Big parties, big problems

Peter KellnerPresident
September 03, 2012, 8:30 AM UTC

Mounting disappointment in Tories hasn't seen increased Labour enthusiasm, says Peter Kellner

As MPs return from the summer break, the battle between Labour and the Conservatives is finely poised: finely enough to jangle the nerves of partisans on both sides – and excite outsiders who thrill to contests that go down to the wire.

I say this despite the fact that the race currently looks becalmed, with Labour holding a steady ten-point lead. YouGov has conducted 85 voting intention polls since the end of April. Every one of them has put Labour on 43% plus or minus two and the Conservatives on 33%, also plus or minus two. Statistically, this is as close to flatlining as you’ll ever get.

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(Our latest Sunday Times poll shows Labour on 41% and the Tories on 35%. This is our smallest gap between the parties since April; but support for both of them remains within the four-month range. Unless we now have a run of polls showing a narrowing gap, the likeliest explanation for the Sunday Times figures is sampling fluctuation.)

However, if we stand back from the minor day-to-day variations and review the longer trends, we see a clearer picture of how the race has developed. I have been comparing recent YouGov data with figures from January last year – the point when politics began to settle down after the formation of the Coalition, the early honeymoon between the Tories and Liberal Democrats and the election of Ed Miliband as Labour leader.

First, the voting figures:

  2010 result %  Jan 2011 %   Aug 2012 %  
Labour 30 42 43
Conservative 37 39 33
Liberal Democrat 24 9 9
UKIP 3 4 7
Others 6 6 7

In the early months of the Parliament, the big switch was from Lib Dem to Labour, as protest voters and anti-Conservatives deserted Nick Clegg’s party. The Tories entered 2011 with slightly HIGHER support than they secured at the general election. Since then, although there have been various ups and downs, the main losers have been the Tories. They are down six points to 33%. The biggest beneficiaries have not been Labour, which now stands only one point higher than at the start of last year, but UKIP, whose three-point rise accounts for half of the Tory loss. The Greens and Scottish Nationalists (but not the BNP) are also slightly up.

What lies behind these trends? YouGov recently repeated some statements about both main parties that we tested at the start of last year. Here are the key findings:


% agreeing that they... Jan 2011   
Now (2012) more about the rich than ordinary people 56 64
..are too close to big business and the banks 55 68
..have changed for the better since their time in opposition 36 29
..have a clear vision of how to build a better society 44 36

Not a happy picture for David Cameron. The Tory negatives, on siding with the rich and powerful, were already high, and have got higher. The positives, in contrast have gone lower.


% agreeing that they... Jan 2011  
Now (Aug-Sept 2012)  
..will soon be ready to return to government 34 39
..want to help everyone, not just the few 40 42
..still haven’t faced up to the damage they did to the economy 58 57
..have seriously lost touch with ordinary working people 58 52

From Ed Miliband’s point of view, the figures have all moved in the right direction – but not very much. The negatives are still too high and the positives still too low.

Together, those two sets of figures help to explain why the Conservatives have lost ground since January last year, but Labour has been unable to take full advantage of their decline. Mounting disappointment with the Tories has simply not converted into rising enthusiasm for Labour to anything like the same extent.

This is underlined by answers to regular YouGov tracking questions, where we pose a series of statements and ask which party each applies to most. Here are the latest figures for Conservative, Labour and “none of them” (in addition to the figures shown below, at least 20% generally say Lib Dem or some other party or don’t know).

Now (Aug-Sept 2012)    Change since Jan 2011

Positive statements

It is led by people of real ability 19 16 46 -8 -1 +11
Its leaders are prepared to take tough and unpopular decisions 39 12 31 -17 +1 +16
It has succeeded in moving on and leaving the past behind it 17 19 41 -10 +2 +9

Negative statements

It chops and changes all the time; you can't be sure what it stands for 29 20 8 +14 -9 +1
It seems rather old and tired 33 25 11 +8 -15 -2
It appeals to one section of society, not the whole country 53 19 7 +6 -2 -1

Again, the figures for the Conservatives are bad – and fallen precipitately for taking tough decisions and chopping-and-changing. For Labour, the picture is more mixed: two of its three negatives are sharply down, but there is virtually no change in its (low) ratings for the positive virtues. The big winner for all the positive statements is 'none of them'. A great many voters appear to be hostile to at least one party without finding merit in any of the others. Not for the first time, we see evidence of disdain for politics itself, and contempt towards politicians across the board.

All this points to clear strategic needs for both main parties as we move towards the second half of this parliament.

As well as praying for an economic upturn, the Conservatives need to demonstrate greater consistency of purpose and avoid self-inflicted U-turns; even more than this, they need to describe a compelling vision for the future that, in these austere times, show that David Cameron truly does believe his own dictum that ‘we are all in this together’. Bluntly, most voters just don’t believe he means it.

Labour has less to worry about on that front (though other YouGov data suggest that the party is vulnerable to the charge that it is too soft on illegal immigrants and welfare claimants). On the other hand, it can’t shake off the charge that it messed up the economy when in office; but there’s not much it can do about that now. What Ed Miliband does need to do is persuade voters that he heads a competent team that is in touch with their own supporters, that Labour has learned from its failures in office, and that he, personally, has the backbone as well as strength of purpose to take the tough decisions that will enable it to govern Britain effectively.

And if neither party succeeds? In the past, when both big parties were unpopular, the Lib Dems tended to mop up the protest vote, especially at by-elections. No longer: their role in the Coalition has sunk that strategy.

So where can the millions of disenchanted electors go? The next phase in British politics could provide the best ever opportunities for UKIP, the Greens and, in some places – as the Bradford West by-election demonstrated – George Galloway’s Respect party.

See the survey details and full results of our latest Sunday Times poll

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