Labour’s poll performance is a red herring


Our guest writer is Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham, and co-author of The British General Election of 2010, published later this month

Labour-roseSeveral of my Labour-supporting friends have a spring in their step – level in the polls at last, as revealed by yesterday’s Reuters/Ipsos-MORI poll. How rubbish this new coalition government must be. It took New Labour years to lose its poll lead after 1997.

At the risk of being a party pooper, the trouble is that the experience after 1997 is atypical. After losing in October 1951, Labour had pulled ahead by January 1952, but it didn’t stop the Conservatives enjoying 13 years in government. In 1970, after a June election, Labour were level by October; that didn’t stop Ted Heath polling more votes four years later, even if he didn’t secure enough seats to cling on.

And in 1979, following a May election, Labour had pulled ahead in the polls by the following month. No one needs reminding what that means: Labour led Mrs T’s cutting government within a month of the election and were out of power for the next 18 years.

At this point, one or two of my friends point out that this is an unfair comparison. Those were single party governments, this is a coalition government, we are not comparing like with like, etc etc. All true, and if someone can point me in the direction of polling data from the last British peace-time coalition government formed after a general election, I’ll gladly look at that instead. But you’ll struggle.

What’s happened in the polls is what you’d expect: Government Making Cuts is Unpopular Shocker. Its only significance will come if too many Labour people think it’s significant.

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  • Ash

    “After losing in October 1951, Labour had pulled ahead by January 1952″

    Hang on a minute – Labour were ahead by 48.8% to 48% *on the day of the election*, so there’s no question of them having ‘pulled ahead’ a few months later!

    “In 1970, after a June election, Labour were level by October; that didn’t stop Ted Heath polling more votes four years later, even if he didn’t secure enough seats to cling on.”

    So after a 3 or 4% bounce immediately after the 1970 election, Labour went on to deprive Heath of his majority in 1974. This time round, Labour’s seen an 8% bounce, and the Tories are *already* without a majority. I can’t say the comparison drains me of all optimism.

    “in 1979, following a May election, Labour had pulled ahead in the polls by the following month. No one needs reminding what that means: Labour led Mrs T’s cutting government within a month of the election and were out of power for the next 18 years.”

    Sure, but there’s no reason to think we’ll see reversals of fortune on the scale of those caused by the SDP split and the Falklands war this time around.

    Obviously we can’t be complacent and can’t rule out ‘events’ getting in the way, but it’s not unreasonable to be encouraged by such a large and rapid recovery in the polls.

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  • DevonChap

    Ash, In February 1974 the swing against Labour was 5.9% (from 43.1% in 1970 to 37.2%. While Heath’s Tories lost more its hardly a great triumph and miles away from the 47% Labour were polling 6 months after the 1970 defeat.

  • Ash

    DevonChap

    Yes, but between 1970 and 1974 both Labour and the Tories lost votes to the Liberals. It’s hard to imagine Labour voters going to the Lib Dems this time round; so far voters are going the other way.

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  • DevonChap

    Ash. No comparison is exact but the point is that Labour did not sustain the poll gains it made in the first 6 months at the time of the next election. 2015 who knows: Greens, SNP, Tea Party(!). Who is to say what might come up if there is general dissatisfaction with the main parties (as there was with Tories and Labour in 1974).

  • Sean

    I think the spring in the step is a result of two different conclusions being drawn.

    Firstly, given the unpopularity of the last government, and the universally warm coverage that the new government gets it’s pretty astonishing that people aren’t warming to it. Also, the cuts – which will make the government massively unpopular – haven’t even hit yet. When they do, we’ll be even further ahead (one would assume).

    Secondly, we don’t even have a leader yet! Imagine when we have astratwty, fully ensconced team and a permanent alternative pm.

    That’s why there’s a spring in our step.

  • Anon E Mouse

    Ash – The reason for Labour’s jump in the ratings was getting rid of Gordon Brown – wait until a new leader is selected then look at the polls…

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  • frances smith

    interesting though history is, it tends not to repeat itself. you can make comparisons with the past but when it comes to human history the same situation never reoccurs exactly. we are in a different place in time, in a different situation. i know academics like theories to cling to, but previous patterns of polling data are no guide whatsoever to what is going to happen next. in a chemical experiment the same conditions can be recreated to create the same result in a controlled experiment, but this is not a controlled experiment. i’m sorry professor your conclusions, based on the past, are wrong.

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