I have a particular loathing for arguments that involve the words “at this stage in the cycle”. It implies that public support automatically moves in certain directions depending upon how distant or close an election appears, as opposed to people changing their opinions in response to events. The big daddy of this sort of argument is the belief that governments always recover as an election approaches, or that oppositions have to be X points ahead at “this stage in the cycle” to be Y points ahead come the election.

Now, there is some logic in the argument. After all, to some extent governments have the ability to time the announcement of policies and tax cuts so unpopular things happen mid term and popular things happen in the run up to elections (though this does rather depend upon there being ideas in the making and money in the kitty). I expect there is also a causal link in the other direction: governments see they have had a good run in the polls recently and take the opportunity to call an election. But anyway, theoretical arguments aside, lets look at what has actually happened at past elections.

We’ll start with 1992 – often a popular point of comparison, for we really did have a government that was trailing by over 25 points in the polls, yet came back to win. You can see on the graph that the Conservative deficit peaked at 24.5 points, and their average deficit in 1990 was around 12 points… yet they came back to win by 8 points. However, as we know, it wasn’t a gradual clawing back of support, it was a sudden transformation after the replacement of Margaret Thatcher with John Major. Moving into 1991 the Conservatives were on average roughly level with Labour in the polls. Normally this might suggest that the government recovered even further in the run up to the 1992 election, but of course, if one looks at the polls they didn’t. By the eve of the election the polls are still showing the parties roughly even – it wasn’t that Major’s government recovered in that last year, it’s just that the polls were wrong.

Moving onto 1997, in this graph I’ve taken only ICM polls, since they were the only company who immediately learnt the lessons of 1992 and corrected their methodology enough to get things right in 1997. Here the government’s deficit against the Labour opposition peaks at 29 points, and the average deficit across the worst year, 1995, is almost 20 points. The Conservatives certainly recover somewhat from that position, eventually losing to Labour by 13 points, but while that is a substantial recovery from 1995, it’s a more modest clamber back from the 16 or so point deficits they averaged in 1996.

Onwards to 2001 and a Labour incumbent. Labour’s worst point here is obvious – a brief 8 point deficit at the height of the 2000 fuel strikes. That is very brief however, and on average even in that, their worst year, they are on average 11 points ahead in the polls. They end up winning by 9 points. So there is no recovery here – apart from that brief blip Labour’s lead gradually falls throughout the Parliament. (Some of the pollsters are still making post-1992 adjustments to their methodology in this Parliament, particularly MORI who start filtering by likelihood to vote and Gallup who drop out alltogether to be replaced by YouGov. If you take just ICM, as I did for 1992-1997, the picture isn’t too different. Their average Labour lead in 2000 is 8.4, so there is a neglible government recovery).

For the 2001-2005 Parliament we really don’t see much of a recovery at all. The government’s lead over the Conservatives plummets as they lose support over the Iraq war. Their worst position in the polls (which they hit several times) is a 5 point deficit. In 2003 their average position is 3.8 points ahead of the Tories, in 2004 it is 2.4 points ahead. In reality they win by 2.9 points – so again, there is no significant improvement from their mid-term position.

So looking at past years, there is a big government recovery in 1992… but it is caused by changing a leader. In 2005 and 2001 there is no significant recovery at all. Only in 1997 do we see a government clamber back from its very worst ratings and stage something of a recovery and, as we know, it wasn’t nearly enough to win. What is true is that governments have always recovered from their very worst position – in every case its possible to cherry pick some awful moment of hideous unpopularity from which the government recovered, but that’s no great surprise (for starters, in most cases the most extreme outlying poll results were probably rogues anyway). What it doesn’t mean is that one can take any mid-term (or now late term) position and assume the government must do better.

So, let’s look at the same graph for the position now, and see what that looks like in comparison.

We’ve got a rather excitable graph here to begin with, with the big peak of the “Brown Bounce” in the middle of 2007. Labour’s worst point is a 28 point deficit in 2008 – they’d have to go to some effort not to do better than that at the election. Their average in 2008 and 2009 is a deficit of around 12 points. If they ended up with roughly the same sort of deficit as that at the next election it would fit the pattern of the last two elections. Then again, perhaps they could recover as the Tories did in 1997 – or perhaps they could drift down further.

That’s the point – there isn’t an automatic cycle where governments are guaranteed to recover X points at the Y part of the cycle. We’ve seem them recover, we’ve seen them fail to recover; if you take one date as your reference point they go up again, if you take another as your reference point they don’t. There is no guaranteed rallying of support – if the government wants to recover support it needs to do something to earn it (or hope the Conservative do something to drive it away).

The full tables for the Sunday Times YouGov poll are available here and, as usual, there are questions on a wide and wonderful variety of things.

Firstly on bank bailouts and bonuses, 62% of respondents thought that rescuing the banks will cost taxpayers in the long run, while 25% thought that eventually the taxpayer would end up better off when the government sells the banks back into the private sector. Asking about salaries and bonuses in general, rather than just about bankers, 55% of people did not think there should be any limit on earnings, as long as they were linked to performance. 13% thought no one in Britain should earn more than £150k, 15% backed a limit of £500k, 7% a limit of a million.

Moving on, YouGov asked about attitudes to Afghanistan. 78% of people thought that the stablisation of Afghanistan was a worthwhile objective… but the majority of these thought it was not worth risking the lives of British soldiers. The majority (64%) also thought that the war there could never be won. Neither did many people feel that the presence of troops in Afghanistan was containing the problem and stopping to spreading to Pakistan: only 21% thought it would help, 31% thought it made no difference and 26% thought it was making things worse.

Despite all this, only 17% thought all western troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan. A further 26% wanted Britain to withdraw, but didn’t much care what other countries did. 7% wanted the status quo maintained and 38% wanted the West to send more troops, though the overwhelming majority didn’t want these to be British. More popular seemed to be a diplomatic solution – 64% said Britain and America should be willing to talk to the Taliban.

Closer to home YouGov asked about the protests by Islamist groups against British soldiers returning from Iraq. 53% of respondents said protesters such as those who called troops “butchers” and “baby killers” should be prosecuted for public order offences; 35% said that however offensive these were, it was their right to protest in a free socirty.

Despite the recent murders in Northern Ireland, the public remain broadly optimistic about the prospects for peace. Only 23% thought a return to the levels of violence in the 70s and 80s was likely (and hardly any thought it was very likely). 68% thought it was unlikely there would be a return to those levels of violence.

Finally YouGov asked about the media coverage of Jade Goody’s terminal illness. Respondents were evenly split on their reaction – 43% said it was macabre and of no interest, 44% said it was right that she was breaking the taboo and trying to earn money to keep her children after her death. There was, not particularly surprising given the audience of celebrity magazines, a sharp gender difference. Men thought it was macabre by 57% to 31%. Women though it was right by 57% to 31%.


As well as the normal YouGov poll in the Sunday Times, there was also a YouGov poll of Scotland in their Scottish edition. These figures are all acquired on the grapevine, so don’t take them as gospel until the tables crop up on Monday!

Scottish Parliament constituency voting intention: CON 14%, LAB 34%, LDEM 12%, SNP 35%
Scottish Parliament regional voting intention: CON 15%, LAB 32%, LDEM 11%, SNP 30%

Westminster voting intention: CON 20%, LAB 37%, LDEM ? – tbc, SNP 27%

UPDATE: The full Westminster intentions are CON 20%, LAB 37%, LDEM 11%. SNP 27%. There was also the regular question on voting intention in an independence referendum, 33% would vote YES, 53% NO – a slight narrowing of the gap since the last YouGov/Sunday Times poll.

UPDATE2: The poll also asked about voting intentions in the European Elections. The figures were CON 18% LAB 36% LDEM 11% SNP 29%. This would equate to three MEPs for Labout (up 1), 2 for the SNP (no change), 1 for the Conservatives (down 1) and no Lib Dems (also down 1 – the sums don’t add up because Scotland has one less seat this time round).

YouGov’s monthly poll for the Sunday Times has topline figures, with changes from YouGov’s last poll, of CON 41% (nc), LAB 31% (nc), LDEM 17% (+2). Quite clearly there is nothing major here, with the two main parties static and the only change being a small increase for the Lib Dems.

The poll also showed increases in the approval ratings of both Brown and Cameron. Gordon Brown’s net rating remains heavily negative on minus 25, but this is significantly up on last month. David Cameron meanwhile enjoyed a net positive rating of plus 29, with 59% of voting saying he is doing a good job. The Sunday Times suggests this may be partially a result of public sympathy after the tragic loss of his son, Ivan, and I expect there’s some truth in that.

The Sunday Times normally do questions on quite a variety of subjects. From what’s online so far I can’t see anything else, but if anything else interesting pops up tomorrow I’ll do an update.

There’s a fun little question over on PoliticsHome I haven’t seen before. They’ve asked each party’s voters how enthusiastic they are about their choice.

Conservative voters are by far the most enthusiastic, 47% say they are very enthusiastic about their choice, with a further 32% quite enthusiastic. Labour’s remaining voters are less enthusiastic – only 34% are very enthusiastic, with 31% quite enthusiastic. So most of the Tory vote isn’t holding its nose and forcing itself to vote Tory, it seem pretty happy about it.

Perhaps surprisingly, Liberal Democrat voters are least enthusiastic – only 24% are very enthusiastic, and 11% are “actively depressed but can’t see a better option” (the comparative numbers for Conservative and Labour voters is just 5%). My guess is that this is a reflection of the Liberal Democrats often being the natural benificiary of the “a plague on both their houses vote”.