The Lib Dem conference starts this weekend, so I thought it a good time to catch up on how the parties generally stand in the polls, of where we have got to in the Parliament so far.
Compared to the ups and downs of the last Parliament, 2010 to 2013 has been pretty staid in terms of voting intention polls – leaving aside the brief blip after Cameron’s European “veto” there has now been a Labour lead for two and a half years. It started early in the Parliament, almost as soon as the Liberal Democrats had entered coalition and the government’s initial honeymoon had worn off then Lib Dem support started to collapse, with many Lib Dem supporters transferring directly to the Labour party, many telling pollsters they don’t know how they would vote. At that stage Conservative support remained pretty much solid, it wasn’t until the 2012 budget and the government’s “omnishambles” period that we saw the Conservative’s own support begin to fade, with voters moving towards Labour and UKIP. For the following year the government continued to struggle, often not having clear messages, being buffeted by bad news and scandal, and in the background UKIP continued to gather support. The Labour lead peaked after the omnishambles, between May 2012 and February 2013 they had an average share of support of 42%, and a lead of around ten points.
More recently things have begun to turn around. From an average of 42% for the best part of a year, Labour’s average polling figure has now dropped to around 38%; an average lead of ten points is now an average lead of around six points. Most of this fall came earlier in the year, around March to May. At the same time we’ve seen the up and down of UKIP – their support had started rising after the omnishambles last year, got even higher during November 2012 when the combination the Rotherham fostering story and some good by-elections got them solid coverage and they peaked after their strong performance in the 2013 locals. Since then they have gone off the boil a bit and fallen again in the polls, although they are still very solidly above the figures they had last year (UKIP support varies between pollsters, but its average peaked at around 16% and is now back to around 12%). The Tories meanwhile saw their average support fall at the beginning of this year as UKIP rose, but have now recovered to pretty much the sort of level they were at in late 2012.
Together this paints a slightly confusing picture. There’s a lot of churn going on and I suspect there are at least two one overlapping trends, a shift away from Labour and back towards the Tories and an up-and-down of UKIP taking and returning support to both the Tories and Labour. On this hypothesis Labour, for example, would had had a underlying slow decline over the year, but a temporary loss to UKIP earlier in the year that has gradually returned since then – together giving us the pattern of a sharp drop in Labour support between Feb & May and holding steady since, and the Tories almost back up to the 2012 support despite still having lost some support to UKIP.
As I always say when polls move, there is no easy way of proving what caused a poll movements, we can only really hypothesize. My own best guess is that there are a couple of likely reasons behind the recent movements. The first is the improvement in economic confidence. This is a polling blog, not an economics blog, I don’t claim any great expertise in economics and have no idea if the economy is actually getting better. However, it is very clear that the general public are being more positive (or less negative) – the economic confidence trackers from MORI, YouGov and NOP all show sharp increases in economic confidence, with people the most optimistic they’ve been since 2010. Back in April only 14% of people told YouGov they thought the economy was showing signs of growth, by August that had risen to 37%. This has equally been reflected in growing support for the government’s economic policies – from April 2012 until this Spring YouGov consistently had Labour and the Conservatives pretty level pegging on the economy, the Conservatives now have a modest lead. Whereas last year a majority of people thought the government’s cuts were bad for the economy, the gap is now much closer, with a couple of recent polls showing people evenly split over whether they are good or bad for the economy.
I suspect the second factor is a clearer and more focused Conservative message, giving the impression they are more competent (something that Lynton Crosby has been given credit for – I’ve no idea if he deserves it or not, these days anything the Tories do seems to be put down to Crosby regardless of whether he even knew about it). They’ve dropped some difficult non-core policies, controlled their communications better and opened up some dividing lines with Labour on issues like welfare. All of this has had knock-on effects, the morale of Tory MPs is up and the constant noises off from Conservative MPs have faded somewhat, the media narrative has moved from Cameron being in trouble to Labour being in crisis. I’m not actually sure the Labour stuff has any effect on voting intention (While Ed Miliband’s ratings have indeed got even worse over the Summer, they were already pretty bad anyway and I suspect they were “factored into the price” already) but it’s better for the government for the media to be laying into Labour than laying into them.
It seemed for a couple of days that Syria was likely to change this – not so much in terms of voting intention, but in terms of changing the narrative towards a negative one for the government and Cameron. It really doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. Instead we’re heading into a conference season where the Tories are likely to have a more comfortable conference than Labour. That said, the expected narratives don’t always work out that way – last year Ed Miliband was expected to have a rough conference, but produced a well received speech that put him back on the front foot. He may well do the same this time round. Expect the traditional up and down of the conference polls over the next three weeks – the normal pattern is that each party gets some sort of boost from the publicity around their conference, and we get a bump in Lib Dem polling, a bump in Labour polling, a bump in Tory polling and (unless anything drastic happens) it all settles down to usual again. At the same time, keep an eye on how the economy develops, or perhaps more importantly, how voters perceive the economy to be doing – beneath a lot of the fluff of daily politics that many voters never even hear about, let alone take note of, things like how people see the economy doing really will shift their opinions and attitudes towards the government.