So to the last of my three start of the year posts (sorry for those you wanted an SNP one, I really don’t want to parade my ignorance of Scottish politics!). What do the polls say about the Lib Dems? Well, the brutal answer is not a lot. To an extent that’s because no one bothers asking, most of the newspapers either actively support or lean towards Labour or the Conservatives and it is they who commission the polls. Hence the Telegraph commonly carries out detailled polls about how the Conservatives are doing and how they are seen, the Guardian will commission polls about Labour as will third party Labour party affiliates like the Fabian Society (and besides, as the governing party everyone in the media is interested in how Labour are seen). There really isn’t anyone out there interested enough in how the Liberal Democrats are seen to cough up the money for a poll.

The only time questions are really asked about them is in Populus’s annual poll for the party conference season, which asks some questions on every party – this year 69% thought the Lib Dems were just a protest vote party, and 68% thought they “seem decent people, but their policies probably don’t really add up”. The polls occassioned by the Lib Dem leadership election underlined why polls don’t have much to say for them – invariably showing that most people didn’t have any opinion whatsoever over whether it should be Huhne or Clegg, and often had no idea who they were.

For the last year the Lib Dems have languished in the polls – though exactly how bad things were differed between pollsters. The level of Liberal Democrat support in the polls is the most variable between the pollsters, while Populus tend to be the most favourable to Labour and ComRes to the Tories the differences aren’t actually that great – everyone had the Tories up around 40% or so, everyone had Labour down to the low 30s. With the Liberal Democrats it’s different, looking at the average of the monthly polls this year from February till November – months when I have comparable figures from 4 pollsters – YouGov had the Lib Dems at 15.2%, Populus at 17%, ComRes at 17.6% and ICM at 19.4% (Ipsos MORI didn’t have their regular monitor for two of these months, but for the record the average in the remaining months was 16.1%). I posted a while back about what I thought some of the reasons might be. In recent months though even ICM have showed them falling to the mid-teens, so while it might be open to debate how bad things got, it’s pretty indisputable that things were bad.

What happened? There is an absence of polling evidence here, so I am afraid what follows is largely my own personal opinion and is far shorter than the other two posts. Having looked at Labour and the Conservatives though, I didn’t want to start the year without also looking at the Lib Dems.

The casuality of the Lib Dems’ poor performance was Sir Menzies Cambpell. To some extent he wasn’t really the problem, at least, he wasn’t a negative for the Liberal Democrats, only the an absence of a positive where they needed one to alleviate a problem that was not their own doing. Polls didn’t show anyone disliking him, and if they did show that people thought he was too old for the job, it probably wasn’t dragging the party down: a Lib Dem leader doesn’t have to be a potential Prime Minister, people know he isn’t going to be one. Ming’s problem was that he didn’t have any impact at all, and he was filling a role that needed to be carried out by someone who did.

In the last post I wrote that the Conservative advance in 2007 was largely down to Labour’s failings, rather than anything they did for themselves. That goes double for the Liberal Democrats. Lib Dems anxiously worrying about ratings and blaming their leader for not doing better should accept that they are not necessarily masters of their own fate – a certain proportion of Lib Dem votes are always going to be negative votes against the two main parties, if the reasons for the protest against the main parties receeds, so will that vote.

A large proportion of people who voted Lib Dem at the last election were people who identify themselves as Labour supporters but who voted Lib Dem either for tactical reasons or in protest over Iraq or something else that Tony Blair has done. While the former may remain, Iraq and Tony Blair as recruiting serjeants for Lib Dem protest votes have faded. Equally, whereas in 2001 and 2005 many people would have wanted to vote against Labour but would have found the Conservatives too toxic to contemplate, as David Cameron improves the Tory image the Liberal Democrats now have to share an anti-Labour vote they would once have been the obvious home for.

One strategy for the Liberal Democrats could be to try to hold back the tide, reblacken the Tory name or fight to keep Brown linked to Iraq and the Blair government. More realistically though they need to adapt to the changed circumstances. Their positioning at the last election was perfectly in tune with the political environment of the time – an unpopular government with an opposition that was distrusted – the Lib Dem slogan was “the Real Alternative”, a narrative that was values and mission free, it didn’t involve standing for anything, just not being the other two parties. It worked well for them and meant they could win on both fronts. With a detoxified Tory party it won’t chime in the same way, not least because in a more competitive election the very real alternative to a Brown government will be a Cameron one.

To prevent themselves being squeezed the Liberal Democrats need to present a new narrative that tells people what their purpose is, they need to differentiate themselves far more clearly as standing for something distinct from the other two parties. Rather than claiming to be the “real alternative”, they need to paint a coherent picture of what a “liberal alternative” is, so they can build more of a positive vote for them, making up for the inevitable loss of some of the negative vote they got last time round. Nick Clegg’s initial comments after being elected leader about Britain being a Liberal country that doesn’t yet vote Liberal perhaps points towards this sort of strategy – a view that while there are people who would vote for liberal politics, the Liberal Democrats haven’t necessarily managed to clearly identify themselves with it in people’s minds.

Nick Clegg appears to be a far more media-savvy and charismatic leader than Ming Campbell. Just by being leader he isn’t going to suddenly make the political environment any friendlier for the Liberal Democrat party, there are tough market conditions out there for them, but he does at least have the potential to be better at keeping them in the public eye and that alone would improve things somewhat. Putting forward a coherent and distinct narrative that gives people a really positive reason to vote Liberal Democrat, rather than them just being the nice people who aren’t one of the other two, will be harder – the other parties will copy popular policies and say ‘me too’ to popular values – but that’s what the Lib Dems need to do to avoid being sidelined in the first really competitive election since 1992.

Looking at the Conservatives in 2007 I think there are two interesting questions, and one observation. To take the questions first, how much of the Tory progress is down to them, and how much have they just benefited from Labour’s misfortune? Secondly, are they doing well enough to be on the road to power next time round?

While most Conservatives are probably pretty happy with the headline figures in the polls at the moment, I think it’s hard to argue they’ve made particular progress in themselves. Headline voting intention figures are a zero sum game, the don’t knows and won’t votes are taken out, and those people who do vote have to vote for somebody, even if it is only the least worst option. Looking at other questions like economic competence, or best Prime Minister, or best party on issues we see the Conservatives pulling level or overtaking Labour, but only by small amounts. In most questions there are huge swathes of respondents who say don’t know. This isn’t necessary a problem for the Conservatives, a vote for them as the least worst option counts just the same as a vote from a committed Conservative come election day, but it does suggest we are seeing them progress because Labour are faltering, rather than because of a great swell of support for the Tories.

The one instance where the Conservatives really did seem to push forward themselves was when they were up against the wall at conference season, then, and for the month that followed, they seemed to control the political agenda and did briefly seem to address what polls asking about perceptions of the Tories and reasons why people are still uncertain about them suggest is their problem: people don’t know what they stand for, people don’t know what they would actually do, and people don’t know who the hell most of them are.

The Tory revival in early October was dramatic – if you look at the graph of voting intention polls on this site you can see the blue line shoot straight up in early October as the party leapt from the low thirties to around 40% and did so almost overnight. Exactly what caused the revival is more interesting, because there are a couple of possibilities. The straightforward one, and one that lots of Conservative commentators immediately jumped upon because they wanted it to be true, is that it was the offer of tax cuts that made people support the Tories. For right-wing Conservatives this explanation was manna from heaven, all that nasty touchy-feely, tie-discarding, windmill-installing wooliness wasn’t necessary after all, all it needed was good old tax cuts. Unfortunately for them this probably didn’t explain the recovery (as has since probably become clear to all), since despite the offer fading from memory and Labour shooting the Tory fox in their budget, the Tory 40% persisted.

A second explanation was that the Tory recovery was due to them correctly addressing what actually was the factor that was holding them back. They gave a consistent message at the party conference, Cameron put across a vision that people understood, the party offered concrete policies like cuts in inheritance tax funded by charges on non-domiciles and George Osborne at least performed capably enough to give the impression that there was a team beyond Cameron himself. They stood for something. That was my own explanation, but unfortunately it too can’t really explain the position fully, since the message had faded, the policies have been superseded, and yet the Tories are still at around 40%.

A third explanation is that the Conservatives did nothing at all, it was all down to Labour’s own mistakes and the Conservatives are the undeserving recipients of Labour’s lost support. This doesn’t really work either, the press did seem to turn against Labour half way through the Tory conference after Brown’s announcement of troop withdrawal on his surprise visit to Basra, but that wasn’t enough to explain the turnaround in the polls. The real Labour disasters: “chicken Saturday”, the funding scandal and the data loss all happened after the reverse in the polls.

What I think actually happened was a mixture. The initial recovery was from the Conservative conference, the offer of clear policies, a good speech by Cameron and some positive coverage, it was a conference bounce that would have subsided. However, it was enough to panic Gordon Brown into not calling an election, a calamity to his public image that gave the Conservatives a real 40% in the polls. In the same way the Conservatives underestimated the boost Labour would get from Brown becoming PM, Labour apparently underestimated the boost Cameron would have got from the Tory conference and it panicked them into not having an election – in my view, if they had gone for it they would have won it.

Still, they didn’t, so are the Conservatives on the road to winning the next one? I am not a fan at all of deterministic sort of views of politics. There is no lead beyond that necessary on polling day that a party in opposition must achieve in order to survive an inevitable drift in support back to an incumbent party. It is not written in stone that governments recover as they head towards the end of a Parliament (if there is, the causality probably works in the other direction…governments call an election because the figures look good, the figures don’t look good because an election is due). In the last two Parliaments Labour did not recover from their poll ratings mid term, rather the trend for Labour since 1997 has been gradually downwards, rather than mid term falls and election time peaks.

Labour may recover before the next election (though as I wrote in the previous post, my personal view is that they will not recover significantly while Brown is Prime Minister), the Conservatives may extend the gap, it may stay much the same. Polls cannot predict the future. All we can look at is whether the sort of lead the Tories have at the moment would be enough. On a perfectly uniform swing, the Conservatives need to be somewhere around 11 points ahead to get an overall majority. In practice many of the polls we saw late last year would also have given the Tories an overall majority, because they also imply lots of seats gained from the Liberal Democrats. In actual fact, I suspect the Tories would get an overall majority on a lower lead than that anyway.

The so-called bias in the electoral system is partly to do with structural things like the time-lag in boundary changes and over-representation in Wales and declining inner-city areas, but it is also largely to do with more variable things like tactical voting. It is hard to imagine that, were support for Labour really to drop to 30% and the Conservatives rise to around 40%, that tactical voting would continue to be largely against the Tories rather than Labour. Equally while uniform swing is a very good predictor of relatively small swings in the marginal seats, it breaks down towards the edges – there is not going to be a swing of 7% to the Tories in Liverpool and Glasgow however well they are doing. There probably isn’t in deepest darkest Surrey where everyone votes Tory anyway either.

The swing Labour achieved in 1997 was by far the largest since 1945, almost twice as large as the second biggest in 1979. Labour’s tally of seats in that election was significantly above that predicted by a uniform swing projection, under extreme circumstances the formula broke down. If the Conservative are to win the next election they too would need a very large swing by historical standards, and I would expect such a dramatic shift in opinion would hide within it shifts in the distribution of votes, of the direction of tactical voting and so on.

Are they on the road to a victory? Well, I already said that I don’t think Brown can recover, so by default – as ever, barring events – the Tories probably are. But it might be as a minority government in a hung Parliament or with a tiny shoestring majority. From there you can imagine all sorts of long term results, it could be a pyrrhic victory with a fractious Tory government collapsing under the pressure of a tiny majority… or it could be a brisk canter towards a second election consolidating a decent majority against a demoralised and disorganised Labour opposition. To get a workable majority there probably needs to be more of a positive appetite for a Conservative government.

The question that I ponder with regard to the Tory party today is whether John Smith would have won in 1997 had he lived, in other words, if Labour hadn’t completed the change of image that took place under Blair in opposition could they still have won? While Cameron has made progress in changing perceptions of the Conservative party, he hasn’t really overhauled it like Blair did. He is probably where John Smith had got to before his death.

I think Labour would have won in 1997 with Smith. They’d probably have won with a baboon wearing a red rosette, given the huge public desire for a change in 1997. Labour’s position now isn’t that bad – we aren’t a level where the Conservatives will win regardless of how awful they are – but do I think it has reached the point where the Conservatives will record some sort of victory by default as long as they don’t blow their chance through infighting, scandal or manifest incompetence. At the last three election they were, to varying degrees, so manifestly toxic that many people simply couldn’t bring themselves to vote Tory however bad Labour were. I think Cameron probably has sufficiently cleansed them to allow them to ride in on the mood for change, even if they haven’t done much to deserve it.

In short, my prediction is that Labour have done enough to lose the election and for the Conservatives to be the largest party. The Conservatives still have a way to go to be confident of a workable majority though, and they still have time to fluff things up if they aren’t careful.

I said at the start there were two questions and an observation. How much of the Tory progress is down to Labour’s misfortune? Most of it. Are they on the road to victory? Of some sort, yes. The observation? We should remember quite how close to disaster they came at the end of September. Prior to the Tory conference people I know within the party expected an election, and expected to lose badly. David Cameron would have been finished, the renewal agenda with him and the Conservative party would have been staring into a very deep, dark abyss indeed. The Conservatives may be in a nice position now, but they came perilously close to destruction. Memento mori.


A YouGov poll for ITV news has Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson practically neck and neck in voting intentions for the London mayoral contest – the full topline figures are Livingstone 45%, Johnson 44%, Paddick 7%, Other 4%. As with the poll for the London Policy Institute back in November, the level of support for other candidates seems absudly low compared to what happened at the last election when 18% voted for other parties, I’m sure that 4% will rise as the campaign progresses.

Obviously in such a race second preferences would come into play, but sadly there is no sign of them having been asked here – we can only conclude that the race looks very tight.

Happy new year! This is the first of three round up posts to begin the year, starting, appropriately enough, with how the Labour party performed in the 2007 polls.

Looking back at 2007 the first half of the year was Tony Blair’s long goodbye. Labour started the year behind the Tories and fell back further, beset by cash for honours. In March 2007 they sunk into the 20s in a couple of polls, over ten points behind the Tories. There seemed to be a public appetite for change, a tide that can easily sweep a government from office. Labour’s hope was that Brown would be that change, he would draw a line under Blair and be a new beginning, a government of solid, reliable competence compared to his predecessor’s spin.

When Gordon Brown took over he got a bigger boost than most expected, the media lavished adoration upon him and the pressure was suddenly on David Cameron (though we’ll look at the Tories in another post). For a short while it seemed as though what Labour had hoped, that the change in leadership would be the change that the public wanted, would indeed happen. The temporary boost became the foundation for election fever – I think what made the speculation really serious was the Northern Rock crisis. Far from damaging Labour’s reputation for economic competence or denting their lead, it suggested that it could stand up to events. What would have happened if Brown had gone to the country will be one of those great political counterfactuals in the future, I expect we’ll have some fun with it at some point. Of course it didn’t, and since then everything has been bad for Labour.

The media seemed to turn against Brown during the Conservative conference, from treating him almost as the second coming during the summer, they have since been unremittingly hostile. The decision not to have an election was seen as a humiliation, Northern Rock has refused to have a neat and tidy ending, a new party funding row erupted, the government lost large amounts of confidential data. In the polls Labour have fallen to the low thirties – roughly comparable to the sort of level they were before the handover to Brown, figures for PM approval, government approval, best party on the economy, forced choice and so on are all as they were at the tail end of Blair.

We’ve started to see commentators ask whether Brown is dead in the water. There are even occasional bits of press speculation about challenges to his leadership, I don’t personally find them convincing, but is Brown’s position hopeless? We’ll come back to the actual electoral maths when we look at the Tories, the question here is can Brown turn things around, or is he doomed to trail behind the Tories in levels of support?

First lets look at what actually happened to Labour’s support in 2007. There are three possibilities: either Labour has actually improved from their position under Blair and at least some of the “Brown bounce” was genuine, but that underlying recovery is currently being masked by temporary damage from events; or, Labour did genuinely recover with a new leader, but the problems they’ve faced have highlighted Brown’s weaknesses as leader and undermined their competence, permanently damaging them; or, they never actually recovered in the slightest, Brown failed to be the change and the current standings are a return to underlying pre-Brown position now the publicity boost has gone.

Looking carefully at the polls from the time it was a Brown boost, not a Labour one. Questions that referred to Gordon Brown by name saw very positive ratings, but questions asking about Labour or ‘the government’ without mentioning Brown were less positive. While Brown had positive approval ratings, the government’s approval ratings remained strongly negative. Perhaps if things had panned out differently, Brown would have been able to transfer some of his own popularity onto the government, but it never happened. That’s not to say that it was entirely a temporary boost and the problems that have beset Labour over the last couple of months had nothing to do with it, I suspect that had Labour not suffered things like the embarrassment of the uncalled election, the funding and data loss crisis Brown would have been able to transform some of his temporary popularity into more substantial improvements in his party’s reputation.

In the event he didn’t have the chance, or didn’t use the chance when he had it. When Brown had the opportunity, he used it instead to make life difficult for the Conservatives, shoot their foxes, box them into positions, and embarrass them with defections or “semi-defections”… but not to renew Labour or set out a vision that would have differentiated his Labour government from what had gone before. When the honeymoon came to an abrupt end with “chicken Saturday”, that too was a self-inflicted wound, though the nails were banged into the opportunity’s coffin by things like the funding scandal and the data loss which probably can’t be laid directly at Gordon Brown’s door. In my opinion what happened to Labour is that Brown squandered his chance to change a temporary boost into a permanent one and Labour are now back where they were in April 2007. The difference is that then they had the hope of renewal under Brown, now there is now no ace left up their sleeve to play.

So is Brown dead in the water? I don’t normally make predictions on the blog that can’t be based on polls alone, though I guess I didn’t do that badly with Brown. Back in December 2006 I predicted that despite the big Conservative leads all the hypothetical “Brown as leader” polls showed, in practice Brown would get a big boost as leader, giving Labour a healthy lead in the polls, but that in the longer term the hypothetical polls would be a pretty accurate picture, with the Conservatives having large leads. The reasoning I gave then was that the only explanation for the negative polls was that Brown was disliked, because they certainly weren’t because people thought Brown would be incompetent or ineffective. If they had Brown would have been able to prove people wrong, but he’s never going to be able to change his personality. I wrote then that people tend to ascribe positive qualities to likeable people, irrespective of how competent they actually are, and vice-versa with dislikeable people. Malcolm Gladwell calls this the Warren Harding error, after the inept US President who looked and sounded Presidential and therefore won despite being a klutz.

I think Brown’s character, specifically the lack of charisma or warmth will prevent him being able to bring it back. When problems hit Brown will never be able get away with a winning smile and a “I’m a pretty straight sort of guy” or “well, John is John”, he can’t charm he was out of problems, can’t convince people that, whatever has gone wrong, he is fundamentally a decent chap doing his best. Neither has he yet shown any ability to project a vision or purpose for his government that the public can relate to, perhaps in other circumstances that wouldn’t matter, competence would be enough, but to differentiate himself from Blair he needs to. He also doesn’t seem to have the knack of keeping the press onside – from having Fleet Street at his feet he seems to have alienated them rapidly, without a turnaround in press attitude it will be difficult for Brown to turnaround the government’s position.

So putting my cards on the table, I think Brown is finished. I don’t mean that expect Labour to attempt to get rid of him, but that I doubt Labour under him have the ability to regain a lead in the polls. It wouldn’t surprise me if they recovered slightly as they get away from the negative news stories of the last few months, but I think the underlying position is now a Conservative lead. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Labour will lose the next election, they have an advantage in the electoral arithmetic, there is always the potential for “events” to change the whole world around and while I think governments lose elections, rather than oppositions winning them, it is still possible for an opposition to lose one. I’ll come to that in the next post.