Why the Tories are losing ground

Peter KellnerPresident
May 16, 2011, 4:45 AM GMT+0

Two weeks ago I suggested that Labour should be doing better than hold a mere five-point lead over the Conservatives. No sooner had I written this than the lead started to grow. In YouGov’s latest survey for the Sunday Times, it stands at 10 points, with Labour at a record post-election high of 45% and the Conservatives recording their equal post-election low of 35%. For the first time since the last millennium, Labour’s support exceeds that of the Tories and Lib Dems combined.

Of course, individual polls are subject to sampling fluctuations and should be treated with caution. But by conducting five polls a week, we can examine underlying trends. And these show a steady increase in Labour’s lead from 2-3% in early January to 8-10% now. Something is going on; but what? Here are three hypotheses.

1. Voters are warming to Labour and Ed Miliband.

There is little evidence for this. Miliband had a rotten approval rating of minus 21 in our first poll of 2011 (28% thought he was doing well, 49% thought he was doing badly.) But he bounced back to minus 10 the following week and his rating has stayed at around that level ever since. Labour’s lead has widened since the second week of January without any further rise in Miliband’s rating.

Likewise, when the parties are compared head-to-head on a range of issues, from unemployment and health to immigration and law-and-order, there has been little change since the new year. Labour’s overall support has been edging up, without any comparable increase in voters’ faith in its ability to tackle Britain’s problems.

2. Voters are more pessimistic about their finances and punishing the Tories

Not so, according to our most direct measure of consumer confidence. As I reported last week, our weekly feelgood-factor question – do you expect your household to become better or worse off over the next 12 months? – crashed around Christmas, with voters fearing the impact of the new-year rise in VAT and petrol duty. But since late January, the figures have gradually improved – it might be better to say, become less horrid – and this improvement continued last week.

However, something slightly different may be happening. The salience of the economy is growing – that is, even more people than before say the economy is one of the most important issues affecting them (71% according to our latest survey, up from 65-66% in January) and more people are giving the Government the thumbs down for the way they are handling it. Until mid-November, the Government had a positive rating for its economic performance. That is, more people thought it was managing the economy well than badly. But since Christmas, its rating has steadily deteriorated, and now stands at minus 19, with 36% now saying ‘well’ and 55% saying ‘badly’. This suggests a third hypothesis…

3. Voters are becoming generally disenchanted with the Government

The evidence for this explanation is mounting:

  • The Government’s approval rating now stands at minus 25 (approve 30%, disapprove 55%). It has slid steadily over the past two months, from minus 8 in early December and minus 19 in early January.
  • Although he remains more popular than his Government, David Cameron’s personal rating has also fallen, from plus 5 in early December to 0 in early January and minus 8 now.
  • The Conservatives’ image has deteriorated in two important respects. We ask people regularly which party best fits a series of descriptions. One is: ‘It seems to have succeeded in moving on and left its past behind it’. Since Ed Miliband became labour leader, Labour’s figure has remained in the range 16-19%, while the Conservatives have slipped from around 30% to 22-23% in the past fortnight.

  • Second, we ask which party best fits this description: ‘It seems to appeal to one section of society rather than to the whole country’. Many more people always name the Tories than any other party, but the figure has risen in recent weeks, from a steady 46-47% between October and early January to 52% now.

These movements are not massive. They may be reversed. But the signs are that a number of things in recent weeks have come together to dent the Government’s reputation: the rise in VAT and petrol duty; the bad GDP figures in late January; the rows over bankers’ bonuses, prisoners’ votes and the sale of Britain’s publicly-owned forests; and stories of impending cuts to local services.

New governments are often able to shrug off occasional setbacks. But there comes a point when they accumulate and cause real damage. As Claudius famously says in Hamlet: ‘When sorrows come, they come not as single spies but in battalions’. From David Cameron’s point of view, the early weeks of 2011 have seen the bad battalions arrive in force.