A question that often pops up in the comments here – and in wider political commentary – is whether Labour “should be doing better”. This actually covers two different questions. One is “Should X be doing better…in order to win the election?“, the second is “Should X be doing better…given the current circumstances?“. The answers to the two questions are not necessarily the same – for example, a party with very favourable circumstances could be ahead in the polls and in an election winning position… but really could be doing even better than that (and vice-versa, in a really unfavourable political environment not being hammered too badly could the best position a party could realistically hope for!)

Let’s deal with the first question first – are Labour doing well enough to win the next election?

When people ask this question they obviously don’t mean “if there was an election tomorrow would their level of support give them a majority”. That’s a simple swing calculation, and while neck-and-neck isn’t enough for Labour, they’ve often had the necessary small leads to win an overall majority on current boundaries. No, the question means are they far enough ahead assuming they drop back to some degree as the election approaches?

I should say from the outset that I’m really not a fan of arguments about oppositions needing to be x points ahead midterm to win the next election; it implies a certain inevitability of polling movements in the run up to the election that simply doesn’t exist. That said, there is a an obvious pattern in historical movements of polls: when oppositions open up large leads in the mid term they normally fall back by the time of the next election. Oppositions that have gone on to win the next election have normally enjoyed mid-term leads of 20 points or more, oppositions with lower leads mid-terms have generally ended up losing.

What this does not mean, however, is that an opposition that doesn’t have a big lead currently might not get one in the future. While successful oppositions have had large leads, it doesn’t follow they’ve had large leads all the time. For example, the Conservative opposition in 1974-1979 did enjoy 20+ point leads, but only briefly after the IMF bailout and the winter of discontent. For most of the 1974-79 Parliament the Conservatives had far more modest leads. In the 1959-1964 Parliament the ultimately victorious Labour opposition was still behind in the polls in 1960 and early 1961, very large Labour leads didn’t emerge until 1963.

So being neck-and-neck now doesn’t mean Labour can’t do better later in the Parliament. That said, the fact they haven’t got a big lead now, isn’t particularly positive. Under normal circumstances they would have to up their game significantly to be in a position comparable to those historical oppositions who have gone on to win. However, these are not normal circumstances.

The normal pattern of public opinion during a Parliament is that governments get unpopular things done early and do popular things closer to the election. We expect to see people disappointed by the government drift away and register a protest by telling pollsters they would vote for the opposition (and doing so in mid-term local, European and by-elections). When the election itself comes close some of those people compare the alternative governments, decide the incumbent isn’t so bad compared to the alternative and government support recovers.

However, the narrowing of the polls so far in this Parliament seems to have very little to do with the usual mechanism. Conservative support has held up and Labour’s increase is almost all due to former Lib Dem supporters opposed to the coalition switching en masse to Labour. This could be more of a political realignment than mid-term blues and while it is possible that these supporters will drift back towards the Lib Dems as the election approaches, it equally possible that they will stick with Labour.

Under normal circumstances Labour’s paltry lead at the moment wouldn’t be enough to suggest they’ll go on to win the next election and the wise money would be on a Conservative victory next time round. Under present circumstances though… who knows?

The second version of the question is whether Labour are doing well or badly given the circumstances. I hate this question too, given it is impossible to measure and answers to it inevitably end up being entirely determined by the person answering’s views of Labour and their current policies or leader.

For what it’s worth though, the “doing badly” argument is that the coalition have announced drastic and unpopular cuts, are carrying out reforms to public services that polls suggest are unpopular and the economy is in a parlous state, with no immediate sign of improvement. Under these circumstances people would argue that the opposition should be doing very well, and that being neck-and-neck in the polls is a poor show or indicates some other problem with how voters see the opposition.

In contrast, the “doing well” argument is that Labour have just suffered one of their worst ever defeats. People have not forgiven them and it will take time for people to really give them a hearing. Under those circumstances, to be regularly polling 6-10 points above your general election score and neck-and-neck with the other main party isn’t that bad. Certainly it’s more than the Conservatives in 1997 could dream of.

Those would be the calculations under normal circumstances, but again, these are not normal circumstances. Labour’s increase of 6-10 points is almost wholly from the windfall gain of between a third and a half of those who voted Liberal Democrat at the last election. This happened pretty much without any input from Labour itself and they have gained minimal support beyond this.

Under normal circumstances it would be arguable that Labour were doing quite well given the situation, but probably not enough to win an election. Under the present circumstances one could well argue that Labour are not doing well at all, but if the realignment of Lib Dem support is stickier than normal mid term gains it’s possible it could be enough.


65 Responses to “Should Labour be doing better?”

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  1. What is very unusual about the polling that has taken place in this Parliament is that, apart from two highly significant events (more of them later), it has remained fairly static for long periods and apparently impervious to political and economic events. My memory of previous Parliaments has been the volatility of polls and their tendency to spike around specific events. We saw a lot of this as recently as 2007 when Brown’s large lead evaporated in days after Osborne’s announcement on inheritance tax at the Tory conference. Ditto Labour’s very short term loss of a long standing poll lead during the fuel protests. I can’t think of any equivalent over the last 21 months.

    In this Parliament, we’ve had one game changer, the en masse defection to Labour of disenchanted Lib Dem voters shortly after May 2010 and one significant movement in reaction to a single political event; the boost to Tory support after the recent Cameron EU veto. The Lib Dem defection added, at a stroke, about 8-10% on to Labour’s GE VI share and. Cameron’s veto, almost as quickly, has added 4-5% to the Tory VI. Hence the rapid closure of what looked like a solid, and maybe growing, Labour 6-8% lead and the current neck and neck position in most polls.

    However, apart from these scene-shifters, the polls remain becalmed and seemingly oblivious to what appear to be controversial and, in the past, opinion moving events. The upshot is that the two main parties seem to possess fairly loyal and tribal followings, leaking very little support to each other. I’d say that this is historically very unusual and suggests to me that, at the very least, and as Anthony implies in his lucid summary, it would be a brave and foolish man who wandered down to his or her local betting office and wagered very much on the outcome of the next General Election in three years time. Very foolish indeed.

  2. @FrankG

    If someone described themselves as a ‘tactical voter’, and they voted UKIP at the last election, they did not understand the meaning of the phrase.

  3. Latest YouGov/Sun results 7th Feb CON 37%, LAB 42%, LD 9%; APP -23

  4. That’s more like it….

  5. @NickP

    Thank you. Great news.

  6. The August 2011 marginals polling for Ashcroft put Con and Lab equal on 37% nationally (LDs on 11%).

    In the Con/Lab marginals which Labour will be targeting Labour were 44%, Con 35%, LDs 12%.

    In the Con seats LDs will be targeting Con 39%, LD 31%, Lab 19%… however, that was the tactical voting position – without tactical voting the position was Con 41%, Lab 26%, LD 18%.

  7. Billy Bob.

    Interesting figured in the Con-LD (sic) marginals.

    One assumes that the LDs will be tactically voting for either Labour or the Tories in those seats, given that they themselves have precious little chance of winning?

  8. Interesting article, but you are once again not allowing for the the way in which YouGov (and others) weight their statistics, you could be totally underestimating Labour support which would skew both of your arguments.

  9. ‘Under those circumstances, to be regularly polling 6-10 points above ‘our general election score and neck-and-neck with the other main party isn’t that bad. Certainly it’s more than the Conservatives in 1997 could dream of.’

    It certainly is, but then the Conservatives were not the only main party Opposition back in 1997 at a time when the economy was in a far healthier state. And Labour also enjoyed a very large majority. This time around, Labour is the only main Opposition, and we are facing years of austerity.

  10. “Labour’s increase of 6-10 points is almost wholly from the windfall gain of between a third and a half of those who voted Liberal Democrat at the last election. This happened pretty much without any input from Labour itself and they have gained minimal support beyond this.”

    I wouldn’t agree entirely with this. I don’t think that it was inevitable that Labour would gain these voters. The Lib Dem collapse and Labour surge didn’t happen immediately after the Coalition was formed, but steadily throughout 2010. Even if Lib Dem voters were leaving in order for them to vote Labour rather than abstain or vote for a minor party, they had to regain trust in Labour, and I think Ed Miliband, at least in part, achieved this (although he’s backslid a bit on this, of late, and has suffered a corresponding slump in the polls).

    These are voters who predominantly left Labour in the first place for a reason. I don’t think they’re tactical voters, so much, as these had less of an idealogical investment in the Lib Dems in the first place and so will have had less of a sense of betrayal and are more likely to return, when it comes down to a choice between a Lib Dem incumbent or a Conservative MP who may affect the balance of power. The ones who Labour are regaining and are likely to keep are, I suspect, the ones who abandoned them for their rightward shift under the Blair Government, and especially Iraq. There’s a tendency to devalue these voters and either take them for granted or suggest they’re not “proper” gains as opposed to the mythical centrist voters who are the ones that “count.”

  11. Great piece Anthony.

    Solid analysis, and I think I agree with practically all of it.

  12. Interesting analysis, Anthony.

    Firstly, I think there is a good possibility that the UKIP vote could stay with the Conservatives. I think if anything, we’ve seen in the past months or so, combined with a variety of factors David Cameron has had to move in certain policy areas far more to the right, than orginally intended. Indeed, the overall agenda of the Conservatives in government seems a far more firmly right wing one than it did in opposition. Key platforms of the modernisation agenda – such as the Big Society have almost died a death.

    I would certaintly agree with James Forsyth, the Speccie political editor that the Tory Manifesto 2015 looks likely to be a far more right wing document than orginally was envisaged in early 2010. On the overall gist, of the article should Labour be doing better, I would say so, although alas, no one should be surprised at that.

    I’d list several factors for my conclusion, firstly is that the Tories did not win the last election which, should in theory put in them in a far weaker place than it has. Instead in coalition Tory support, has at the very least held up – and it looks arguably more stronger than it did two years ago – especially in mid-term, this is particuarly pertinent.

    Secondly, Labour have failed to appeal to a wider public beyond disgruntled ex-Lib Dems. As Anthony notes, this could potentially be enough for a Lab majority, but I believe this is slightly theoretical. For one, it goes back to the progressive majority argument stated by those Left, and a huge part of the AV referendum.

    This was the first test of it, electorally and it failed. Then second test, was as another contributor notes, the local elections whereby the Lib Dems only did well, in Wales, and maybe the Midlands. In London, they were decimated as in the North they were. They did badly in the South too, but to the Tories gains. So electorally, this could certaintly play into the hands of the Tories and let them win seats by default – ah, such is the life in FPTP.

    Another factor, is as Richard Navavi has stated, and one which I have always believed is how the LD vote will actually turn out in practice. I suspect, it could be a mixed bag as many 2010 LDs, are ”Don’t Knows” and may either revert back to LDs in tactical voting terms, or may just not vote altogether, as a signifcant portion of Labour supporters did in light of the shift to the centre, under Blair. Indeed, you may have an element of all the factors listed.

    How much they may benefit Labour or the Tories, may depend on how they are spread geographically, although I think it’ll vary between either the Tories being just short of a majority or having one. Another point is that beyond their heartlands, and core vote overall (excluding 2010 LDs) Lab are not really regionally reaching out at all. The Tories are doing quite well in the Midlands, at this point notably, as well.

    Labour also, do not in the last two years or so, seem to have made any ground on issues they need to to win back trust. On issues like immigration, welfare, the economy and being generally seen as responsible and competant figures are still pretty bad from that. They are prospering on issues that they’d already won the argument on (NHS, Bonuses) anyway. The latter in particular taps into the Brownite argument of Cameron being a rich toff, and thus out of touch, a bloke who’ll protect his banker friends. We’ve been there done that.

    Simarly, leaders with ratings like Ed Milibands tend to not go on to win elections. Even for leaders who weren’t particuarly popular – they had modest ratings (Thatcher, minus 10) and won the GE. Ed’s ratings, are not modest they are rather terrible, and even if he does (as I suspect he may) recover from the 24 point drop in his ratings in January, to polling in the early minus thirties, he would still be hovering between ”Hague and IDS”.

    Ed has always polled well on being ”in touch” though – but that has not, so far translated into Labour gaining ground on the issues which perhaps puts the ”centre is moving leftwards argument” somewhat in dispute.

    There have been historical examples where Oppositions with modest/small mid-term leads go on to win GEs as, Anthony noted. But these are not recent, and existed at a time where the two party hold of the system was at it strongest, and by contrast minority party votes were very little in support. The voting culture was different too. Back then voting was very class based. The Thatcher years, changed all that. In recent history, even the Foot opposition managed leads more than this by this time, and the press definetly were not on Mr Foot’s or Labour’s side.

    Another point, which could provide some hope for Lab is that much of the cuts haven’t actually occured – indeed the worst of it won’t have occured until very late into the political cycle. But as I’ve stated before, there are caveats to the assumption because of this, Lab will gain later. Mainly, because of the combination of existing cuts, unemployment and the cost of living many are already suffering as if a whole load of cuts were coming through, and that pshycologically people are prepared and accepting of austerity, no matter how it may hurt. This is by large, down to the Osborne narrative.

  13. True, Fitlass. While the event of the coalition has perhaps made opposition harder for Lab, in terms of communications especially they are by large the dominate opposition party, and as such are in the unique position of being a platform for general opposition to the current (and it is, definetly out there). As it is, Labour clearly isn’t capitalising on that.

  14. Was it not the case that in 2008 Labour were 10 points ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls ?

  15. SGT1 – “Was it not the case that in 2008 Labour were 10 points ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls ?”

    No, it wasn’t. I think you may be thinking of the “Brown bounce” in summer 2007.

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