Having predicted difficult years ahead for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, almost by default I’m going to have to predict good things for Labour. In terms of voting intention polls and electoral victories they should have a good year, what matters is what they choose to do with the opportunity, to use a well worn metaphor from the past year, will they fix the roof while the sun shines?

Since the election Labour have risen from 30% to around about 40% in the polls, the majority of this increase being at the expense of the collapsing Liberal Democrat vote (there is a small amount of churn between Labour and the Conservatives, but no great shift. The overwhelming majority of people who voted Tory in 2010 would vote Tory again tomorrow).

This means that Labour are narrowly ahead in all the polls just seven months after losing the election, and it will probably get even better next year. The cuts will start to come into play with all the consequential stories of this or that bad thing being attributed to them, further sapping government support. Barring an upset in Oldham, 2011 should be a year of electoral victories for Labour. The polls in Wales suggest a very strong Labour performance there, with the party on the edge of an overall majority. Scottish polling is less regular, but they too suggest a good result for Labour. They should also make good progress in the local elections. All of this suggests Labour should enjoy some healthy leads in national voting intention polls and the way the vote was distributed in the UK at the last election, that should translate into an easy Labour majority if repeated at an election….

But, there probably won’t be an election next year. Labour’s strategy can’t afford to be based upon the assumption that the government will fall early, that the economy will still be up the spout come 2015, nor that the spending cuts will automatically bring public services to the point of total breakdown rather than being adapted to over time (of course, things could end up in utter disaster, but in that case Labour will probably win anyway regardless of what they do).

Being ahead in the polls gives a lot of advantages. The party appears on the up, people take you seriously, and it gives the leader a certain authority to act and take the party with him. Labour need to utilise this time to tackle their underlying problems so they are ready for the next election.

At present Ed Miliband’s authority in the party is uncertain because the majority of Labour’s MPs and members voted for a different leader, who was also perceived as the better leader by the public. Miliband’s current ratings in the polls are lacklustre – he already has a negative approval rating, his brother is still seen as a better option and only 27% of the public think he’s up to the job.

The worst case scenario for Labour is that Ed Miliband is their IDS – little bit awkward looking, vocal mannerism that makes it hard to take him seriously, has the right ideas about reforming the party, but fatally underminded by the fact his MPs never actually wanted him in the first place and never felt any loyalty to him.

I’m inclined to withhold judgement on Miliband so far – he hasn’t made an impression with the public, but that also means he hasn’t made a negative impression yet. Think of the rapid negative perceptions Hague built up immediately, or Michael Howard brought with him to the job. There’s still time for people to warm to Miliband – more importantly, after May 2011 he should have some victories under his belt and that will give him the aura of success. People will think more positively of him as a victor, and it should win him some loyalty amongst his MPs.

I wrote earlier in the year about the problems that resulted in Labour’s defeat in May. Gordon Brown himself had atrocious ratings, their economic record was shot and they were seen as old and tired and out of touch. Gordon Brown is a problem Labour don’t need to worry about of course, but solving the other problems is less easy and in some cases contradictory.

Building an economic reputation in opposition is nigh on impossible. We saw in my post on the Conservatives that 47% of people now think the government are handling the economy badly compared to 40% who think they are doing well. However, ask people if they trust Labour or the Conservatives on the economy and the Tories still come out top.

On this front Labour also need to worry about the narrative the coalition government build around them. In 1997 Labour successfully painted the narrative of Conservative years of boom and bust and chronic underfunding of public services. The Conservatives will want to paint their own narrative of the last Labour government, of reckless spending pushing the country to the verge of bankrupcy, and have had some success in doing so: 60% think Labour haven’t faced up to the damage they did to the economy, 47% that if Labour returned to government they’d put the country into even more debt. Labour can argue with that, try to put forward their case for the last goverment’s economic record…but that conflicts with trying to distance themselves from Gordon Brown and the last Labour government.

How Labour respond to the cuts may be the trickiest. There will be pressure upon Miliband to simply oppose all the cuts and reap the rewards of public unhappiness. This may be superfluous anyway, as the only main opposition party, Labour are going to benefit from public unhappiness at cuts whatever, but it would bring with it its own risks – it can be portrayed as Labour not having their own plan, running away from hard decisions and, worst of all, raises the question of what happens if the cuts work… if the economy comes back on track, and public services don’t collapse?

On one hand, Labour are in opposition and by the time of the next general election the deficit will probably have been addressed. It’s not the opposition’s job to govern, and there’s no point Miliband tying himself into an inevitably tricky policy on a problem that someone else has the unenviable task of solving. On the other hand, if they don’t put forward some sort of coherent stance they will firstly be mocked for it, but more importantly, the government will invent a stance for them. If Labour don’t define themselves, then come the next election the Conservatives will paint the choice as being “the party that took the hard but necessary decisions while Labour suggested nothing” or “the party that took the steps needed to bring the economy back to health, opposed at every step by Labour”. It would fall on fertile ground: if you look again at the YouGov trackers on party image, the Tories have an overwhelming lead (58% to 10%) on the perception that their “leaders are prepared to take tough and unpopular decisions.”

Then there is the fairness agenda, this is the Conservatives’ great weakness. As I wrote in the first of these pieces, polls show people increasingly think the cuts are unfair and many still see the Tories as a party that puts the rich and affluent first. That’s an open door that Labour can push at. However, in order to win Labour need to appeal to middle class and aspirational voters. YouGov polling in August found Labour was seen as being closest to trade unions, to benefit claimants and to immigrants, with comparatively few people seeing them as close to the middle classes or people in the South. In opposing the cuts Labour mustn’t allow themselves to become too closely associated with the benefit recipients losing out from cuts, or the trade unions striking against them (hence, of course, Ed Miliband’s focus on the “squeezed middle”)

Finally Labour have to make themselves seem renewed and relevant again. It will be easy for Labour to say what they are against, trickier to say what they are for.

The short term position for Labour is good, and will get even better next year. It may be that the economy sours and they have an easy ride back to power. If not though, they have an awful lot of hard work to do – Ed Miliband needs to ensure that the relative ease with which the party has re-established a lead in the poll doesn’t lead them to think that it’s in the bag. The good news for Labour is they have the luxury of being able to do all the work from the position of an opinion poll lead.

The collapse in Liberal Democrat support since the election is startling. At the general election they recorded 24% (having hit 30%+ in some campaign polls, though we will never know for sure how much of that was down to polling error). By the end of the year, most polls showed them losing at least half their election support and in the case of some YouGov polls up to two-thirds.

The reasons why Liberal Democrat support has collapsed are fairly obvious. A Populus poll of people who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 in Lib Dem seats asked people in their own words why they voted Lib Dem and how they think they will end up voting at the next general election. In Populus’s poll the main reasons people gave for voting Lib Dem were believing in their values or principles, because they rated their local Liberal Democrat MP, because they thought it time for a change or didn’t like the main two parties, or as a tactical vote against Labour or Conservative.

As one can imagine, at least three of those reasons are now somewhat problematic – People who voted for the Liberal Democrats seeing them as a centre-left party pursuing liberal or social democratic policies may be unhappy seeing them working with a right of centre government (42% don’t think they will end up voting Lib Dem), people who voted for them as an idealistic alternative to the main two parties may not be happy seeing them working hand-in-glove with one of them (49%-50% don’t think they’ll vote Lib Dem next time), people who voted for them as an anti-Conservative tactical vote will obviously be less than chuffed (68% don’t think they’ll vote for them next time). The most loyal voters are obviously those who voted on the basis of their high opinion of the Lib Dem MP – but even there only 64% think they’ll remain loyal.

Unsurprisingly the main divide seems to be whether voters approve or disapprove of the coalition – most (but not all) of those Lib Dems voters who think the coalition was the right thing to do think they’ll back the party again, most (but not all) of those who disagree with the decision think they’ll end up voting for someone else.

If you look at where the lost Liberal Democrat support has gone (and I’m looking now at standard polls asking how people would vote tomorrow), the biggest chunks have gone straight over to Labour, or are saying they don’t know what they’d do at the next election. In YouGov’s final poll of the year only 24% of people who said they’d voted Lib Dem in 2010 said they’d support the party tomorrow, with 25% saying they’d vote Labour and 25% saying don’t know (the remainder split between voting Tory, Green, other parties or not voting at all).

The large chunk of former Lib Dems saying they don’t know what they’d do in an election tomorrow is, incidentally, a major reason behind the wide variance in the level of Lib Dem support different pollsters are showing. YouGov have tended to show the lowest levels of support with around 8 or 9 percent in their latest polls. ICM have tended to show the highest levels of support for the Lib Dems, with their last poll of the year showing them on 13 percent. Part of the reason for this is don’t knows – even ICM only actually find 11% of people saying they’ll vote Lib Dem – the 13% comes about because, based on past performance, ICM assume half of those former Lib Dems now saying don’t know will end up voting for the party in the long run.

Whether that turns out to be the case or not, it’s worth remembering that a fair chunk of those lost Liberal Democrats haven’t gone to Labour, or to minor parties or anywhere – they just don’t know what to do. Those people may yet defect to other parties or sit on their hands, or they may be won back for the Lib Dems in the fullness of time.

So what can the Lib Dems do to try and win those voters back? There are no easy answers. Some voters are probably out of reach for the time being – the Lib Dems used to win both anti-Labour and anti-Conservative votes, they are unlikely to be able to play both sides in the future. The second problem is that the Liberal Democrats could previously be a purist party that said all the right things, unburdened by the unpleasant compromises of government. A colleague characterised it to me as the Lib Dems fighting the last general election as if they were a virtuous maiden standing against two grizzled old whores, yet having got into government people have suddenly realised they were just like the other two. In a similar vein, the Lib Dems have often been able to trade on the popularity of their leaders – in 2001, 2005 and especially 2010 the Lib Dem party leader had the highest approval rating, Clegg now has the lowest approval rating.

The view of the Liberal Democrats seems to be that they need to highlight where they have made changes to government policy and to champion the more Liberal policies being introduced. This is probably right in principle, as polls increasingly show people are no longer sure what the Liberal Democrats stand for. As early as August 61% of people were saying it was “not very clear” or “not clear at all” what the Liberal Democrats stood for and YouGov’s regular trackers of party image have shown the proportion of people who think the description “It seems to chop and change all the time: you can never be quite sure what it stands for” applies best to the Liberal Democrats has gradually grown from 24% just after the coalition was formed to 36% now.

That doesn’t mean it is easy to do though, going back to the Populus poll of Lib Dem voters in Lib Dem seats, Populus asked whether people thought the Lib Dems had made a positive impact in various areas of government policy. In no case did more than a third of respondents think that the Lib Dems had made a positive difference to government policy – the highest was on welfare reform, where 32% said that the Lib Dems had made a positive difference, 26% thought they had made a positive difference on the spending cuts, in most other areas less than 20% thought the Lib Dems had made a positive impact. Remember this was a poll of Liberal Democrat voters in seats with Lib Dem MPs – these are the people most likely to think positively of the Liberal Democrats and be receptive to their messages, if even a chunky majority of them think the Lib Dems are not making a difference, then the party are clearly struggling to get the message across.

Looking at the threats and opportunities for the Lib Dems next year we have the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election. Labour are now the very strong favourite, but until we see some polling (and a company called Survation is apparently currently conducting one) I’m wary about writing the Liberal Democrats off. Recall the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election, fought at a time when the Liberal Democrats were polling almost as badly as they are today (they had just jettisonned Ming Campbell and stood at 11% in the polls), they still managed to win the by-election from Labour on a hefty swing. It would be a big boost to the party if they pulled it off. (as someone has pointed out in the comments, I’ve mixed up my Lib Dem interregnums – Dunfermline was after Charles Kennedy’s ousting, not Ming’s, and the Lib Dems weren’t in such a bad way.)

Secondly there are some policy areas that are due to be dealt with that they may be able to point to as Lib Dem achievements – such as House of Lords reform, control orders, or taxes on bankers (some of these things risk being the cause of arguments within the coalition too!)

Thirdly there are the local elections and the AV referendum in May. The local elections are likely to see the same sort of hefty losses for the Lib Dems that I predicted for the Conservatives yesterday. That brings us to the AV referendum – if it is won, then the Liberal Democrats will have something utterly solid they can tell their activists and supporters the coalition has delivered, if it is lost, then it will be a further blow to Lib Dem morale.

Is there a point when the Liberal Democrat position in the polls gets so bad they withdraw from the coalition (or the party splits?) – I don’t know, I don’t pretend to have any great insight into the views of Liberal Democrat MPs or activists. My guess is that the chances are greatly overestimated by people who would like it to collapse (the truth is I think we all overestimate the chances of exciting and interesting things happening!). Being outside the coalition wouldn’t necessarily help the Liberal Democrats much in the polls (it would give them the independence to promote their own policies, but the damage to their image has already been done) and the last thing the Liberal Democrats would want to risk in their present situation is an early election. I expect, like the Conservatives, Nick Clegg’s strategy is dependent upon seeing the job through until the economy has recovered and then pointing to what the Lib Dems have achieved and contributed to that.

When writing these round ups I try to present the good and the bad news. By necessity, this has ended up as a very pessimistic piece for the Liberal Democrats, though what can you do for a party that has lost half its support within a year? The harsh truth is that it’s not easy to see a light at the end of the tunnel for the party. So for a more optimistic point of view, I’ll leave you with a quote from Mark Pack (personally I think a by-election victory would be more likely to change things than scrapping control orders, but there goes – Mark’s pieces on the 2011 challenges for the Lib Dems are also highly recommended):

“Imagine if at the end of next month control orders had been scrapped and there was Lib Dem MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth. The political landscape would look very different.”


Over the next few days I’m going to be rounding up the position the three main parties find themselves in the polls at the end of 2010, and looking forward at what faces them in the year ahead, starting with the Conservatives.

The Conservatives received little in the way of a post-election honeymoon (there was nothing like the huge leads Labour recorded over the summer of 1997), but equally their support has been surprisingly robust. There was an expectation that the cuts and tax rises in the government’s first budget would damage their poll ratings, but if anything it increased their standing. That was followed by the expectation that the announcement of detailed cuts in October would lead to Conservative support crashing, but instead it has proved remarkably robust. The vast majority of polls (basically everyone but Angus Reid) continue to show the Conservatives at or above the level of support they recorded at the general election.

This is unlikely to last forever. There is a gradual decline in approval of the government, and public opinion is slowly moving away from the cuts strategy. Around November a plurality of people began to think the government was handling the economy badly (the latest figures are 40% well, 47% badly), in December for the first time more people thought the cuts were bad for the economy (43%) than good for it (40%). The strategy of placing the blame for the cuts on Labour is also wearing thin – 65% of people continue to blame the last Labour government for the cuts (not much changed from straight after the election), but 47% now blame the current government, up from 36% just after the election (the figures overlap because 24% blame both of them).

Despite attempts to present their cuts as progressive and balanced, the government are increasingly losing the argument on whether cuts are fair or not – only 32% think they are fair, 54% unfair (though it’s worth remembering that some people will regard cutting the deficit as more important than protecting the least well off – so thinking the cuts are unfair is not the same as opposing them).

At some point this trend is likely to be reflected in support in the polls – my own expectation is that Conservative support will drop after the local elections in May. They are defending seats won on anti-government protest votes in 2007, I’d expect them to suffer some hefty losses and their first big defeat to crystalise the growing disillusionment with the cuts.

It’s more debateable how much this matters. Of course, it would be easier for David Cameron if he still led in the polls, but it was probably never to be. The Conservatives seem to have bet the farm on the strategy of imposing the cuts, suffering the unpopularity, and waiting for the economy to improve in time for them to face the electorate (though one might very well conclude that it was the only strategy really open to them). To some extent, therefore, how well the Conservatives do in the voting intention polls in the short term while the economy is still struggling and the cuts are still being implemented is irrelevant – they are expecting to be unpopular. What will be critical is whether their position in the polls recovers once the cuts have bedded in, public services have adapted, and people’s economic optimism and opinion of the current state of the economy start to rise… and we’re probably a year or more away from that. We should expect the next year to be one of bad polling news for the Conservatives, but it will be the polls in 2014 and 2015 that tell us how likely they are to be re-elected.

In the meantime, there are probably two or three short term concerns:

First, while the Conservative leadership’s strategy accepts it will be behind in the polls, it doesn’t mean the rank and file will be quite so sanguine. If the party starts suffering badly in the polls it may also result in growing unhappiness on the Conservative backbenches, and an image of disunity is normally extremely damaging for a party (though for those anxious to see bad news for the government, remember that governments can happily accept constant criticism from the usual suspects – the opposition of John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and so on was basically ignored by Tony Blair. People like Peter Bone, Philip Hollobone and Philip Davies are the Conservative equivalent – so don’t take noises from that direction as sign of impending disaster).

Secondly, there is to what extent presiding over the cuts undoes the Conservative attempts over the last five years to rid themselves of the image that they are only concerned about the rich. While Cameron made great progress in detoxifying the Conservative party, he did not manage to rid it of the perception that they cared more for the rich than the poor, and most commentators (correctly in my view) see this as a reason the Conservatives fell short at the last election.

Some people have floated the idea that the Conservative alliance with the Liberal Democrats would complete the process of “detoxification”, people would think that the Conservatives couldn’t be so bad after all if the cuddly, bearded old-Lib Dems were happy to work with them (though if anything it seems to be working the other way round – the coalition is “toxifying” the Lib Dems). More recently there are concerns it will work the other way round as the media narrative over the relationship between the coalition partners has often been couched in terms of the Lib Dems being the nice cop and the Conservatives the nasty one – perhaps being together in a coalition could make the Conservatives look even nastier by constrast. Certainly the growing perceptions that the cuts are being done unfairly is unlikely to help.

Either way, so far perceptions haven’t changed much one way or the other – in May 2010 just after the coalition was formed 46% thought the description “It seems to appeal to one section of society rather than to the whole country” applied most to the Conservatives, when YouGov asked the question again in December 2010 the figure was unchanged on 46%.

Thirdly, there is the position of the Liberal Democrats. If David Cameron is depending upon the eventual economic recovery he needs his government to endure for long enough to see it happen. The biggest threat to that is the coalition collapsing in some way. Hence in many ways, he needs to be more worried about how his coalition partners are doing in his polls than his own party’s rating… but I’ll address the Liberal Democrats in more detail in the next post.

Over on political betting Mike Smithson has a post on whether fuel prices drive voting intentions, accompanied by a graph showing that a peak in petrol prices in Summer 2008 co-incided with a low point in Labour’s polling, while a slump in petrol prices co-incided with a comparatively good polling position for Labour in January 2009. In the past I’ve had comments here from other people seemingly convinced that petrol prices are the sole driver of voting intentions.

Below is the same graph of average petrol prices, but overlaid with a line showing the Labour government’s lead in the polls (or in most cases, their deficit in the polls) throughtout the time period of 2007 to 2010, rather than just those two points. You can see the peak and trough in summer 2008 and Jan 2009, but you can also see the lack of a relationship the rest of the time – petrol prices dropped sharply in autumn 2006 with no corresponding increase in government support, rose throughout 2008 with no obvious drop in government support, from spring 2009 to spring 2010 there was a steady increase in petrol prices and government support.

There will be some indirect relationship between fuel prices and government support, simply because petrol prices are strongly related to the price of oil and the oil price is plugged into the wider global economy. The collapse in petrol prices between Summer 2008 and January 2009 came as a result of the economic crisis and a sharp retraction in demand for oil. The increase in support for the government probably came from their response to the crisis and a positive public reaction to the handling of the bank bailout – so the correlation between falling petrol prices and rising government support in 2008 probably wasn’t co-incidence, but it’s likely that the two events shared a common cause (the credit crunch) rather than any direct causal link. Outside that time period, there is no obvious correlation.

The final YouGov/Sun daily poll of 2010 is out, and has topline figures of CON 39%, LAB 41%, LDEM 9%, very much in line with YouGov’s recent polls.

The daily polling is pausing now until the start of January. In 2007 and 2009 YouGov did do polls over the Xmas holidays, but to be honest I am dubious about how good a sample you can get when people are on their Christmas holidays (for the record the 2009 poll looked normal enough, the 2007 one was rather out of line with other YouGov polls at the time) – this year we took the decision not to do any fieldwork for our daily polls over the holiday season.

Have a good Xmas all – I’ll try to do some posts in the next week summing up the 2010 polls and the position we’re in as we head to 2011.