Tonight’s YouGov/Sunday Times voting intention figures are CON 39%, LAB 43%, LDEM 9%.

The poll was entirely conducted after Alan Johnson’s resignation and replacement by Ed Balls (though of course, that doesn’t mean respondents would automatically have been aware of it), and almost entirely before news of Andy Coulson’s resignation broke. It should go without saying that the four point Labour lead is in line with YouGov’s recent polling that has been showing a Labour lead of around about five points.

I’m not aware of any other polls out tonight, so I’ll update tomorrow morning with the other details of YouGov’s poll.

Johnson and Coulson

Two big resignations this week – Alan Johnson and Andy Coulson. What will be the impact? The immediate one will be virtually nil. People watching the Westminister bubble tend to consistently over-estimate the impact of comparatively minor gaffes and scandals, the public’s awareness of the stories or even the existance of the people involved. The important impacts are the long term ones.

Taking Coulson first, it is unlikely to change people’s perception of the government, Cameron or the coalition. It fact, it really won’t have an impact on public opinion at all – most people making a fuss will be those with a negative opinion to start with. However, it does rob David Cameron of a close and valued advisor (and indeed, the figure in his inner circle with the least privileged, most “normal” background) – if there is an long term impact from Coulson’s resignation, this will be it.

Secondly there is Alan Johnson – here there are more obvious impacts on public opinion. The circumstances around Johnson’s resignation itself are not – it seems Johnson himself is blameless, and even if he weren’t, it would again be tomorrow’s chip paper with four years to go. Rather the question is what Labour have lost in the departure of Alan Johnson, and what the prospects are for Ed Balls.

Johnson had made some gaffes in recent days but these wouldn’t necessarily have been noticed by ordinary people. Johnson was seen comparatively positively by the public – in December 34% saw him as an asset for the Labour party and only 20% a liability, giving him a better rating than any other senior Labour figure. Despite being seen by political commentators as perhaps not up to the role, the public didn’t have him far behind George Osborne as best Chancellor (25% Osborne, 21% Johnson) – though that may be just as much about poor perceptions of Osborne. In short, Alan Johnson is a loss for Labour.

That brings us to Ed Balls. Here things are more balanced. The positives are quite clear – Ed Balls is a combatitive and capable politician with a solid economic background, who will no doubt do a very good job in attacking George Osborne and the government’s economic policy. The downsides are trickier – polls suggest Balls is not seen very positively. 28% of people see him as an asset for Labour, but 32% see him as a liability, significantly more than the man he replaces (though not the man he is going to shadow, who the same figures suggest is seen by the public as a comparatively weak link on the Tory front bench)

More significantly though will be the impact upon how Labour are seen and upon their future strategy. Balls is seen as extremely close to Gordon Brown, and as being opposed to the need for cuts (or at least, this is how the media currently see him and how the Conservatives will attempt to paint him)

On New Year’s Eve I wrote a round up piece on the challenges facing Labour – essentially looking at the underlying weaknesses that Miliband needed to take the opportunity of a poll lead to address. I won’t repeat too much of it here, but will just pick out a couple of poll findings I cited back then, taken from a poll in September 2010, which reflect the sort of image problems facing Labour. Back then 69% agreed that “Labour need to make major changes to their policies and beliefs to be fit for government again”, 60% agreed “Labour still haven’t faced up to the damage they did to the British economy”, 47% thought that “If Labour returned to government they would put the country into even more debt”.

We asked it again earlier this month to see if Ed Miliband had made any difference to negative perceptions of the Labour party yet. The answer is not much – 65% still think Labour need to make major changes to their policies (including 45% of Labour voters!), 58% still think Labour haven’t faced up to the damage they did to the economy, 47% still think they would put the country back into debt were they to return to government.

Labour have a good lead in the polls and my expectation is that it will get bigger in the coming months, Ed Miliband has the strategic choice of whether to gamble on the coalition remaining unpopular and just hammering away at the cuts and reaping the rewards of opposing them, or using the luxury of a poll lead to reposition Labour to a more opportune position should the economy improve and the cuts not be a disaster. Conservatives pleased with the appointment of Balls seem to be working on the assumption that the appointment of Ed Balls signifies Miliband is going down the first route, though we shall see.


Tonight’s YouGov/Sun voting intention figures are CON 36%, LAB 43%, LDEM 10%, Others 11%. It’s the second time we’ve seen Labour get a seven point lead, though it well within the margin of error of the five point Labour lead that seems to have become the underlying position in YouGov’s daily poll.

Also worth looking at are some questions about the NHS from yesterday’s YouGov poll. On the back of David Cameron’s statement about not wanting the NHS to be second best, we asked about the public’s perception of how the NHS compared to other the health services of other European countries – 29% thought the NHS was better than most other European countries, 23% that it was worse and 32% about the same.

Asked about whether they supported or opposed the government’s plans to restructure the NHS, people were pretty evenly split – 34% supported the policy, 37% opposed it. Unsurprisingly given that I doubt many of us who don’t work in the NHS have the faintest clue exactly how NHS trusts, GP consortiums or commissioning of health services in general work, 30% said they didn’t know.

More generally, asked how much they trusted the coalition government to deliver high quality NHS services only 36% said a lot or a little. 57% said not a lot or not at all.

A couple of weeks ago Angus Reid ran a poll that had a question asking about how people would vote in an electoral pact. At the time I said you needed to run a slightly more complex question to get a steer on it. Since then we’ve run a slightly more complex version to a YouGov sample.

At the simplest level, we asked a straight question on how people would vote if there was a pact between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, with the Conservatives standing down in seats where the Liberal Democrats were best placed to win, and the Liberal Democrats stand down in seats where the Conservatives are best placed to win. In this scenario, 40% of people would vote for a Coalition candidate and 46% would vote for Labour. If we compare this to our normal voting intention on the same day, which showed the Conservatives on 37%, Labour on 42% and the Liberal Democrats on 9%, a pact certainly doesn’t look like a good bet – the support for joint candidates is 6 points lower than the parties separately, and the Labour lead over the Coalition is bigger than over the Conservatives alone. This is pretty much the same finding as Angus Reid got.

However, if we look more closely at the figures it all gets a bit more complicated. As you might expect, people who would vote Labour in a normal election have little or no doubt that they’d still vote Labour if the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats entered a formal pact. However, the drop in Conservative and Liberal Democrat support isn’t down to defections to Labour or minor parties, overwhelmingly it is just that many Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters say they don’t know what they’d do – and well they might, since we don’t know what sort of platform this electoral pact would campaign on and who would fight which seats.

A Conservative in a safe Tory seat might very well be unsure what they’d do if suddenly faced with a ballot paper with just Labour and a Coalition Liberal on it. Equally a Liberal Democrat in a Lib Dem seat might be uncertain how they’d react if faced with a ballot paper showing just Labour and a Coalition Conservative. We can make some reasonable assumptions about which party will stand where though – the strongest Tory areas would have Tory candidates and the strongest Liberal Democrat areas would have Liberal Democrat candidates.

The core question then becomes how many Liberal Democrat supporters actually will transfer their support to the Tory candidate, and how many Conservative supporters actually will transfer their support to a Liberal Democrat.

To answer that, we asked the survey a second time and, based on people’s constituencies and the result in 2010, we gave them either a scenario of the Lib Dems standing down in favour of the Conservatives, or the Conservatives standing down in favour of the Liberal Democrats.

Even asked like this, the findings need to be laced with heavy caveats. Hypothetical questions are dubious at the best of times, but in this case we don’t know what platform a Conservative-LD pact would be fought upon and whether they would have a joint manifesto. We also don’t know what the repercussions would be of creating such a pact – it would probably change perceptions of the parties and politics in Britain and there is a fair chance it would lead to defections and party splits, further disrupting the political landscape. There’s probably also a good chance that none of this is ever going to come anywhere near happening so it’s an academic point. Still, with all that in mind though, here’s what we found.

In seats where the Conservatives beat the Liberal Democrats in 2010 – that is, the seats that are likely to be contested by the Conservatives in an electoral pact situation – 93% of Tory voters would still be happy to back the Coalition Conservative (the other 7% are presumably those Tories strongly opposed to such a deal, most of whom say they still don’t know how they’d react). However, of the current Liberal Democrat voters in these seats, 44% would give their vote to the Coalition Conservative, 15% would instead vote Labour with the rest not sure, not voting or giving their backing to minor parties.

Given how few Liberal Democrat supporters remain in these seats anyway these figures would pretty much even out, giving the Conservatives no obvious electoral benefit from the pact.

Now we turn to the seats that are likely to be contested by the Liberal Democrats in an electoral pact situation – those where the Lib Dems out polled the Conservatives in 2010. There are naturally far fewer of these – only 158 – so the sample size is much, much smaller, but the crude indications are that the Liberal Democrats would retain most of their current support, but would also gain 57% of the current Conservative support in those seats, with the rest going to minor parties, not voting or not sure.

Given the depths that Liberal Democrat support has fallen to, this would make a major difference to their level of support, transforming the chances of them holding a significant number of seats.

At best this can only ever be a straw in the wind given the political earthquake that any electoral pact risks producing, but my tentative conclusions are that the Liberal Democrats have much more to gain from an electoral pact than the Conservatives.

A slightly shorter version of this piece is on the YouGov website here. Full tabs are here and here (they went, I should emphasise, to discrete samples))

Lord Ashcroft has published a recontact survey of people who were contacted in the original Populus poll of Oldham East and Saddleworth voters. Full tabs are here and Ashcroft’s own commentary here. The poll confirms the churn underlying the by-election result – of 2010 Lib Dem voters, only 55% of those who voted in the by-election stuck with the party, with 29% instead defecting to Labour. The main reasons given by these defectors were, unsurprisingly, unhappiness with the Liberal Democrats’ decisions to go into coalition, or unhappiness with the specific policies of the coalition.

This drop in Lib Dem support was cancelled however out by Conservative tactical voting: of 2010 Conservative voters, 33% who voted in the by-election ended up backing the Liberal Democrats. Just under half of those who switched to voting for Elwyn Watkins explicitly said this was a tactical vote.

As was speculated before the election, the publication of the ICM and Populus polls showing the Lib Dems in a clear second place probably did encourage further tactical voting – 20% of those people who told Populus the week before the election that they would vote Conservative went on to vote for Elwyn Watkins.

In Lord Ashcroft’s commentary he addresses the claims that the Conservatives could have been the main challengers in the seat had they campaigned earlier and more enegetically. Personally my opinion was always that the seat was utterly unwinnable for the Conservatives anyway – the Conservative party does not win by-elections from third place behind the Liberal Democrats anyway, the idea of them doing it when they are (a) in government, (b) behind in the national polls and (c) the seat starts out as an ultra-marginal between the other two is fanciful.

Nevertheless, Lord Ashcroft suggests this poll backs up the argument that the Conservatives could not have positioned themselves as the best party to beat Labour if they’d just fought a bit harder. First because those contacted by the Conservatives were not significantly more likely to vote Conservative. Secondly because almost half of voters have decided before the campaign began who they would vote for – not, in my view, a particularly good bit of evidence – firstly because that means half the electorate decided during the campaign, secondly because just because in the event those people’s intentions did not change, it doesn’t rule out the possibility that they could have if the campaign had been different.

Thirdly, and most convincingly, because Populus asked those people who voted tactically how they got the impression that the Liberal Democrats rather than the Tories were best placed to beat Labour. Only 9% said this was through the Liberal Democrat campaign – 65% said it was because of the result of the last election, and they had either remembered themselves or seen in the media how close it was between Labour and the Lib Dems in May 2010. A deficit of only 103 votes is almost unsurmountable evidence that you are the party best placed to challenge the frontrunner.