We’ve now pretty much got the measure of the “Brown bounce” in the polls – YouGov, MORI and ICM are all showing a Labour lead of around 6 or 7 percent. So, what does this actually tell us? Well, not a lot really. Anyone with sense in their head should have foreseen that Brown would receive a boost after becoming Labour leader. For those of us who write about polls it was becoming incredibly tiresome constantly adding caveats to the hypothetical polls showing Labour slumping with Brown in charge that newspapers insisted on asking. Everyone knew they were artifical, that people are very bad at predicting how they will react to things in the future. No one, of course, could accurately predict how high the Brown bounce would be, but everyone should have expected there to be one.
In terms of what it predicts about the next election the present polls are pretty much worthless. It is highly unlikely that there will be an election this year – leaving aside the arguments about Labour’s funding for an election campaign or the paucity of Labour PPCs in place compared to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the more important fact is that Gordon Brown has always shown himself to be a canny and cautious politician and to go to the country now would be foolhardy.
If you look at the graphs in my post below showing previous boosts from changes of leader they show most were transitory – an October election would require a decision in August or September when we really won’t have a confident idea of where the polls are headed. In 1970 Wilson went to the country after a couple of weeks of good polls and lost. With three years of a Parliament with a healthy majority still to go, Brown is not going to gamble on an election based on a couple of weeks of good polls, since at present the Brown boost is soft…
What are the reasons for the Brown bounce and why do I say it is soft? When you look at a voting intention poll any attempt to explain the ups and downs is largely guesswork, but we can make some educated guesswork.
Firstly there is the initial publicity boost, sweeping into number 10: nice speech on the doorstep, kid-gloved interviews with Andrew Marr, media almost all positive towards him. This is part of the boost, and part that certainly won’t last.
Secondly there is the fact that he is a new chap who isn’t Tony Blair. To some extent the slate has been wiped clean. Once again this is shallow. Tony Blair was not unpopular because of Blair the man – despite everything polls still showed Blair was considered likeable (even if he were unlikeable, Brown would certainly be no improvement). Blair was unpopular because of what he had done. So far Brown has not addressed any hard or unpopular decisions. With the possible exception of ruling out a referendum on the new European treaty he hasn’t done anything that might upset people, and sooner or later he’ll have to. Some of those people hoping Brown will be different to Blair in certain ways will be disappointed. At the moment lots of people are projecting great hopes upon Gordon Brown – with luck for some of them Brown will be everything they hope for, but for some he won’t.
Thirdly there is the boost from Brown the man. This was unexpected. Brown was perceived negatively by the public prior to becoming leader but there is evidence that a lot of the boost is down to just the Brown effect, not a difference in attitudes towards Labour. In YouGov’s first poll after Brown took over, Peter Kellner noted that the increase in Labour’s ratings was far greater in questions that mentioned Gordon Brown by name. The focus in the two recent by-elections was on the Conservatives, but the fall in Labour’s vote was comparable to the sort of fall they had in Dunfermline and Livingston. True, it’s better than the horrible results they suffered when Iraq was really biting, but these elections took place when Labour were doing better in the polls than at the general election when they were last fought – they didn’t actually perform any better than when Tony Blair was there.
It’s obviously a good position for Labour that their leader is now a plus, but Brown himself hasn’t changed, he is still not a naturally charismatic and likeable figure and if his present popularity wanes Labour may find themselves in a less favourable position. Brown’s present popularity should also not obscure the fact that Labour were not unpopular prior to the handover solely because of Tony Blair. There is a tendency in British politics for people to think everything can be solved by changing the leader – this “chop and change” tendency has hamstrung the Tories for over a decade, luckily for Labour they haven’t suffered the same order of constant leadership infighting (or if they have, it’s been of a different type), but they need to avoid assuming that having changed leaders in an orderly and sensible fashion, it will solve everything that bedevilled Blair.
Just because the Brown boost may be soft at the present, it certainly doesn’t mean that it is bound to go down. Gordon Brown will be doing all he can to make hay while the sun shines, trying to use this period of public and media goodwill to build more solid and longlasting support. He may well succeed (his chances will be far greater if the Conservatives make a mess of things, which I shall come to in the second half of this post) but this current lead is largely transitory. If he does build it into a more solid lead then no doubt he will seriously consider a spring election (and if so, he’s probably win it comfortably), but right now that lead could as easily fade away as it could be consolidated or increased.
Meanwhile the Conservatives are having an unpleasant time…at least on the face of it. But what has actually gone wrong for them? They had a self-inflicted argument about grammar schools, they lost an MP who defected to Labour, currently David Cameron has the misfortune to have arranged a high profile trip to Rwanda at exactly the same time as his constituency is flooded. These are all unfortunate, but really not the end of the world. The real basis of the pressure upon Cameron are the deficit in the polls and the results of the two recent by-elections.
Neither of these are actually that bad. Every serious commentator predicted that Brown would get a big boost in the polls after becoming Prime Minister (and frankly, if they didn’t, they really need to look for an alternate career). There is precious little that David Cameron or the Conservatives could have done to alter this – it was inevitable. Possibly if they hadn’t decided to spend the weeks before it arguing with themselves about schools Brown’s boost might have been slightly smaller, but to be honest I think this boost really is down to Gordon Brown and no one else.
Secondly, their by-election performance wasn’t bad by the atrocious standards of the Conservative party. Nich Starling spotted Grant Schapps, the Tory MP in charge of the Ealing campaign claiming that the “The third placed party in by-elections always gets their vote squeezed”. This is rubbish. The reality in nearly every by-election in the last ten years is not that the third placed party has been squeezed by the second place party, but that the Conservatives have been squeezed by the Liberal Democrats, regardless of which order they started in. This should not be a surprise – people who don’t support the incumbent vote for the party they expect has the best chance of ousting the incumbent, and for ten years the Conservatives have shown they are unable to win by-elections and the Liberal Democrats have demonstrated they can do so under the harshest circumstances. This time that didn’t happen. The Conservatives can point at a mediocre performance, a small step up from their usual woeful performance. Of course this could be down to the Liberal Democrat’s woes at a national level, rather than any achievement by the Tories, but it is still no worse for them than we’ve come to expect.
Nevertheless the press are off on a roll about Tory leadership challenges and infighting. In the sense that this is based upon fact, that at least a couple of Conservative MPs have written to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee asking for a vote of no confidence, it isn’t anything to do with present difficulties: the letters were written several weeks ago, so before 7 point Labour leads, before Ealing Southall. The reason why the Tories being in trouble is now the story is because that is now the narrative the media have latched onto, and that has been set by the polls.
That, coming back to the title of this post, is why the polls are important. It’s an initial bounce in the polls that might yet fade away, or might yet be transformed into a solid Labour lead. It tells us nothing yet about the next election – what it does do is set the media agenda and now that the Conservatives are behind the media are once again writing about Cameron being under pressure and Tory troubles. This may well become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as negative coverage hurts the Tories further and real dissent spreads amongst Tory MPs. This is not actually intended as a criticism of the media, it is human nature to look for a narrative in this way and the polls provide it. The hypothetical polls before the leadership handover provided a narrative about dour, unpopular, voter-repelling Brown coming to ruin Labour, despite the warnings from everyone who understood polls that they were purely hypothetical; the polls now provide a narrative about Labour renewed and the Conservatives in trouble, despite being no more than a long expected boost from the new man at the helm. That is why voting intention polls matter, not because they necessarily tell us anything about what will happen at the next election, but because they help form the media narrative within which politics operates – these polls matter not because of what they show us, but because of the effect they are having.