Since the election have been nineteen polls asking how people would vote with Gordon Brown as Labour party leader. Populus seem to have pretty much made it one of their regular tracker questions. Every month when one is published I try to add a caveat of some sort to them saying not to worry too much about them, but how useful are they as a guide to how Gordon Brown will perform?

It is easy to see why the papers commission this question. British politics is in a strange interregnum. We all know Tony Blair is going very soon, we know that whatever policies are announced now are liable to be changed once Gordon Brown enters Number 10, whether people would vote for Tony Blair or not is pretty much irrelevant. Naturally the papers are keen to look past this to proper politics, once the new Prime Minister is in situ so are trying to do so by asking how people would vote with Brown in place.

The results have been very consistent. Labour would do badly. Since David Cameron became Conservative leader in December no hypothetical poll of how people would vote with Brown as Labour leader has shown a Labour lead. In the vast majority of cases, it has shown the Conservatives performing better against Brown than they are at present. But does this actually mean anything?

The first question is whether this is actually anything to do with Gordon Brown. Normal voting intention questions don’t mention party leaders, just the party names. Obviously if a question mentioned just Gordon Brown it would be skewed to Labour, so the hypothetical questions also mention David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell. The difference in the results could, therefore, not be a result of Gordon Brown at all – it could be a positive result of mentioning David Cameron’s name (or a negative one of mentioning Menzies Campbell’s).

Back in July Populus sought to solve this question. Using a split sample they asked three questions – one was a normal voting intention question. The second was a voting intention question with the names of the present party leaders. The third was a hypothetical voting intention question with Gordon Brown as Labour leader. The results were that mentioning the names of David Cameron and Tony Blair also increased the Conservative lead, from 2 points in the unprompted question to 7 points in the prompted one. Changing the Labour leader from Blair to Brown further increased the Conservative lead – up to 9 points.

What this suggests is a large part of the apparant change is just the effect of mentioning David Cameron’s name in the question (or a negative result of mentioning Tony Blair’s name) but some of it is also people being less willing to vote for Brown’s Labour party than Blair’s labour party. Certainly it doesn’t suggest that Brown would increase Labour’s support relative to the Conservatives.

The second question is whether it means anything. People are not very good at predicting their future behaviour, and obviously they cannot take into account “events” that haven’t happened yet, future policies and publicity. At the moment they are judging Gordon Brown on his record as Chancellor. As yet people have no way of knowing what policies Brown will announce when he becomes premier, of how they will react to him as Prime Minister. At least, they don’t in some ways.

My personal prediction is that, when Gordon Brown actually becomes Prime Minister Labour will experience a strong boost in the polls. Obviously it depends where they are starting from, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they regained a healthy lead. There will obvious be a flurry of press coverage, TV profiles, interviews and so on. Brown will undoubtedly start his premiership by rolling out new policies and new agendas designed to boost his support. However people think they’ll react, in reality I suspect many people will want to give Gordon Brown a chance. Whatever the polls say now, I am confident that reality will be different and Brown will take Labour up in the polls, not down….in the short term.

In the longer term, once the bells and whistles of Gordon Brown’s accession have faded away, I’m afraid that the present polls probably do give a good indication of the sort of effect he will have on Labour’s fortunes. Here is why.

The polls are pretty consistent on questions of why people seem to dislike Gordon Brown. They consistently show that people rate Brown as having run the economy well, of being strong, reliable, experienced, competent and efficient. On every rational measure people rate Gordon Brown very highly, yet if you ask whether people would rather have a Brown or Cameron led government, Cameron leads. Brown’s weak point is that people think he is not charistmatic, caring or likeable. However highly they rate his performance as a politician, they don’t like him as a man.

That is why I think the present polls do say something about Brown’s future success. If they showed people didn’t like Brown because they doubted his competence or experience, or disagreed with his policies or principles, then it would be perfectly possible that Brown in office would change peoples’ opinions, impress them with his competence or change their minds with new policies and ideas. Brown’s negatives though are far more nebulous – they just don’t like him. This will be very hard to change.

Gordon Brown has been on the public stage for well over a decade. People have a very firm image of him in their minds of a dour, brooding Scotsman, and it would be incredibly difficult to shift. Perceptions of Tony Blair have changed in the last ten years, but the core impression that he is at heart a decent, fairly normal, sort of family chap is unmoved. Polls show that people think he is an untrustworthy liar, he is firmly associated with a now deeply unpopular war and seen as a poodle to an even more unpopular President. Yet polls show that people still consider him likeable. Impressions of Blair as a person haven’t shifted. The public formed an impression of William Hague as a bit of an oddball very early in his leadership and he never shifted it. Michael Howard was never able to escape the public image that Ann Widdecombe had summed up as Howard “having something of the night” about him. I have great doubts that any rebranding exercise could do anything to change perceptions of Brown’s character.

If you wish Gordon Brown success, as I am sure the majority of Labour supporters reading this do, then I am sure you are saying to yourself that this doesn’t matter. People are not so shallow as to vote on such trivialities as who is the nicest chap. Alas, while I’m sure democracy would be far healthier if everyone cast their vote based on a lengthy consideration of the rival manifestos, they do not. Most people vote on broad perceptions of the parties, including the leaders, and the fact is that people do not make purely rational decisions. This applies to all of us, however smart or immersed in politics we are. You cannot turn off your subconscious.

Why do companies spend so much time and money on the packaging of their goods? Because it makes people buy them. It isn’t just a case of good packaging making them look more appealing on the shelf though, good packaging changes opinions of the goods inside them. In taste tests of identical products in different packaging people will pick one over the other and believe it is on grounds of taste, there are companies devoted to it. Put margarine in foil, people think it tastes better. Put more yellow on a can of 7UP, people report that it tastes more lemony, people think that ice-cream tastes better if they’ve bought in a round box. If you ask people why they prefer that particular margarine, soft drink, ice-cream, etc they won’t say – it was in foil or a yellow can or a nice round box. They are under the impression that it is actually better.

At this point many of you reading this – possibly nearly all of you – will be thinking something along of lines of “Politics is different. You can’t just apply the logic of flogging ice lollies to selecting the head of government. People take it more seriously.”

The reason you think people look at politics differently is because you do, right now you are reading a blog about political opinion polling. It’s a long post so you’ve probably spent quite a while doing it. To you politics is far more important than fizzy drinks and margarine. You aren’t typical. Most people aren’t particularly interested in politics. Most people cannot identify politicans beyond the party leaders (Brown himself is one of the few exceptions). To most people politics isn’t that important. More importantly, we are talking about subconscious reactions. You cannot turn them on and off depending upon how important the issue is. People don’t think “I am only buying carrots so I shall allow my subconscious thoughts free rein” and later, “Now am I voting, so must become a dessicated calculating machine, banishing all but rational thought”. You couldn’t if you wanted to anyway.

You will probably have done the Implicit Association Test at Harvard University’s website in the past. It flashes rapid pictures and words on the screen, black faces and white faces, negative words and positive words, and sees if people are microscopically slower at associating positive words with black faces than they are with white faces. It measures your unconscious prejudice over age, gender, race and so on. If you haven’t yet tried it and you’ve got a spare 15 minutes or so do so, the chances are that you’ll find that you have some minor degree of subconscious prejudice on age, race, etc. The thing is, even if you do your level best and really concentrate on not being biased at all in the test, it is very hard to fool it. The point is, you can’t turn off your prejudices at whim. If you are prejudiced towards white people, or young people… or English people, or pleasant, likeable people (or indeed, against grouchy, insular, Scottish people) you aren’t going to turn it off.

Choosing someone to run a major international company is presumably a vitally important issue. The CEO of major companies like BP, General Motors or Microsoft arguably has more power than the heads of government of some countries. When appointing CEOs company boards presumably make decisions on things like competence and ability and not trivialities like, say, how tall they are. A third of the CEOs of the top 500 American companies are over 6’2″ tall. Under 4% of American men as a whole are over 6’2″. Presumably no company boards chose their CEO on the basis of height, but clearly there was some subconscious bias at work here.

I’ve referred to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink here before (in fact, if you’ve read it you may have spotted that some of the packaging examples and the comment about the height of CEOs are drawn from it). In his book Gladwell talks about the “Warren Harding Error”. Warren Harding is normally rated as one of the very worst American Presidents. He had an undistinguished record in Ohio politics. As a Senator he didn’t turn up for the majority of votes. He was an ill-educated, was having a long term affair with a friend’s wife and illegally drank alcohol. Despite his manifest shortcomings, Gladwell argues, he got elected because he looked like a President, a tall, handsome, patrician figure with a strong, rumbling speaking voice. Subconsciously people assumed that because Harding looked like a great President, he would be a great President. They were wrong.

People’s opinions of other people are influenced by unconscious prejudices. So are people’s votes. People consistently voice their approval of Brown’s performance in his job and say how strong, effective and competent he is. These things are clearly not the problem. The reason he polls worse than Blair, must be because he is seen as having an unattractive personality, people just don’t like him, and that will be difficult to change.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he won’t win. James Callaghan was always regarded as far more likeable than Margaret Thatcher yet she won in 1979 and twice thereafter. I do think it will be a real obstacle though. My prediction is that there will indeed be a Brown boost when he becomes leader, but that it won’t last. The public already have firm perceptions of Brown, and they won’t be easy to shift, especially when he is up against an opponent in the form of David Cameron who seems to have the exact opposite effect upon the public.


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