Looking back over the year the turning point for Labour was the May local elections, or more specifically the week prior to them was they were faced with the triple whammy of John Prescott’s affair, the foriegn prisoner release scandal and Patricia Hewitt’s misjudged comments on the NHS’s “best year ever”. Prior the the local elections the Conservtive honeymoon seemed to be faltering and a few polls had shown Labour regaining their lead – since the local elections they have been consistently behind in all but a few polls that don’t have political weighting (and therefore show more erratic results).
April 2006 damaged Labour’s reputation for competence. In YouGov’s political trackers prior to the local elections, 25% of people associated the Labour party with competence, following the local elections it fell to only 17%. While it recovered noticably during the Labour party conference, briefly touching 25%, it fell back again afterwards and seems stable at around 21%. In the autumn polls painted a dismal picture of how people saw the Labour party – 71% thought they were divided, 54% thought they weren’t concerned with the welfare of ordinary people, 66% thought the wheels were falling off the coach. An ICM poll in September found that 70% of people thought it was “time for a change.” Populus’s pre-conference poll found a pathetic 14% of people thought Labour were united, found them trailing on nearly every measure and found that only 16% were satisfied. Presumably the only reason that the government were not further behind in the polls was that over a third of the 78% who were disatisfied said they still prefered Labour to the Conservatives. The continuing poor image of the Conservative party helped save Labour from the sort of double digit defecits that the last Tory government endured in the polls.
In terms of party image September seems to have been Labour’s nadir. According to last month’s Populus poll Labour’s party image has perked up considerably since the conference season and in terms of party image is ahead of the Conservatives on all measures apart from unity and honesty. Thus far it hasn’t been entirely clear whether this is reflected in the voting intention polls. The polls immediately following the Labour conference showed a large boost for Labour on the back of vastly increased ratings for Tony Blair. However, this was a transient, short term factor and of the most recent polls most seem to show that the Conservative lead is as strong as before the conference season – YouGov have the Tory lead weakening slightly at 4 or 5 points, but ICM’s last two polls have a Conservative lead of 8 points. The exception amongst the polls using political weighting is Populus, who showed the lead dropping to only a single point, but in context this seems to be the outlier.
The issue of Blair’s departure and the succession has dominated much of this year and will obviously dominate much of next year. Gordon Brown’s poll ratings have been consistently poor – while people say he is competent, effective, strong and trust him to run the economy, he consistently performs worse than Tony Blair in hypothetical voting intention questions. As I argued here, I think this is meaningful and is a result, as shown by a myriad of polling questions, of people not warming to Gordon Brown – as much as they respect him they simply don’t like him. Despite this, all polls on the Labour leadership have shown that Brown is still seen as the best choice for the next Labour leader, especially amongst Labour voters and Labour party members. Attempts in the media to boost the cases of Alan Johnson or John Reid don’t seem to have created any swell of public support for them and it still looks certain that Gordon Brown will be Tony Blair’s successor.
What will happen when he does succeed? I am still convinced that he will produce a temporary boost in the polls for Labour despite what hypothetical polls conducted now predict – people simply aren’t very good at predicting how they will react to events in the future. An interesting question is whether he will use the opportunity to go for a snap election next year during his ‘honeymoon’ as Sir Menzies Campbell has predicted and David Cameron has demanded. Convential wisdom is that the electorate punish politicans for calling “unnecessary” elections, but the polling evidence suggests that people think that it would be appropriate for the new Prime Minister to call an election to get a mandate – YouGov found that 51% thought there should be an election, NOP found 56% thought there should be and Populus found 67% in favour. While Gordon Brown’s actual decision on whether or not to call an election will obviously be based on practicialities like cost and whether he can win it or not, not whether the polls say the public want one, the figures suggest that if Brown does call an early election the public will not see it as unecessary and punish him for it, and if he doesn’t and the opposition parties call for one they will have public support on their side.
On the surface the Conservatives have had a good year in the polls, certainly their best since the early 90s. In terms of voting intention they have moved from a position last year of consistently being in the low thirties to consistently being in the high 30s. They have opened up a signficant lead over Labour and, more importantly, have maintained it.
However, what they haven’t done is made progress over the last year. The level of Conservative support in the polls now is pretty much the same as it was in David Cameron’s honeymoon period, and while their lead over Labour is now larger than at the start of 2006, it is because of the fall in Labour’s support rather than an increase in Conservative support. They also seem to have benefited from Labour’s misfortune rather than won support themselves – prior to the local elections Conservative support was on the slide, it only perked up again after the prisoner release scandal.
While David Cameron has increased Conservative support, there is scant polling evidence to suggest that he has made any progress on improving perceptions of the Conservative party as a whole. Populus’s conference poll found that people’s perception of the Conservative party on the left-right scale is pretty much unchanged – people see Cameron as to the left of the Conservative party, but they don’t think he has moved the party to the left. Populus has now asked the same questions about party image in their conference poll for the last 4 years, and reasked the question this month. Comparing the image of the Conservative party now with how it was seen back in 2003, it hasn’t changed to a great extent – people think it has a better team of leaders (39% think so, compared to 22% back in 2003), is more competent (43% now compared to 32% in 2003) and is more united (46% compared to 32%), but in things like whether the Conservative party cares about the problems of ordinary people, shares peoples values, is honest and trustworthy or understands normal peoples lives, the improvement is far more meagre.
Next year should see the Conservatives start to wheel out the results of their policy reviews and, presumably, start to actually adopt some of them as party policy. This may improve matters for them – a YouGov poll in October asking what the main problems were with the Tory party found that the most cited reason they weren’t doing better was that people didn’t know what a Cameron government would actually do. At the same time it will force difficult decisions upon them and risks upsetting either the party’s traditional supporters or the centrist swing voters they are seeking to appeal to.
Any way you cut it the Liberal Democrats are substantially down in support compared to last year. In 2005 their average support in all the polls was 21%, in 2006 it was 18.5%. This is the lowest since 2001 – and back then the figure was dragged down by unprompted MORI and Gallup polls which underestimated the true Lib Dem level of support. The comparable figures for the last Parliament were 21.9% in 2004, 22.6% in 2003 and 20% in 2002 (which also lends the lie to the automatic assumption that the Lib Dems always put on a couple of percentage points during the General Election campaign, so low figures now do not matter. They do indeed tend to improve during election campaigns compared to their figures immediately prior to the campaign – it doesn’t follow that they improve compared to their mid-term figures, in fact their share of the vote in 2005 was almost the same as their mid-term support in 2003.)
Exactly how badly the Lib Dems are doing in terms of support is unclear – the December polls have all shown the Liberal Democrats substantially down, with support between 14% and 18%. but there have been consistent differences between how much Lib Dem support different pollsters report. While the main polling companies don’t tend to produce a wide variation in support for the Conservatives or Labour they have done for the Liberal Democrats, with YouGov on average showing the Lib Dems three points lower than ICM and MORI do (Populus produce figures somewhere inbetween the two extremes). This means at some points in the year ICM have shown them only marginally down on their general election performance while YouGov have shown them struggling. The methodological reasons for the difference are unclear, but with even ICM showing them 5 points down on the general election the trend seems clear.
The reason for the Lib Dem malaise isn’t certain, primarily because David Cameron’s election as Conservative leader and Charles Kennedy’s removal as Lib Dem leader were so close together it is difficult to separate out their effects. On one hand Cameron’s attempts to appeal to Lib Dem voters could have been successful to some extent, squeezing the Lib Dem vote. On the other hand, their drop in support could be a result of poor public perceptions of Sir Menzies Campbell. Compared to the consistently highly positive poll ratings achieved by Charles Kennedy, Campbell’s ratings have been mediocre. The more experienced and statesmanlike Campbell was expected to be a more Prime Ministerial figure than Kennedy, at times derided for his light-entertainment appearances. In reality Charles Kennedy consistently scored in the high-teens on the question of who would make the best Prime Minister, on occassion equalling the Conservative leader, in contrast Campbell has often struggled to achieve more than 6 or 7%. The decrease in Lib Dem support could be because the Conservatives have gained at their expense and the party has received less media coverage as the race between the two main parties becomes more competitive, or it could be due to Campbell. At present it’s impossible to say – newspapers don’t really bother to conduct polls about the Liberal Democrats, there aren’t Lib Dem equivalents of Compass commissioning polls, we just don’t know.
To what extent the low poll rating is a problem for the Liberal Democrats is a different question. Judging how well or badly the Conservatives or Labour are doing is a relatively simple matter – uniform swing is a pretty decent guide to the number of seats Labour or the Conservatives would win at an election and their aim is to get a high enough share of the vote to form the next government. What the aim of the Liberal Democrats is less certain, and it’s far less easy to tell how well they doing. The old dictim that all politics is local is especially true in the case of the Liberal Democrats – they managed to win the Dunfermline by-election despite being without a leader and languishing as low as 13% in the polls. At the last general election the Lib Dem change in the vote in individual seats was the least uniform of the three main parties. In 1997 the Lib Dems saw their share of the vote fall, but more than doubled their number of MPs. While the polls show their support is down it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will see their number of seats reduced at the next election – that doesn’t mean however that there won’t be internal ructions within the party if their support falls any lower.