End of year round up

So that was 2005. What should we be looking for the political polls for 2006?

At the moment the Conservatives are ahead in the opinion polls – amongst some of the pollsters it is their first lead since the fuel strikes. It’s probably four years until a general election, so polls are of no use in predicting the next election at this point, what they show in the next 12 months though will be vital for all the political parties.

The Conservatives are enjoying their poll lead at the moment – one important question for them will be to what degree it lasts. The boost in their rating that has resulted from David Cameron’s election isn’t actually much greater than the increase we saw after Michael Howard became leader (with the notable exception of the MORI poll that showed a 9% Tory lead – a figure it would be wise to ignore unless another poll backs it up), based just on the voting intention polls it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if the Tories drop back behind Labour once the initial Cameron euphoria drops away.

Where the Conservatives have more grounds for optimism are some of the other questions asked in the recent polls about David Cameron – a recent ICM poll that found that David Cameron was seen as a potential PM, a person who could change the way people thought about the Conservatives and a person who over a third of Labour voters and almost half Lib Dem voters said they could vote for; another ICM poll that found that 40% of people thought that Cameron was the natural heir of Tony Blair – these sort of findings were definitely not seen after Michael Howard became leader.

The important figures for the Conservatives next year will be firstly the voting intention figures – the Conservatives need a substantial lead to have any chance whatsover of forming a government and if David Cameron wants to keep the support of his party he needs to show he has the potential to deliver.

More importantly though will be seeing if David Cameron manages to change the Tory party’s image. His initial announcements as leader – ditching policies on immigration, highlighting social justice and involving people like Bob Geldof and Zac Goldsmith suggest this is the course he is committed to. If he is successful we will be see the proportion of people associating the Conservative party with things like understanding people’s problems and being caring increasing, and people’s perceptions of the Conservative party on the left-right scale moving closer the the centre of gravity.

Labour shouldn’t be worrying too much about voting intention figures, it is early in the Parliament after all. That said, if the Conservatives open up a very large lead in the polls it will further undermine Tony Blair’s leadership – whether that hastens his demise though depends upon the man expected to succeed him.

The most interesting question for Labour in the polls will be about Gordon Brown. If we go back a year or two Gordon Brown’s polling figures were unambiguously sunny. Huge majorities of people were satisified with the job he was doing as Chancellor and polls asking how people would vote if Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair invariably showed him delivering a huge boost to the Labour vote. Just recently things have changed – polls have started showing Gordon Brown’s satisfaction ratings falling and, since the emergence of David Cameron as Tory leader, polls have consistently suggested that Labour would do worse under Brown than under Blair.

If this trend continues and isn’t just the effect of the Cameron honeymoon, then it’s possible that Labour MPs might begin to wonder how advisable it is to replace Blair with an even less popular alternative. At the moment there is no clearly identified alternative to Brown as the next Labour leader, but if one does emerge and the polls do not improve for Gordon Brown, he may yet face a true challenge for the top job.

Finally what do the polls have in store for the Liberal Democrats? The big question, that of their leadership, will probably not be much informed by polling – after all, Charlie Kennedy, while few people’s choice for Prime Minister, is generally far more positively rated than any other political leader.

Voting intention figures are more interesting – the Lib Dems secured 23% of the vote at the general election. Since then they’ve fallen to between 18% and 21% (there may be a methodological difference between the pollsters here – YouGov have shown a gradual consistent fall in their vote and have them pretty steady around 18%. ICM on the other hand have shown them consistently around 21%). Since last year’s final polls David Cameron has been targetting the Lib Dems, appealling for defections – it will be interesting to see if next year the Lib Dem vote is squeezed by a resurgent Conservative party (or, if Tony Blair does step down, by anti-war Labour protest voters returning to the fold) or whether they manage to hold onto and consolidate their support.

The Lib Dems also face the question of their position on the political spectrum – are they a party of the left, or will they turn to a more economically liberal position. They have already dropped their policy to increase the overall tax burden, and a new leader would almost certainly have their own views about the way they want the party to develop. At the moment the Lib Dems are percieved as the most left wing of the three main political parties. Would a new leader want to change that?

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