The Lib Dem conference starts this weekend, so I thought it a good time to catch up on how the parties generally stand in the polls, of where we have got to in the Parliament so far.

Compared to the ups and downs of the last Parliament, 2010 to 2013 has been pretty staid in terms of voting intention polls – leaving aside the brief blip after Cameron’s European “veto” there has now been a Labour lead for two and a half years. It started early in the Parliament, almost as soon as the Liberal Democrats had entered coalition and the government’s initial honeymoon had worn off then Lib Dem support started to collapse, with many Lib Dem supporters transferring directly to the Labour party, many telling pollsters they don’t know how they would vote. At that stage Conservative support remained pretty much solid, it wasn’t until the 2012 budget and the government’s “omnishambles” period that we saw the Conservative’s own support begin to fade, with voters moving towards Labour and UKIP. For the following year the government continued to struggle, often not having clear messages, being buffeted by bad news and scandal, and in the background UKIP continued to gather support. The Labour lead peaked after the omnishambles, between May 2012 and February 2013 they had an average share of support of 42%, and a lead of around ten points.

More recently things have begun to turn around. From an average of 42% for the best part of a year, Labour’s average polling figure has now dropped to around 38%; an average lead of ten points is now an average lead of around six points. Most of this fall came earlier in the year, around March to May. At the same time we’ve seen the up and down of UKIP – their support had started rising after the omnishambles last year, got even higher during November 2012 when the combination the Rotherham fostering story and some good by-elections got them solid coverage and they peaked after their strong performance in the 2013 locals. Since then they have gone off the boil a bit and fallen again in the polls, although they are still very solidly above the figures they had last year (UKIP support varies between pollsters, but its average peaked at around 16% and is now back to around 12%). The Tories meanwhile saw their average support fall at the beginning of this year as UKIP rose, but have now recovered to pretty much the sort of level they were at in late 2012.

Together this paints a slightly confusing picture. There’s a lot of churn going on and I suspect there are at least two one overlapping trends, a shift away from Labour and back towards the Tories and an up-and-down of UKIP taking and returning support to both the Tories and Labour. On this hypothesis Labour, for example, would had had a underlying slow decline over the year, but a temporary loss to UKIP earlier in the year that has gradually returned since then – together giving us the pattern of a sharp drop in Labour support between Feb & May and holding steady since, and the Tories almost back up to the 2012 support despite still having lost some support to UKIP.

As I always say when polls move, there is no easy way of proving what caused a poll movements, we can only really hypothesize. My own best guess is that there are a couple of likely reasons behind the recent movements. The first is the improvement in economic confidence. This is a polling blog, not an economics blog, I don’t claim any great expertise in economics and have no idea if the economy is actually getting better. However, it is very clear that the general public are being more positive (or less negative) – the economic confidence trackers from MORI, YouGov and NOP all show sharp increases in economic confidence, with people the most optimistic they’ve been since 2010. Back in April only 14% of people told YouGov they thought the economy was showing signs of growth, by August that had risen to 37%. This has equally been reflected in growing support for the government’s economic policies – from April 2012 until this Spring YouGov consistently had Labour and the Conservatives pretty level pegging on the economy, the Conservatives now have a modest lead. Whereas last year a majority of people thought the government’s cuts were bad for the economy, the gap is now much closer, with a couple of recent polls showing people evenly split over whether they are good or bad for the economy.

I suspect the second factor is a clearer and more focused Conservative message, giving the impression they are more competent (something that Lynton Crosby has been given credit for – I’ve no idea if he deserves it or not, these days anything the Tories do seems to be put down to Crosby regardless of whether he even knew about it). They’ve dropped some difficult non-core policies, controlled their communications better and opened up some dividing lines with Labour on issues like welfare. All of this has had knock-on effects, the morale of Tory MPs is up and the constant noises off from Conservative MPs have faded somewhat, the media narrative has moved from Cameron being in trouble to Labour being in crisis. I’m not actually sure the Labour stuff has any effect on voting intention (While Ed Miliband’s ratings have indeed got even worse over the Summer, they were already pretty bad anyway and I suspect they were “factored into the price” already) but it’s better for the government for the media to be laying into Labour than laying into them.

It seemed for a couple of days that Syria was likely to change this – not so much in terms of voting intention, but in terms of changing the narrative towards a negative one for the government and Cameron. It really doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. Instead we’re heading into a conference season where the Tories are likely to have a more comfortable conference than Labour. That said, the expected narratives don’t always work out that way – last year Ed Miliband was expected to have a rough conference, but produced a well received speech that put him back on the front foot. He may well do the same this time round. Expect the traditional up and down of the conference polls over the next three weeks – the normal pattern is that each party gets some sort of boost from the publicity around their conference, and we get a bump in Lib Dem polling, a bump in Labour polling, a bump in Tory polling and (unless anything drastic happens) it all settles down to usual again. At the same time, keep an eye on how the economy develops, or perhaps more importantly, how voters perceive the economy to be doing – beneath a lot of the fluff of daily politics that many voters never even hear about, let alone take note of, things like how people see the economy doing really will shift their opinions and attitudes towards the government.

With the average Labour lead across the different polling companies now around six points, Ipsos MORI’s monthly political monitor for the Standard had been showing some of their bigger leads – the last two polls both showed Labour’s lead still in double figures. This month’s poll brings that down, with topline figures of CON 34%(+4), LAB 37%(-3), LDEM 10%(nc), UKIP 11%(nc). While this brings MORI more into line with figures from some other companies, it’s worth noting that a lot of the narrowing is down to likelihood to vote.

Economic optimism continues to grow, with net optimism now up to plus 23, from plus 20 a month ago (and as low as minus 30 if you go back to March).

According to MORI’s analysis here Ed Miliband has hit his worst ever approval rating, with a net score of minus 36 (which they compare to William Hague and IDS’s worst scores, minus 37). David Cameron’s own approval rating was minus 20, Nick Clegg’s minus 40, Nigel Farage’s minus 7 (but with 35% don’t know).

MORI also asked about whether several positive or negative attributes applied to each leader, showing the usual patterns of strength and weakness – Cameron has a strong lead on being seen as a capable leader (53% to Miliband’s 28%), being good in a crisis (47% to 20%), having a lot of personality (40% to 19%) and a smaller lead on having sound judgement (40% to 32%). The two men were virtually tied on understanding the problems of Britain, and Cameron was seen more negatively than Miliband on being in touch with ordinary people and looking after some sections of society more than others.

Full tabs are already up on the MORI website here.


Monday round up

There has been rather an interesting selection of polls out today – voting intention, polling of trade unionists and a big Scottish referendum poll. First up, and most straightforwardly, we have Populus’s twice weekly voting intentions poll, which today has topline figures of CON 34%, LAB 37%, LDEM 13%, UKIP 9% (full tabs are here.

Secondly there is a YouGov poll of Trade Unionists carried out for Labour Uncut. It found widespread support amongst trade unionists for Ed Miliband’s proposed changes to the way trade unions affiliate their members to the Labour party. 60% of members of affiliated trade unions support the proposed changes, 30% are opposed (20% because they think they go too far, 10% because they’d rather break the union link completely). The poll also found 61% of members of affiliated unions would support either the reduction (39%) or abolition (22%) of the trade union vote at Labour party conference.

Thirdly there is a new poll from Lord Ashcroft covering Scottish independence and the Scottish Parliament (or more accurately, a new package of polls – it actually included three different polls).

The polling on the referendum itself found YES on 26%, NO on 65%. While this got a lot of publicity, it was conducted back in February to May, so is of rather historical interest, though it obviously shows a much bigger lead for NO than more recent polls. There is no obvious reason why – Lord Ashcroft gets different companies to conduct his fieldwork (I believe this one was ORB), but looking at the results, it appears to have been conducted both online and by phone, was weighted by 2011 Holyrood constituency vote, and not to have had any filtering by likelihood to vote. For the record it also asked referendum VI at the end of the survey, not the beginning (though I doubt it made much difference here – a question about leadership approval where Alex Salmond totally outclassed everyone else is probably didn’t shift opinion against independence!)

Much more up-to-date (conducted in August) were voting intention figures for the Scottish Parliament, which found constituency votes of CON 15%, LAB 35%, LDEM 5%, SNP 40%, UKIP 4% and regional list votes of CON 10%, LAB 24%, LDEM 13%, SNP 36%, UKIP 11%. The consituency vote shows a modest swing from the SNP to Labour since the 2011 election. The regional vote shows the Conservatives in fifth place and, bizarrely, the Liberal Democrats more than doubling their support. John Curtice speculates that perhaps people are answering as if the second vote as a second preference, which sounds plausible to me (it would also explain the odd results YouGov are getting for regional vote in Welsh polls).

More generally, the poll found that 27% of people in Scotland thought Westminster elections were more important than those for the Scottish Parliament, 18% thought the opposite, 53% thought they were equally important. Members of the Scottish Parliament were, on the whole, regarded more positively than Westminster MPs – with significant proportions of people thinking were are more likely to do a good job representing their constituents, less likely to be careerists and more in touch. A significant chunk of people were not, however, very clear what areas the Scottish Parliament had responsibility for, neither were a large proportion of people able to say what they thought the Scottish Parliaments main achievements were. A lot of this is, however, probably more about general low levels of political awareness than any lack of enthusiasm about devolution.

The results are interesting – but they’ve been rather overshadowed today by a row about another question. The No campaign and some of the papers got excited when the poll was first published because it appeared to show that 49% of people thought that the Scottish government’s current priority was independence, while only 3% of people thought this should be the priority, suggesting a mismatch between Salmond’s priorities of and those of the Scottish people.

In fact, while 49% of people do indeed think independence is the Scottish government’s priority, the question about what it should be only went to people who said they thought the priorities were wrong. In fact 36% of people thought the Scottish government had the *right* priorities for Scotland, 61% the wrong priorities.

I’m told that this was actually the fault of Ashcroft’s team, rather than the No campaign or the company that did Ashcroft’s polling (the mistake was on the embargoed press release that went in in advance, so naturally the press and the No campaign got all excited over the contrast before the tables went up in the morning and the mistake was realised). Ashcroft’s own blog now has a mea culpa at the bottom.

The weekly YouGov poll for the Sunday Times is now up here, voting intention this week is CON 34%, LAB 38%, LDEM 9%, UKIP 12%. The boost in Labour’s lead from Syria that we saw last weekend was very short lived indeed. The increase in Ed Miliband’s ratings YouGov showed a week ago has also reversed. Despite Miliband arguably being closer to public opinion on Syria, Cameron is now seen as having responded to Syria significantly better than Miliband. 41% think Cameron responded well, only 27% think the same about Miliband.

Public opposition to British military involvement in Syria seems to be hardening if anything. 74% now think Parliament was right to block military action, up from 68%. People would also oppose the United States taking military action without us (by 47% to 25%), though if they do go ahead people would be happy for Britain to give them non-military support, such as allowing them to use British bases or sharing intelligence (although even here support is falling).

There were also brief questions on a couple of other subjects:

  • 31% of people think Ed Miliband is too close to the Unions, down from 38% when YouGov asked in July.
  • A large majority (70%) are opposed to Royal Mail privatisation
  • There is quite an even split on the European Court of Human Rights – 41% of people think we should withdraw, 38% that we should remain members
  • There is now a majority (55%) opposed to the HS2 plans, up from 45% when YouGov last asked (when the question had the lower £42bn cost estimate)

As well as the YouGov poll there was also a new Opinium poll in the Observer which had topline figures of CON 30%(+1), LAB 35%(-1), LDEM 7%(-1), UKIP 17%(-1), so again no obvious impact from the Syria events.

The Friday version of Populus’s twice-weekly poll is out today, wth topline figures of CON 33%, LAB 37%, LDEM 14%, UKIP 8%. Full tabs are here.

Meanwhile the daily YouGov poll for the Sun had toplines of CON 31%, LAB 38%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 13%. Full tabs are here.