A new YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph has topline voting intention figures of CON 47%, LAB 25%, LDEM 16%. YouGov also asked a series of questions about how people would vote with different people as Labour leader. Of the potential alternatives to Brown, only Jack Straw did better than Brown, and then not by a significant amount – CON 45% to LAB 24%. Under David Milliband support would be CON 47%, LAB 24% – worse than with Gordon Brown, albeit, not by a significant amount. With Ed Balls as Labour leader, the party would be pushed into third place behind the Liberal Democrats: CON 50%, LAB 17%, LDEM 18%.
Hypothetical questions like this are very popular when there are questions of leadership. In their favour I have to say that they are better than questions asking whether people are more or less likely to vote Labour if X was in charge, which people who would vote Labour anyway, or wouldn’t vote Labour under any circumstance, still say more or less. They do, however, have various downsides.
The first is that normal voting intention questions do not include prompting by the party leaders names, so realistically you should only compare the results of a question asking “how would you vote with Milliband in charge” with one saying “how would you vote with Brown in charge”. In the case of this poll therefore, what we don’t know is how people would have answered a question saying how would you vote at a general election if Gordon Brown were still leader – given his current popularity, mentioning his name in the question may have produced worse results.
The second question is how good people are at predicting how they will respond to future events. Back before Gordon Brown became leader we used to see polls showing he would be immensely unpopular. In the event when he became leader Labour received a huge boost in the polls. In the long term people were right, Brown did became unpopular, but personally I think that’s particular to the case of Gordon Brown: people’s reasons for disliking him were his personality (at the time they still thought him strong, decisive and competent), which it was very unlikely he’d be able to change. People also knew him very well after 10 years as Chancellor. For less well known politicans like David Milliband very few people will know him well enough to have the first idea what he would do as PM, or how they’d react. Their opinion of how they would vote with Miliband in charge is based on seeing him on the telly a couple of times, what he looks and sounds like. Such things are important, but they certainly aren’t everything.
Despite all this, these questions are important. Flawed they may be, but these are the closest we ever come to actual evidence that an alternative leader would do better than Gordon Brown, and at the moment it’s lacking. Sometimes it is the dog that doesn’t bark that’s important – imagine the impact this poll would have had if it had shown David Milliband would cut the Tory lead to 10 points or less. The poll shows Labour 22 points behind the Conservatives, but I suspect GOrdon Brown will be pleased with it!