Over the next few days I’m going to be rounding up the position the three main parties find themselves in the polls at the end of 2010, and looking forward at what faces them in the year ahead, starting with the Conservatives.
The Conservatives received little in the way of a post-election honeymoon (there was nothing like the huge leads Labour recorded over the summer of 1997), but equally their support has been surprisingly robust. There was an expectation that the cuts and tax rises in the government’s first budget would damage their poll ratings, but if anything it increased their standing. That was followed by the expectation that the announcement of detailed cuts in October would lead to Conservative support crashing, but instead it has proved remarkably robust. The vast majority of polls (basically everyone but Angus Reid) continue to show the Conservatives at or above the level of support they recorded at the general election.
This is unlikely to last forever. There is a gradual decline in approval of the government, and public opinion is slowly moving away from the cuts strategy. Around November a plurality of people began to think the government was handling the economy badly (the latest figures are 40% well, 47% badly), in December for the first time more people thought the cuts were bad for the economy (43%) than good for it (40%). The strategy of placing the blame for the cuts on Labour is also wearing thin – 65% of people continue to blame the last Labour government for the cuts (not much changed from straight after the election), but 47% now blame the current government, up from 36% just after the election (the figures overlap because 24% blame both of them).
Despite attempts to present their cuts as progressive and balanced, the government are increasingly losing the argument on whether cuts are fair or not – only 32% think they are fair, 54% unfair (though it’s worth remembering that some people will regard cutting the deficit as more important than protecting the least well off – so thinking the cuts are unfair is not the same as opposing them).
At some point this trend is likely to be reflected in support in the polls – my own expectation is that Conservative support will drop after the local elections in May. They are defending seats won on anti-government protest votes in 2007, I’d expect them to suffer some hefty losses and their first big defeat to crystalise the growing disillusionment with the cuts.
It’s more debateable how much this matters. Of course, it would be easier for David Cameron if he still led in the polls, but it was probably never to be. The Conservatives seem to have bet the farm on the strategy of imposing the cuts, suffering the unpopularity, and waiting for the economy to improve in time for them to face the electorate (though one might very well conclude that it was the only strategy really open to them). To some extent, therefore, how well the Conservatives do in the voting intention polls in the short term while the economy is still struggling and the cuts are still being implemented is irrelevant – they are expecting to be unpopular. What will be critical is whether their position in the polls recovers once the cuts have bedded in, public services have adapted, and people’s economic optimism and opinion of the current state of the economy start to rise… and we’re probably a year or more away from that. We should expect the next year to be one of bad polling news for the Conservatives, but it will be the polls in 2014 and 2015 that tell us how likely they are to be re-elected.
In the meantime, there are probably two or three short term concerns:
First, while the Conservative leadership’s strategy accepts it will be behind in the polls, it doesn’t mean the rank and file will be quite so sanguine. If the party starts suffering badly in the polls it may also result in growing unhappiness on the Conservative backbenches, and an image of disunity is normally extremely damaging for a party (though for those anxious to see bad news for the government, remember that governments can happily accept constant criticism from the usual suspects – the opposition of John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and so on was basically ignored by Tony Blair. People like Peter Bone, Philip Hollobone and Philip Davies are the Conservative equivalent – so don’t take noises from that direction as sign of impending disaster).
Secondly, there is to what extent presiding over the cuts undoes the Conservative attempts over the last five years to rid themselves of the image that they are only concerned about the rich. While Cameron made great progress in detoxifying the Conservative party, he did not manage to rid it of the perception that they cared more for the rich than the poor, and most commentators (correctly in my view) see this as a reason the Conservatives fell short at the last election.
Some people have floated the idea that the Conservative alliance with the Liberal Democrats would complete the process of “detoxification”, people would think that the Conservatives couldn’t be so bad after all if the cuddly, bearded old-Lib Dems were happy to work with them (though if anything it seems to be working the other way round – the coalition is “toxifying” the Lib Dems). More recently there are concerns it will work the other way round as the media narrative over the relationship between the coalition partners has often been couched in terms of the Lib Dems being the nice cop and the Conservatives the nasty one – perhaps being together in a coalition could make the Conservatives look even nastier by constrast. Certainly the growing perceptions that the cuts are being done unfairly is unlikely to help.
Either way, so far perceptions haven’t changed much one way or the other – in May 2010 just after the coalition was formed 46% thought the description “It seems to appeal to one section of society rather than to the whole country” applied most to the Conservatives, when YouGov asked the question again in December 2010 the figure was unchanged on 46%.
Thirdly, there is the position of the Liberal Democrats. If David Cameron is depending upon the eventual economic recovery he needs his government to endure for long enough to see it happen. The biggest threat to that is the coalition collapsing in some way. Hence in many ways, he needs to be more worried about how his coalition partners are doing in his polls than his own party’s rating… but I’ll address the Liberal Democrats in more detail in the next post.