The Times’s report on Populus’s conference polls at the weekend included a question asking people to put themselves on a left/right scale, ICM did a similar thing on Monday in the Guardian, and the Times also referred to a YouGov poll published in a paper by Peter Kellner in the Political Quarterly. As promised I’ve got the paper from Peter, but the actual left-right scale questions are already available online here anyway.
Now a straight left-right scale is pretty meaningless as a representation of parties policies these day. Despite that it is still a good way of looking at how people view the images of parties, and how close they feel to them.
Now, while Populus used a numerical scale (and found slightly different results – Labour, for example, were seen as being slightly right of centre), YouGov and ICM used almost identical wording in their questions, meaning we can compare the figures (On ICM’s tables they use a scale of -3 to 3, but so I can compare I’m using Peter Kellner’s method of changing this into a numerical average for both polls, very left-wing is counted as -100, fairly left-wing as -67, slightly left of centre as -33, centre as 0, slight right of centre at +33 and so on).
Bear in mind that even using almost identical wording there are obvious differences – YouGov’s fieldwork is online, while ICM’s is done on the phone, not to mention the fact that they were done a couple of months apart. This means there are some differences: the primary one being that people are more likely to describe themselves as being in the centre in the ICM poll.
The average voter in both polls puts themselves almost bang in the centre of the political spectrum (on YouGov the average was -2, on ICM it was +2). The average Tory voter in both polls puts themselves slightly right-of-centre (YouGov +35, ICM +27), while Lib Dem and Labour voters put themselves slightly left of centre in YouGov’s poll (-23 and -22 respectively) and slightly less so in ICM’s poll (-8 and -10). Already there is an obvious lesson here – current Labour and Lib Dem voters are almost interchangable ideologically. They are currently appealling to exactly the same ideological demographic.
Now let’s look at the parties and their leaders. On average the Labour party is seen as only slightly left of centre at -16. This is actually to the right of Labour’s average voter, putting themselves in the enviable position of being situated nicely between the mass of their vote, and the mass of voters clustered around the mid-point on the scale. Labour voters themselves see the Labour party as being at -6 on the scale, again an enviable position to find themselves in; their supporters see them as being on the middle ground, but not quite to the point where they cross over into being a right-wing party.
Looking at YouGov’s data, Tony Blair is seen as only slightly right of centre on +7. Vitally though, he shouldn’t entirely alienate Labour voters because they place him exactly on 0. Conservatives view him as slightly right-of-centre at +6. Blair is still in the position of being seen as a centrist by Labour supporters, but slightly right-of-centre by Conservative voters – it is an almost perfect position. The problem comes when we look at Lib Dem voters – the most left wing group on YouGov’s polls; they consider Blair to be right of centre at +15.
Come the next election of course, Gordon Brown will be in charge of the Labour party and YouGov found that people perceive him as being far more left-wing, with an average rating of -20. In his article Peter Kellner suggests this illustrates one of New Labour’s strengths – the combination of Blair, who appeals to those on the middle ground and centre-right, and Brown, who traditional Labour voters see as one of their own.
When Brown takes over as PM of course, the Labour party will no longer have Blair’s middle-ground appeal, and suddenly they will be a party that is perceived as left wing, led by a Prime Minister who is perceived as left wing. Many people argue that Brown isn’t actually anymore left wing than Blair, that he is right at the heart of the New Labour project and believes the same things as Blair does – that isn’t really the point though; people’s perception of him is left wing, and that’s what matters.
Now, this may not be a bad thing for Labour – it will help them get back the support from those Lib Dem voters who see Tony Blair as unacceptably right wing, but it also risks driving away support from those on the soft right who are currently perfectly comfortable with Tony Blair, but may be scared off by a more left wing figure.
Gordon Brown is also part of the problem facing the Lib Dems – they have clearly gained from left wingers who are ideologically opposed to Tony Blair. What happens when Blair goes? Labour themselves are still placed on the ideological scale to pick up Lib Dem votes, without Blair to scare them away, will they go back to Labour?
If they do, the Lib Dems have begun to move out of the territory where they can also gain disillusioned Tory voters. ICM’s figures show that people now perceive the Lib Dems to be a party of the centre-left on -13. Given the Liberal Democrats reputation for portraying themselves in a different manner to different audiences, you might expect them to have managed to sell themselves as being more centrist to Tory voters, but they haven’t – Tory voters see them as even more left wing on -17. Moving to YouGov’s data, Tory voters also find Charlie Kennedy left wing, in fact, with a score of -30 they think he is more left wing than even Gordon Brown. Unless the Lib Dems move themselves back towards the centre, they are going to face an ideological barrier to winning extra votes from the Tories.
Finally we come to the Conservative party. Whereas Labour voters consider the Labour party quite centrist, and Lib Dem voters consider the Lib Dems quite centrist, even Conservative voters consider that the Tory party is firmly right of centre, with an average score of 31. Amongst voters as a whole the figure is 34. While they are quite well aligned with their voters, who on ICM’s poll averaged at 27, they are both a long way from the political centre, and on the “wrong side” of their voters, i.e. Conservative voters consider their party to be further to the right than themselves. Dragging them out even further rightwards was the figure of Michael Howard – YouGov found that Conservative voters put him on average at 42, while Lib Dem and Labour voters put him at an increasingly extreme 62 and 65 respectively.
Replacing Howard with a leader who is seen as less extreme should help the Conservatives move people’s perception of them closer to the centre ground, and once Labour’s leader is a figure who is percieved as being on the other side of the psychological left-right divide they may be in a better position to win support back from Labour amongst right-of-centre voters, but either way you cut it they are still as by far the most extreme of the three main parties.