Labour’s poll performance is a red herring

Several 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.

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

Several 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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