The Brown boost continues in Populus’s latest poll (conducted slightly earlier than normal, this is what would be their August poll). The headline figures with changes from their last poll, conducted shortly after Brown became leader, are CON 33%(-1), LAB 39%(+2), LDEM 15%(-3).

This brings Populus’s figures for Labour’s lead in line with those of ICM, and suggests Brown’s boost is still holding strong, squeezing the support of both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, for whom this is the lowest level of support recorded by Populus since they began polling in 2001.

The poll also has further evidence that David Cameron’s trip to Rwanda went down badly with the public – on average people rating his handling of the flooding at 3.75 out of 10, compared to a (admittedly not particularly shining) 5.05 out of 10 for Gordon Brown and 6.14 for local authorities.

I believe Communicate Research also conducted the fieldwork for their next poll over the weekend, so we may yet see that tomorrow.

UPDATE: Communicate’s poll is indeed out. The headline figures with changes from their last poll, conducted prior to Brown becoming Prime Minister, are CON 34%(-3), LAB 37%(+5), LDEM 16%(-2). The three point Labour lead is somewhat lower than that currently being recorded by the other pollsters, but Communicate weight past Labour voters to a slighter lower level than ICM or Populus.

YouGov’s monthly poll for the Telegraph has voting intention figures, with changes from YouGov’s last poll, of CON 32%(-1), LAB 41%(+1), LDEM 16%(+1). The changes from the last poll, conducted only four days previously, are insignificant, but it is the largest Labour share of the vote this Parliament and the largest Labour lead since the immediate aftermath of the last election.

If repeated at a general election then on a uniform swing it would result in the Conservatives losing a handful of seats, despite boundary changes in their favour. On the subject of a snap election, I remain convinced that Gordon Brown won’t go to the country this year, since the strong showing in the opinions polls can’t be sustained enough in the short time available before a decision needs to be made. However, there must come a point when the sheer size of his lead could outweight that. If he had a lead in double figures for a couple of weeks then even if it was soft and crumbled during an election campaign, he would have lots of space for it to crumble and still leave him with a majority.

Cameron’s figures are down sharply, possibly reflecting a negative public reaction to his trip to Rwanda which was in the media when the poll was being conducted between Monday and Wednesday. The proportion of people backing Cameron as the best PM has fallen 4 points to 19%, giving Brown a 18 point lead. The percentage of people thinking Cameron has been a good leader has dropped to 27%, wioth 43% thinking he hasn’t – this is almost a direct reversal of the result the last time YouGov asked this question back in February.

As I mentioned in the last post, there is still a sharp difference between positive opinions of Gordon Brown, who enjoys a net approval rating of plus 7 as Prime Minister, and negative opinions of the government, whose net approval rating is at minus 25. It’s been a lot lower (at some points in the last year it reached minus 43), but the difference is largely down to some point who had been giving negative answers switching to don’t know, in other words, giving the government a change. The obvious explanation is that Labour’s positive position in the polls at the moment is based on Gordon Brown, he hasn’t yet transferred that popularity onto the government or the Labour party.

Meanwhile there was a second YouGov poll carried out for Channel 4 earlier in the week that again asked voters to place party leaders and parties on a political spectrum, from far-left, fairly left-wing, slightly left of centre, centre, etc, etc and then uses it to place them on a numerical scale from left to right, with -100 being very right wing and +100 being very right wing.

Up to now the results of questions like this have been very stable, but for the first time perceptions of the Conservative party have started to shift – on average people placed them at +46 on the scale, the three previous times YouGov have asked this question the Conservatives were +52, +50 and +53. Cameron himself has also shifted towards the centre at +28, compared to +33, +35, +34 in previous polls.

Perceptions of Gordon Brown and the Labour party remain almost static since the questions were asked last month, with Labour at -22 and Brown at -25, compared to -22 and -26 last month. This means that Brown and Cameron are now seen as almost equidistant from the political centre, although their parties are not – the Conservatives are seen as to the right of Cameron, Labour are seen as more centrist than their leader).


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.

I’m on holiday at the moment, with an intermittent internet connecton so blogging will be slow over the next week. Two new polls in the Sunday papers both show Labour leads pretty consistent with the last ICM poll – YouGov in the Sunday Times has CON 33%, LAB 40%, LDEM 15%, MORI in the Observer has CON 35%, LAB 41%, LDEM 15%.

UPDATE – Make that three. ICM’s monthly poll for the Guardian has a similar Labour lead – CON 32%, LAB 38%, LDEM 20%.

The first Ken vs Boris poll is out in the Standard – Livingston 32%, Johnson 23%, Greg Dyke (presumably as an indepedent) 9%, an unspecified Lib Dem on 6%, John Bird (again presumably as an independent) 5%, unspecified Lib Dem on 5%. 25% undecided. It was conducted by Ciao!, an internet outfit who are part of Greenberg, so a reputable parent company, but no way of knowing the quality of the panel, what weighting was applied, what the actual question was and so no way of knowing how meaningful this is. Given that we don’t know which, if any, prominent independents will stand, nor who the Lib Dem candidate will be, voting intention questions at still stage are a bit articifical. The most relevant question at the moment will be which of the two presumptive front runners, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, people are most likely to support – if either, as a pointer towards who the eventual victor would be once second preferences are taken into account.

The poll was conducted a week or so ago, prior to Boris confirming he was going to run – hopeully we’ll have a poll from someone with a track record at some point in the near future.

(UPDATE – the actual first poll finally turned up here)