The cause of today’s polling excitement are MORI’s questions asking respondents to compare Ed Miliband and David Cameron, results here. Briefly put, David Cameron enjoyed leads over Ed Miliband on most measures, often by a long way. He led on being eloquent by 59% to 15%, on being Prime Ministerial by 57% to 17%, on being tough enough for the job by 54% to 18%, on being smart enough for the job by 54% to 22%, represents Britain by 46% to 26%, on being fun to meet in person by 34% to 21%, likable by 38% to 29% and a good person by 35% to 30%.
Miliband lead on understanding people like me, by 36% to 26%, and protecting British jobs, by 37% to 31%. The two men were pretty much neck and neck on having the right values.
The fact that people think David Cameron is better suited to the job of Prime Minister than Ed Miliband is not particularly new. Cameron has a consistent lead on best Prime Minister, as we saw in July on PM preference Miliband trails a long way behind Labour’s position in VI. There was a Populus poll earlier this week showing even a majority of people who thought David Cameron was doing a bad job as PM would still rather have him in the role than Ed Miliband. All this new poll helps us to understand is some of the reasons why… and again, the picture is in line with other polling about Cameron and Miliband’s respective strengths and weaknesses. Ed is better on understanding ordinary people, but trails badly on being Prime Ministerial or being strong.
What does it actually mean though? As I wrote in July, people’s answers to this are very much coloured by what they would like to be true. I see an awful lot of Labour supporters trying to convince themselves that how voters see the leader is an irrelevance, and an awful lot of Conservative supporters trying to convince themselves that it is impossible for people to actually vote for Ed Miliband and he will be a fatal block to Labour’s chances. As ever, I expect both ends of the spectrum are wrong in their own ways.
Unfortunately, the evidence on which one is closer to the truth is not cut and dried. The last three British Election Studies (the major academic study of why people vote at British general elections, based on extensive parallel face-to-face and online polling and key driver analysis of the data) have consistently shown that voters’ opinions of the party leaders is a significant factor in deciding how they vote. It certainly convinces me, and I would have thought it almost a statement of the bleeding bloody obvious that perceptions of the party leader colour people’s perceptions of the whole party and, therefore, influences votes. However, it would be wrong to say that all academics agree on this – it is a controversial subject and some argue the opposite.
What causes me more pause for thought is the fact that opinions of party leaders are, as it were, already factored into the price. People don’t rate Ed Miliband highly as a potential Prime Minister… and yet they are telling us they would vote Labour. Clearly it can’t be putting them off that much. The question here – and again, it is one to which there is no good answer, is whether the issue will become more important as we get closer to a general election. It is a reasonable hypothesis that people answering opinion polls mid-term (and voting in mid-term elections) are largely registering a protest against the incumbent government, whereas once we approach an actual general election it becomes more of a comparison between two alternative governments, parties and Prime Ministers. If that were the case, Ed Miliband’s ratings now wouldn’t necessarily matter much, but could become increasingly important as the election approached.
I don’t particularly expect to cause many pauses for thought here, I’ve read enough comments to know it is one of those issues where people believe what they would like to be true. I shall leave, therefore, with the historical example that is nearly always cited in discussions like this.
In any conversation about this issue, the topic of Margaret Thatcher is brought up. Mrs Thatcher wasn’t particularly popular as Leader of the Opposition, while Jim Callaghan was comfortable and avuncular and likeable. He pretty consistently outpolled Margaret Thatcher on who would make the best Prime Minister. It certainly shows that people can and have voted for the less popular “Prime Ministerial candidate”. It does not follow, however, that it doesn’t matter. How much better would the Conservatives have done with a more popular leader than Thatcher in 1979? How much worse would Labour have done with a less popular candidate than Callaghan? We can’t tell.