None of the above

Peter KellnerPresident
April 02, 2012, 8:48 AM GMT+0

Granny tax, pasties, Bradford and petrol: Peter Kellner analyses the recent dramatic events in politics and draws conclusions from our latest data

Both of the main party leaders may be tempted to follow Millicent Martin’s Saturday night injunction on the BBC almost half a century ago: 'That was the week that was; it’s over, let it go'. However, just as David Frost and his colleagues went on to ignore their programme’s opening line and dissect what happened, so shall I. The past week – more accurately, the past fortnight – has provided some of the sharpest political drama of the current Parliament. We have witnessed high-decibel spats over the ‘granny tax’, party funding, VAT on hot pasties and petrol shortages – and the first mid-term by-election loss by the main opposition party for more than a decade.

YouGov held back its latest Sunday Times poll until after the Bradford West by-election, so we could capture the impact of all these events. Here are four conclusions that I draw from our data.

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1. The initial impact of the Bradford West by-election on Labour is limited.

In three successive polls before the by-election, Labour enjoyed ten-point leads over the Conservative. It had 43-44%, compared with the Tories’ 33-34%. Our Sunday Times poll reports a nine-point lead: Labour 42%, Conservative 33%.

The slight fall in Labour support could be just a sampling fluctuation; it certainly indicates no sudden collapse following the party’s heavy defeat in Bradford West. 42% is Labour’s average for all the polls we have conducted in March.

2. The Conservatives have good reason to be worried.

In January, the Tories were regularly scoring 40-41%. By early March they had settled back to around 37% - the same as their vote share in the 2010 general election. Since the Budget they have averaged 34%, and not scored above 35%.

Plainly the Budget has proved unpopular. The ‘granny tax’ has reduced their lead among the over 60s. And voters have liked it less as the days have passed; by 45-13% they now think it’s bad for Britain’s economy, compared with 34-24% a week ago.

That’s not the worst news. As I have often argued, what matters in the end is not usually voters’ verdict on specific measures, but their overall judgements about parties and their leaders. Until the Budget, David Cameron’s ratings had held fairly steady for some weeks, with almost as many people saying he was doing well as Prime Minister as say he was doing badly. In the mid-term of a Parliament and with the economy stumbling, this is a pretty good record.

Since then, however, his rating has slipped alarmingly:

March 15-16 (pre-Budget): well: 44%, badly 49%, net score minus 5

March 22-23 (post-Budget): well 42%, badly 53%, net score minus 11

March 30-31: well 34%, badly 61%, net score minus 27

His latest figures are by far his worst, eclipsing his previous lowest, minus 18 last December, after the Autumn Statement.

3. However, some weeks, possibly months, need to pass before we can be sure whether the public condemnation of the Government will last.

What goes down can come back up. Two weeks after that early December minus 18, Cameron’s rating had recovered to minus 6. He will be hoping something similar happens this time, especially if no disruptions occur to petrol supplies.

History gives him some reason for hope. Support for Tony Blair’s government fell sharply in 2000 during the last major petrol crisis – only to recover quickly once the crisis was over. In the end it did no lasting damage to Labour’s reputation for competence, and the party went on to win a second landslide election victory nine months later.

Now, as then (and as so often) competence holds the key. As I argued here last week, parties, especially the Tories, can weather the criticism that they are heartless. What would hole them below the waterline is if voters come to the settled conclusion that they are also hopeless.

Plainly the past fortnight has done them no favours. The rows over the ‘granny’ and ‘pasty’ taxes have been damaging precisely because they convey the impression that the Government has lost its grip. What we can’t yet tell is whether this is a temporary blip or a lasting reputational problem – a lover’s tiff, or an irretrievable breakdown of relations with the electorate.

4. What does look like an enduring problem is the electorate’s suspicion of politicians as a whole.

Perhaps the single most telling figure in our latest survey is the 17% who say they would vote for some party other than the main three. This is the highest ‘none of the above’ vote since the time of the 2009 European elections, when successes for UKIP, the BNP and the Greens in that proportional-voting contest transferred briefly into well-above-average general election voting intentions.

This time, we have seen slight uplifts in support for George Galloway’s Respect party and, more noticeably, UKIP. One in nine people who voted Conservative in the 2010 General Election now say they would vote UKIP. This, far more than Labour, is the destination of disgruntled Tory voters.

But the real problem goes deeper than that. Recent years have seen all kinds of politicians from outside the Con-Lab-Lib Dem mainstream scoring well. Galloway is the latest of a line that includes Alex Salmond of the SNP in last year’s Scottish elections and independents (including a self-styled monkey) in mayoral contests, as well as the Greens, BNP and UKIP in proportional-voting elections to the European Parliament and Greater London Assembly.

YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times adds to the body of survey evidence showing that voters dislike politicians as a breed. Fully 68% of us think British politics is ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ corrupt; only 28% of us disagree. Perhaps the one crumb of comfort for Cameron, following the latest twist in the cash-for-access saga, is that he and Ed Miliband are distrusted in equal measure on whether they are honest and open about their relationships with those who fund their parties. In this particular sense, if no other, voters do agree with Cameron’s assertion that ‘we are all in this together’.

That said, something more specific went terribly wrong for Labour in Bradford – something that enabled the anti-politics mood to grow from a rumbling protest into full-scale political riot. In every other by-election in the current parliament in English Labour seats, the party’s vote share has risen by around ten percentage points. In Bradford it fell by twenty. It was reminiscent of past by-elections when seemingly impregnable Labour fortresses crumble - such as Bermondsey in 1983, Greenwich in 1987, Brent East in 2003 and Glasgow seats more than once.

Each time the party has paid the price of tolerating run-down local parties, or cynical back-room deals, or lousy candidates, or some mixture of these. Bradford West seems to have suffered from all three. One of Ed Miliband’s tasks is to fashion a party that exorcises all three failings. That is his most urgent need, and opportunity, if he is to play his part in fighting back again the ‘none of the above’ syndrome.

See the survey details and results of the latest Sunday Times poll here

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