End of year round up

So that was 2005. What should we be looking for the political polls for 2006?

At the moment the Conservatives are ahead in the opinion polls – amongst some of the pollsters it is their first lead since the fuel strikes. It’s probably four years until a general election, so polls are of no use in predicting the next election at this point, what they show in the next 12 months though will be vital for all the political parties.

The Conservatives are enjoying their poll lead at the moment – one important question for them will be to what degree it lasts. The boost in their rating that has resulted from David Cameron’s election isn’t actually much greater than the increase we saw after Michael Howard became leader (with the notable exception of the MORI poll that showed a 9% Tory lead – a figure it would be wise to ignore unless another poll backs it up), based just on the voting intention polls it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if the Tories drop back behind Labour once the initial Cameron euphoria drops away.

Where the Conservatives have more grounds for optimism are some of the other questions asked in the recent polls about David Cameron – a recent ICM poll that found that David Cameron was seen as a potential PM, a person who could change the way people thought about the Conservatives and a person who over a third of Labour voters and almost half Lib Dem voters said they could vote for; another ICM poll that found that 40% of people thought that Cameron was the natural heir of Tony Blair – these sort of findings were definitely not seen after Michael Howard became leader.

The important figures for the Conservatives next year will be firstly the voting intention figures – the Conservatives need a substantial lead to have any chance whatsover of forming a government and if David Cameron wants to keep the support of his party he needs to show he has the potential to deliver.

More importantly though will be seeing if David Cameron manages to change the Tory party’s image. His initial announcements as leader – ditching policies on immigration, highlighting social justice and involving people like Bob Geldof and Zac Goldsmith suggest this is the course he is committed to. If he is successful we will be see the proportion of people associating the Conservative party with things like understanding people’s problems and being caring increasing, and people’s perceptions of the Conservative party on the left-right scale moving closer the the centre of gravity.

Labour shouldn’t be worrying too much about voting intention figures, it is early in the Parliament after all. That said, if the Conservatives open up a very large lead in the polls it will further undermine Tony Blair’s leadership – whether that hastens his demise though depends upon the man expected to succeed him.

The most interesting question for Labour in the polls will be about Gordon Brown. If we go back a year or two Gordon Brown’s polling figures were unambiguously sunny. Huge majorities of people were satisified with the job he was doing as Chancellor and polls asking how people would vote if Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair invariably showed him delivering a huge boost to the Labour vote. Just recently things have changed – polls have started showing Gordon Brown’s satisfaction ratings falling and, since the emergence of David Cameron as Tory leader, polls have consistently suggested that Labour would do worse under Brown than under Blair.

If this trend continues and isn’t just the effect of the Cameron honeymoon, then it’s possible that Labour MPs might begin to wonder how advisable it is to replace Blair with an even less popular alternative. At the moment there is no clearly identified alternative to Brown as the next Labour leader, but if one does emerge and the polls do not improve for Gordon Brown, he may yet face a true challenge for the top job.

Finally what do the polls have in store for the Liberal Democrats? The big question, that of their leadership, will probably not be much informed by polling – after all, Charlie Kennedy, while few people’s choice for Prime Minister, is generally far more positively rated than any other political leader.

Voting intention figures are more interesting – the Lib Dems secured 23% of the vote at the general election. Since then they’ve fallen to between 18% and 21% (there may be a methodological difference between the pollsters here – YouGov have shown a gradual consistent fall in their vote and have them pretty steady around 18%. ICM on the other hand have shown them consistently around 21%). Since last year’s final polls David Cameron has been targetting the Lib Dems, appealling for defections – it will be interesting to see if next year the Lib Dem vote is squeezed by a resurgent Conservative party (or, if Tony Blair does step down, by anti-war Labour protest voters returning to the fold) or whether they manage to hold onto and consolidate their support.

The Lib Dems also face the question of their position on the political spectrum – are they a party of the left, or will they turn to a more economically liberal position. They have already dropped their policy to increase the overall tax burden, and a new leader would almost certainly have their own views about the way they want the party to develop. At the moment the Lib Dems are percieved as the most left wing of the three main political parties. Would a new leader want to change that?

As the third party you don’t actually get many opinion polls focusing on the Liberal Democrats, further details of the monthly ICM poll in today’s Guardian include the first question related to to Charles Kennedy’s recent troubles.

Asked if, in the light of the Labour and Tory parties both having new leaders at the next election, whether the Liberal Democrats would be better off with a different leader. 52% of people though they would, with 38% of people saying the Lib Dems would be better off retaining Charles Kennedy.

Leadership questions like this always produce partisan results and Labour and Tory voters are most likely to want to see the back of Kennedy. However, even 44% of Liberal Democrat voters say they think the party would be better off with a different leader.

While many Lib Dem voters think they’d be better off with another leader, the great majority of Lib Dem voters continue to think he is doing a good job. 76% of Lib Dem voters approve and 22% disapprove, a net approval of +54 – but these are comparatively low figures for a party leader amongst their own supporters – Blair has a net approval of +64 amongst Labour voters and Cameron +76 amongst Tory voters.


One of the reasons I first started blogging about opinion polls was the newspapers’ insistance on writing about the polls they commissioned themselves as if they were the only polls in the universe. Today’s Guardian leader says ” With the sole exception of September 2000, in the aftermath of the tanker drivers’ fuel protest, this is the first ICM poll since January 1993 in which the Conservatives have led Labour.” In actual fact it’s the first ICM poll to show a Tory lead since…er…a week and a half ago in the Sunday Telegraph.

Still, the poll pretty much echoes ICM’s Sunday Telegraph poll – the topline figures are CON 37%(nc), LAB 36%(+1), LDEM 21%(nc), the only difference being an insignificant change in the level of Labour support. The poll was taken between the 15th-18th December, so well after Charlie Kennedy’s latest problems had hit the press – they do not seem to have had any negative effect upon the Lib Dem vote.

Like the Sunday Telegraph poll, ICM’s Guardian poll also asked a theoretical voting intention poll with Gordon Brown as Labour leader. Voting intention would then be CON 41%, LAB 36%, LDEM 18%, following the increasingly familiar pattern of the Conservatives increasing their lead, with the Lib Dem falling back – presumably as a result of churn as anti-Blair Lib Dem voters switch back to Labour, but anti-Brown voters switch over to the Tories. It’s worth remembering that all these theoretical ‘with Brown as leader’ voting intention questions also include the assumption that Charlie Kennedy will still be Lib Dem leader – something that looks considerably less likely after the past week.

David Cameron continues to enjoy very good underlying figures – 66% of people see him as a potential Prime Minister (obviously this includes nearly all Tory voters, but also a majority of Labour and Lib Dem voters). More importantly 51% of Labour voters and 62% of Lib Dem voters think Cameron could change their view of the Tories, and 36% of Labour voters and 46% of Lib Dems think that Mr Cameron is “someone I could vote for”. Charges that he is all spin and no substance chime with only 26% of people (mostly Labour and Nationalist voters), only 13% of people agree that he is too young for the job.

The last two weeks’s PMQs exchanges between David Cameron and Tony Blair have concentrated on education, with Cameron doing his best to try and drive a wedge between Blair and his backbenchers, and Blair doing his best to paint Cameron as a supporter of academic selection in schools. Is that really such a bad thing to be though – some Labour MPs may retain a visceral hatred of the 11-plus, but what do the public think about academic selection in schools?

The latest YouGov poll also included a series of questions on education. The idea of streaming by academic ability within schools meets with overwhelming support – only 4% think streaming is a bad idea. 83% of people supported streaming, with respondents split fairly evenly between a programme forcing all schools to stream pupils by ability, and allowing schools to chose whether to stream or not.

Asked if the abolition of Grammar schools and secondary moderns and their replacement with comprehensive schools was in hindsight a good or bad idea, 48% of people think it was a bad idea, with only 31% thinking it was a good idea. There is a sharp political divide here – Conservative voters overwhelmingly think it was a bad idea (72% to 16%), Labour voters broadly support it (48% to 31%), while Lib Dem voters are pretty evenly split.

While people may think the passing of the old 11-plus system was a bad thing, there is less support for the reintroduction of academic selection in schools. 41% of respondents thought that schools should not be allowed to select any pupils on the basis of ability. 28% thought that schools should be free to select a proportion of their pupils on the basis of ability, while 20% thought that schools should be able to be completely selective. There were predictable differences between supporters of political parties – Labour voters were most opposed to selection and Conservative voters most favorable towards it. However, the division were not as sharp as you might think – 39% of Labour voters supported some degree of selection, with 11% supporting complete selection. 28% of Conservative voters were opposed to selection in schools.

YouGov also asked where decisions about admissions policies should be made. 38% supported leaving the decision with LEAs (either as at present, with some grammar, church and specialist schools allowed to make their own decisions, or giving complete control to LEAs), 45% of respondents supported giving all schools the right to make their own decisions on admissions (either with (29%) or without (16%) the option of returning to the 11-plus). Again there were sharp political divides – amongst Tory voters the split was 26% in favour of LEA control, 62% in favour of giving control to schools, amongst Labour voters the split was 49% to 33%.

It seems that on education there are still sharp divides between the supporters of different political parties, even if the two party leaders make a show of ‘agreeing’ every Wednesday lunchtime. Conservative voters tend to support selection and giving admissions control to individual schools. Labour voters tend to be opposed to selection, and support the role of LEAs in distributing school places. Overall the Conservatives seem to have regained their position as the party most trusted with education – a position they last achieved in Michael Howard’s honeymoon as leader – asked which party had the best policies on improving the quality of education in schools 24% said the Conservatives, ahead of Labour on 20% and the Lib Dems on 11%.

This month’s political monitor from MORI has one of the largest shifts I’ve ever seen in a voting intention poll – the topline figures are CON 40%(+8), LAB 31%(-11), LDEM 21% (+2). The nine point lead is the largest Conservative lead in any poll since May 1992, and the largest lead in a MORI poll since January 1989 (although MORI polls prior ro 2003 aren’t really comparable).

Ironically, even a whopping great lead like this would, on a uniform swing, leave the Conservative party tantalisingly short of an overall majority in the Commons – although in reality I suspect differential swings in marginal seats would probably mean that these shares would deliver a Conservative majority.

MORI also asked a Best Prime Minister question – giving respondents the choice of Cameron, Kennedy or Gordon Brown, the expected Labour leader at the next election. Here, despite the overall poll showing a large Tory lead, Brown lead Cameron by 31% to 27%. While on the surface this suggests that Brown may yet be a plus to Labour, it’s worth remembering that the voting intention questions on MORI polls include only people certain to vote, while questions on best Prime Minister include all respondents.

The poll was actually taken a week ago, making it older than the YouGov poll in Friday’s Telegraph – in fact it was taken at roughly the same time as Populus’s poll that put Labout three points ahead. Obviously, the Labour figures in the MORI (31%) and Populus (40%) polls are outside each other’s margin of error, so one of them is wrong. The difference may well be down to their methodology. The MORI poll was conducted by telephone, but unlike Populus they do not weight by past vote to ensure a politically representative sample. This would result in MORI polls being far more favourable to Labour than Populus or ICM, but MORI also deal with likehood to vote differently – including only those voters who say they are absolutely 10/10 certain to vote, a filter that greatly favours the Conservative party. At the last general election the two methodological approaches cancelled each other out and the pollsters ended up predicting roughly the same shares of the vote. Now that the political battleground seems to be shifting this may no longer be the case. On the other hand, the difference could simply be that either the MORI or the Populus poll (or even both!) were rogue polls outside the margin of error.