Thursday, 20 October 2011

Polling, polling, polling. Raw hide?

Image: CBS
(With profuse apologies to the late Frankie Laine, or the Blues Brothers, depending on your generation. Sorry about that.)

Just in case anyone is still feeling a bit too upbeat after Mark Ferguson's piece yesterday at LabourList, a question: is our polling taking a turn for the better, or giving us a good kicking?

Five months ago we took a look, here at the Centre Left, at whether Labour's poll lead was soft or hard, and concluded the former. However, a year into the new leadership, it behoves us to take another look, to see whether the picture has improved or declined since then. In particular, a Populus poll for the Times at the weekend has sent many Labour pulses racing by showing an 8-point lead over the Tories.

It's also notable that, during conference week, there was a marked split between left-leaning commentators on how things had gone, especially that Leader's Speech. Few had a nuanced view on it: people either thought it had finally encapsulated Ed Miliband's vision and made it connect with people, or thought it fuzzy, vague and windy. The really important thing, of course, is simple: did the public engage with the vision or not? If it did, it should surely be reflecting in the polls.

So, there are four important developments we should include:

First, let's deal with that encouraging poll. Yesterday there was another YouGov poll for the Sun, which showed no significant change from the previous poll: that is, with Labour slightly (3%) ahead, after the previous YouGov Sunday Times poll's 3% lead, as well as the ComRes poll last weekend (2%). On the YouGov polling, therefore, the Fox affair has had no notable impact. As YouGov's Anthony Wells said of the Times poll in his excellent UK Polling Report at the time, "a sudden change in support...could be the start of a trend, it could just be an outlier". Moreover, in view of the subsequent Sun poll, it seems difficult to believe that this is not an outlier. Theoretically possible, but unlikely, seems the best response to the proposition that this is the start of a turnaround. Sorry.

Second, our conclusion that the previous overall poll lead in voting intention was soft seems to be being borne out by the trend: a virtually static gap of a few percentage points since the start of the year. Currently the Tories are pretty much neck and neck with Labour, even without the support of the Lib Dems. In other words, even with this one poll, which shows all the signs of being an outlier, we are failing to develop the lead we need. It's hard to dispute the view of our own Mark Ferguson yesterday, that the poll lead is "soft as warm butter".

Third, a disturbing development was the release of the first poll immediately following the conference speech, which showed a 12% drop in personal polling for Ed as leader. Again, Anthony Wells' comment about outliers applies. And, as Political Betting's Mike Smithson fairly pointed out in the same piece, conference week polls have a habit of showing unrepresentative figures. Wise heads, we thought, should therefore not base too much on this, and wait for further polling. That said, the sheer size of the drop, even after allowing for "conference week effect" to add on an error margin, is at least cause for concern.

Fourth, well, we waited as advised. That "further polling" arrived on Saturday in the shape of the Comres poll (hat-tip: John Rentoul) for the Mirror and Independent on Sunday with supplementary polling on the party leaders. It did not show a drop of 12%. But it did show a drop of 4% in a month, giving a rating of -28% to Ed Miliband, his lowest-ever in these polls, and which confirms a downward trend from -15% at the end of last year. Although it's important to note that all party leaders have negative ratings at the moment, neither is it at all good news: the other two have the handicap of being in government in the middle of a harsh austerity program.

My good colleague Alex Smith was one of the ones who thought the speech a clear, radical vision. But even so, he pointed out that:

"undeniably, this new strategy is risky. It could contribute to the obliteration of Labour's already tentative support."
Risky it surely was: that is one thing - perhaps the only thing - on which pretty much all commentators are agreed. And it is, obviously, unwise to jump to conclusions on the basis of one-off polls. However, conversely, repeated polls over a period of time should not be ignored, and there are two conclusions we can probably draw from the cumulative evidence above.

The first is that we find it hard to conclude that the gamble, that was the conference speech, has paid off. It is unusual to spend several days after a conference speech rebutting media attacks; the immediate poll was strongly negative (although we should allow for errors in this); and the subsequent polls confirmed, if not the magnitude, that there had been no upward change in the trend. If anything, it's worse. In other words, what's certainly clear is the absence of a "conference bounce". One could argue that there will be long-term benefits from the speech and the strategy articulated therein as yet unrealised, but that argument looks weak in the face of these numbers.

And the second is that Ed's personal polling continues to be, well, pretty bad. Now, this rating is by no means irremediable before the next election. But it needs work. Cameron went on a journey which led to a much better public acceptance of him as a leader. "Let Miliband be Miliband" will not work forever as a maxim for Labour if the polls stay like this and, as John Woodcock MP recently pointed out, although making a rather different point, the West Wing is a work of fiction, not a political strategy guide.

In conclusion: yes, our polling is giving us a kicking, and it would be good to take note. Perhaps, like Gordon Brown with Deborah Mattinson, we could simply dismiss the pollsters who tell us what we don't want to hear.

But we should also remember what happened to him.

This post first published at LabourList, and was selected for PoliticsHome's 5 at 5 and ConHome's Must Be Read


  1. I see that John Rentoul wishes to ban me from the Indy for "antagonising" him. And Jacobson, Patterson, times get harder Labour will lose its relevance as it becomes a 2 horse race, far left and far right. Listening to Alan Johnson (makes spitting noise) trying to amend the Protection of Freedom Bill I wondered whether Lab ever heard of "Civil liberty" or "Human rights"?


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