When commentators write about polls they often fail to resist reaching for the cliche of saying the polls are extremely volatile, or even that there is unprecedented volatility. Often what they actual mean is that differences between pollsters or normal random sample error are spitting out apparently contradictory figures. Polls are not normally particularly volatile over the short term, the pattern of public opinion is normally pretty steady with occassional step changes in opinion. In that sense I was almost tempted to say that this year was particularly volatile… until I looked back at last year, compared to the sharp reverses of 2007, 2008 was pretty staid.
Nevertheless, There were two big step changes in support during 2008. The first happened in the spring and, while it is never possible to pin these things down exactly the polls seemed to turn around the budget. There were no particularly unpopular measures in the budget and the polls showed that the majority of people supported the measures in the budget. I suspect the reason it was followed by a drop in Labour support is that it made the economy troubles real for the first time and, as I argued in this post last week, Labour’s summer travails and autumn recovery do seem to have gone hand in hand with the public’s hopes and fears on the economy.
The turnaround in the spring was not, however, all about Labour. The local and London elections also contributed to that shift – the halo effect around the Conservative victory in London and the Crewe and Nantwich by-election saw their ratings jump upwards. Heading into the summer we saw some huge 20 point leads in the polls as the government’s dire position was compounded by leadership ructions breaking into the open. In Populus’s annual conference poll the percentage of people who thought Labour were united had fallen to 23%, thirty points lower than a year before. There were bigger opposition leads in the mid 1990s, but they were from pollsters who had yet to make adjustments after the 1992 debacle. If you look at ICM, the only pollster who uses more or less the same methods now as they did back in 1993-1997, the Conservative leads in summer 2009 bore comparison to the Labour leads when John Major was in office.
Then everything changed.
When I did my round up last year I said I doubted that it was possible for Labour to regain a lead in the polls under Gordon Brown unless there were “events [that] changed the whole world around”. Strictly speaking, Labour haven’t regained a lead in the polls, but an “event” did happen, and it did indeed turn British politics around.
The bail-out of British banks resulted in a miraculous turn around in Gordon Brown’s ratings and Labour support in the polls. If you look at the polling figures it appears that Labour’s recovery dates from conference – but I think that’s merely a result of how granular voting intention data is. If you look at the only daily data that’s available, the Phi5000 tracker on PoliticsHome, you can see that Labour and Brown’s conference bounces were already receeding from their conference increase when the bank rescue came along and up they went again, and have kept on upwards since then.
Since the bank rescue all the polling trends have been positive for Labour. The party’s share of support in voting intention polls has risen, Gordon Brown’s own ratings have shot upwards, with growing proportions of people once again seeing him as strong and capable. The Conservative lead on the economy has vanished. Labour’s rebels have melted away and, while I haven’t seen it asked, I would be amazed if polls didn’t show that people think the Labour party are united again. We shouldn’t overestimate the change – Labour are still behind in every poll, government approval ratings are still negative, but the turnaround is still stunning.
So, what about the way forward? Anyone who has read my article before Christmas about the economy will be able to guess what I expect to happen next year. There are several ifs, but if the recession bites hard next year, companies continue to fold and unemployment and repossessions rise, my expectation is that this recovery in Labour’s support will reverse. Labour’s increase in support corresponds with an increase in economic optimism over recent months – as Britain falls into official recession and the bad news keeps on coming, that will fall and those people who have supported Gordon Brown in the hope that he can limit the damage will be disappointed.
That’s just my guess. I wouldn’t have guessed that Labour would have recovered to the degree they did after the bank bailout, and this is very much uncharted territory, so while I think next year will be bad for Labour, here are two alternate ways that it could play out that are more positive. Firstly, while I expect Labour’s support to fall again in the face of economic bad news, I don’t know how long that might take. The last two YouGov polls indicate that perhaps the trend is already reversing, but it not Labour could continue to gain. Temporary blip or not, if they start to record poll leads over the Conservatives then the pressure really would be on the Tories and the media narrative would be even more in Labour’s favour. Say the economic bad news takes months to sap Labour support, say for the next few months Labour continue to go up in the polls, say they are still ahead at the end of April and Gordon Brown goes for it, calls and wins a general election. It’s possible.
Another alternative would be if the government’s economic policies actually do work better than everyone expects. Everyone seems to be predicting that the economy will be very bad indeed next year, but I’m no economist. If there aren’t lots of companies folding, unemployment is kept to reasonable levels, the economy really does return to growth in the third quarter of 2009 – more importantly, people are never given cause to lose their newly-regained faith in Gordon Brown’s handling of the economy. As I said before, the passing of the crisis isn’t an automatic win for Labour – it could mean people are more willing to risk a novice – but that’s far from a given.
My own opinion remains that this is a brief recovery in the government’s popularity and that bad economic news will grind their support away next year. What I think is clear however is that things are far less certain than they appeared a year ago.