The Times this morning has some intriguing YouGov results on Ed Miliband. Taking the simplest bit first, Yougov asked if people thought Ed Miliband was a better or worse leader than Gordon Brown, and a better or worse leader than Tony Blair. Miliband was seen as better than Brown by 32% to 17%, and worse than Blair by 41% to 20%.
All straightforward so far. However, YouGov also repeated a bank of questions asking about Ed Miliband’s qualities that had previously been asked about Gordon Brown in May 2010, immediately after the general election. Miliband got higher don’t knows than Brown for obvious reasons, but looking at net figures Miliband had better ratings than Brown on being in touch and being honest, but worse (in some cases MUCH worse) on being a strong leader, on being decisive, on having a sense of purpose, on caring about ordinary people and on trying to do the right thing. So people think Ed Miliband is a better leader… but also give him worse ratings than they gave Brown?
It’s interesting to ponder the apparent contradiction – there are several possible explanations. One is that the Gordon Brown polling was done right at the very end of his premiership, and his personal ratings increased during 2010 so these figures are how Brown was seen at a comparatively positive point, not Brown when his ratings were at their worst. It’s possible that the “folk memory” of Gordon Brown that people are comparing Miliband to is Brown at his lowest point, or an image of Brown that is actually much worse than the reality at the time.
There is also a question of people’s changing perceptions towards an incumbent party leader – in many ways the “right” answer for a Labour supporter in May 2010 was to give Brown a positive rating, while the “right” answer now is for them to say Miliband is an even better leader. That’s not to say people are somehow not giving their genuine opinions – I am sure they are. It’s just, if you are a Labour supporter you are going to see the party’s leader in a positive light, overlook his weaknesses, notice his strengths. Labour supporters in May 2010 would have seen Gordon Brown in a positive light, now Ed Miliband is leader they’ll note his strengths and perhaps take a more neutral view of Brown. In just the same way Conservative supporters in 2002 told pollsters that Iain Duncan Smith was a good leader… and I’m sure if asked today would recognise that, when all is said and done, he was a bit of a duffer as leader.
While we are here, we should stop to look at the figures in their own right, whatever people thought about Gordon Brown, they are also a chance to see how people see Ed Miliband as a politician in his own right. Looking at them that way, Ed Miliband’s most positive rating by far is on honesty – 39% think he is honest, compared to only 24% dishonest. His ratings are also comparably good on “trying to do the right thing” (39% v 41% serving his own interests) and caring about ordinary people (36% v 42% caring about only a select few). He scores much more negatively on being dithering (57% v 19% who think he is decisive), weak (56% v 19% who see him as strong) and being unclear what he stands for (53% v 27% who think he has a clear sense of purpose).
I’ll end up with by my normal summary about the Ed Miliband question, since it’s always a subject that provokes a lot of discussion and some very entrenched views – I invariably see Labour supporters wedded to the idea that Miliband’s ratings will be irrelevant come the election, and Conservative supporters convinced that it would be impossible for Labour to win under Miliband.
Suffice to say, Miliband’s ratings are bad, and are bad compared to past opposition leaders. It seems likely that he is having a negative effect on Labour support. HOWEVER, Labour are ahead in the polls, and have a lead that would give them a comfortable overall majority at an election, so the idea that they cannot win with Ed Miliband is clearly false. Right now, people are telling pollsters that they will vote Labour regardless of Ed Miliband’s negative ratings. The question is whether or not those negative opinions of Miliband (assuming they don’t change) will play more of a role in influencing people’s voting intention as the general election gets closer and voting intention becomes more of a choice between alternate government as an anti-government statement. Current polling cannot answer that question – and the key to interpreting polls is often as much about recognising what they can’t tell you as what they can.