeks, in the immediate run up to an election campaign. The Conservatives could make hay while Labour argued with itself, and exactly how would Labour plan the election campaign itself without knowing who would be their leader when it arrived?
Charles Clarke suggested that a leadership contest could be over in 21 days. Certainly it could be if Labour gathered round a single candidate (and under the circumstances, the pressure to do so would be immense), but that can’t be guaranteed. I don’t know enough about the details of the Labour party’s constitution to know whether there are any other ways of avoiding a long contest, either way it’s not too difficult to come up with scenarios where getting rid of Brown is even more disasterous for Labour. It would be a huge gamble.
In terms of polls, if any of the Sunday newspapers have commissioned polling for this weekend it’s probably in the field around now – though of course, this latest story might have collapsed or moved on by the time we see the figures.
UPDATE: Actually it seems we will have some figures tonight after all (though one might well argue that the plot appears to already have fizzled out already, bar one of the dwindling number of cabinet ministers who has not yet backed Brown pulling out a surprise). YouGov apparently in the Sun tomorrow – not certain when the fieldwork began and ended.