The brief post-budget bounce aside, Labour now have a pretty consistent lead in voting intention. However, the answers other questions are often rather bad for Labour.
On best Prime Minister Cameron has a 13 point lead over Miliband, on dealing with the deficit the coalition lead Labour by 14 points, Cameron & Osborne have a 9 point lead over Miliband & Balls on general trust on the economy. Ed Miliband’s own approval ratings are mediocre and 47% think he isn’t up to the job of Labour leader.
To put this in context, if we look back at 2006-2007 when the opposition Conservatives had a comparable single-digit lead over the Labour government, David Cameron was pretty much neck and neck with Tony Blair as best PM, the Conservatives and Labour were pretty much neck and neck on who would run the economy well and Cameron had a positive approval rating.
What explains this paradox? Why have Labour got a solid lead in the polls, but comparatively bad ratings in supplementary questions? Or indeed vice-versa? There are two alternative explanations for this – one more comforting for Labour than the other.
Part of the answer is down to the new landscape of coalition politics. People’s responses to poll questions are often very partisan, supporters of the governing party tend to say nice things about the governing party, supporters of opposition parties tend to say negative things. Now we have a coalition government, we tend to get both Conservative and Liberal Democrat supporters saying nice things about the government, whereas prior to 2010 only one party’s supporters did. This translates into higher support for the government in secondary questions, but not in main voting intention questions where government supporters are split between Conservative voters and Lib Dem votes.
This shouldn’t worry Labour of course – in fact it’s a reminder of a positive for them. While it is probably wrong to view voting behaviour too much through an ideological prism (models of electoral behaviour these days tend to be more dominated by voters perceptions of compentence, rather than ideology), throughout the 1980s the left-of-centre vote tended to be split between two parties. With the Liberal Democrats reduced to a rump of supporters who are less antagonistic towards the Tories, the right-of-centre vote is looking more split. Certainly the group of voters who think the present government are competent is split between two parties.
However, this does not explain everything, and here we come to the explanation that is less comforting for Labour. A lot of people who say they would vote Labour do not give particularly positive answers to other questions about Labour. Only 63% of Labour’s own voters think Ed Miliband would make the best Prime Minister, only 54% think he is up to the job of Labour leader. Only 69% of Labour voters trust Labour more than the coalition more than Labour to deal with the deficit, 77% trust Miliband & Balls to run the economy more than Cameron & Osborne. 45% of their own voters think Labour need to make major changes to be fit for government. In short, a substantial minority of people who say they’ll vote Labour don’t seem to be very pro-Labour when you inquire further.
My guess is that the reason is that Labour are really the only major opposition party to the coalition and hence many people will be telling pollsters they’d vote Labour as the only mainstream way of voting against the coalition. If that is the case, you wouldn’t necessarily expect all those people to have positive views of Labour – they are benefitting from a negative anti-government vote, not necessarily a pro-Labour one.
But does this matter? Not necessarily – a negative anti-government vote counts just the same as a positive vote when it goes in a ballot box and the evidence from 2010 suggests that a large proportion of Conservative voters were driven more by anti-Labour feeling than support for the Tories. It does become a problem if it is an indication of soft support for Labour, if the government become less unpopular once they have a better economy behind them, if minor parties establish themselves as alternative recipients of anti-government votes or if during an election campaign it becomes more of a choice between two alternatives, rather than a judgement on the incumbent.
I’ve always stuck hard with the truism that oppositions don’t win elections, government’s lose them. The caveat I always add to that is that while oppositions probably can’t win elections, they are quite capable of losing them – it’s arguably what happened in both 1992 and 2005, when the incumbent governments had done plenty to make themselves unpopular, but the public did not see the opposition as ready for government. Right now there are probably four years to an election, so as long as Labour recognise the issue and address it, it doesn’t need to be a problem at all – the best position for them to build up more positive support again is from a position of strength. What they need to fear (expressed rather well by their former General Secretary Peter Watt today) is complancency.