Should Labour be doing better?

Anthony WellsHead of European Political and Social Research
February 08, 2012, 2:36 PM GMT+0

Our polls show Labour and Tories neck-and-neck. But should Labour be doing better, asks Anthony Wells

A question that has often popped up in recent political commentary is whether Labour 'should be doing better'. This actually covers two different questions.

One is 'Should X be doing order to win the election?', the second is 'Should X be doing better...given the current circumstances?'. The answers to the two questions are not necessarily the same - for example, a party with very favourable circumstances could be ahead in the polls and in an election winning position... but really could be doing even better than that (and vice-versa: in a really unfavourable political environment not being hammered too badly could the best position a party could realistically hope for!)

Let's deal with the first question first - are Labour doing well enough to win the next election?

When people ask this question they obviously don't mean 'if there was an election tomorrow would their level of support give them a majority'. That's a simple swing calculation, and while the neck-and-neck results our daily polls were showing in January wouldn't have been enough for Labour, they've often had the necessary small leads to win an overall majority on current boundaries. No, the question means are they far enough ahead assuming they drop back to some degree as the election approaches?

You often see rules of thumb about how oppositions need to have a certain-sized lead midterm in order to win the next election. These shouldn't be taken as set in stone as they imply a certain inevitability of polling movements in the run up to the election that simply doesn't exist. That said, there is a an obvious pattern in historical movements of polls: when oppositions open up large leads in the mid term they normally fall back by the time of the next election. Oppositions that have gone on to win the next election have normally enjoyed mid-term leads of 20 points or more, oppositions with lower leads mid-terms have generally ended up losing.

What this does not mean, however, is that an opposition that doesn't have a big lead currently might not get one in the future. While successful oppositions have had large leads, it doesn't follow they've had large leads all the time. For example, the Conservative opposition in 1974-1979 did enjoy 20+ point leads, but only briefly after the IMF bailout and the winter of discontent. For most of the 1974-79 Parliament, the Conservatives had far more modest leads. In the 1959-1964 Parliament, the ultimately victorious Labour opposition was still behind in the polls in 1960 and early 1961; very large Labour leads didn't emerge until 1963.

So being neck-and-neck now doesn't mean Labour can't do better later in the Parliament. That said, the fact they haven't got a big lead now, isn't particularly positive. Under normal circumstances they would have to up their game significantly to be in a position comparable to those historical oppositions who have gone on to win. However, these are not normal circumstances.

The normal pattern of public opinion during a Parliament is that governments get unpopular things done early and do popular things closer to the election. We expect to see people who are disappointed by the Government drift away and register a protest by telling pollsters they would vote for the opposition (and doing so in mid-term local, European and by-elections). When the election itself comes close some of those people compare the alternative governments, decide the incumbent isn't so bad compared to the alternative and government support recovers.

However, the narrowing of the polls so far in this Parliament seems to have very little to do with the usual mechanism. Conservative support has held up and Labour's increase is almost all due to former Lib Dem supporters who are opposed to the Coalition switching en masse to Labour. This could be more of a political realignment than mid-term blues, and while it is possible that these supporters will drift back towards the Lib Dems as the election approaches, it equally possible that they will stick with Labour.

Under normal circumstances Labour's paltry lead at the moment wouldn't be enough to suggest they'll go on to win the next election and the wise money would be on a Conservative victory next time round. Under present circumstances though... who knows?

The second version of the question is whether Labour are doing well or badly given the circumstances.

I hate this question too, given it is impossible to measure and answers to it inevitably end up being entirely determined by the person answering's views of Labour and their current policies or leader.

For what it's worth though, the 'doing badly' argument is that the Coalition has announced drastic and unpopular cuts, are carrying out reforms to public services that polls suggest are unpopular and the economy is in a parlous state, with no immediate sign of improvement. Under these circumstances people would argue that the opposition should be doing very well, and that being neck-and-neck in the polls is a poor show or indicates some other problem with how voters see the opposition.

In contrast, the 'doing well' argument is that Labour have just suffered one of their worst ever defeats. People have not forgiven them and it will take time for people to really give them a hearing. Under those circumstances, to be regularly polling 6-10 points above your general election score and neck-and-neck with the other main party isn't that bad. Certainly it's more than the Conservatives in 1997 could dream of.

Those would be the calculations under normal circumstances, but again, these are not normal circumstances. Labour's increase of 6-10 points is almost wholly from the windfall gain of between a third and a half of those who voted Liberal Democrat at the last election. This happened pretty much without any input from Labour itself and they have gained minimal support beyond this.

Under normal circumstances it would be arguable that Labour were doing quite well given the situation, but probably not enough to win an election. Under the present circumstances one could well argue that Labour are not doing well at all, but if the realignment of Lib Dem support is stickier than normal mid term gains it's possible it could be enough.

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