The trend beneath the Barnsley triumph is that Labour’s poll lead is soft

by Atul Hatwal

What a result in Barnsley. To increase the numerical majority in an already safe seat as the turnout halves, this is the stuff of psephological fantasy. For the Libs to come sixth, losing their deposit, is the dark matter of disreputable dreams.

So, what does it tell us about the national picture? About voting intentions in the next general election? About how we’re doing?

To be honest, sadly, it tells us nothing.

By-elections are almost entirely beyond interpretation at the best of times. A by-election in a highly atypical constituency, caused by extraordinary circumstances, fought by asymmetrically effective candidates and teams is entirely so.

The polls, by contrast, are just starting to have tracked long enough since Miliband took over to show trends. The latest YouGov tracker poll posted a Labour lead of 5% and it was as high as 9% earlier in the week. On Wednesday, Anthony Wells, YouGov’s resident polling guru, assured us that Labour’s lead is “still going strong”.

So perhaps Barnsley really is a sign of things to come?

No.

Progress is being made, but nagging doubts remain about a Labour poll lead that feels very 1980s. Something doesn’t quite sit right.

Systematic polling evidence to back-up these doubts has been patchy. Underneath the headlines there have been individual questions that cast doubt on its solidity, but not enough to build a narrative that describes where voters really are.

This changed last month.

In the mass of polling conducted by YouGov for the Sunday Times and the Sun, some of those questions that are asked infrequently, but which shine a light on voters’ core motivations, were finally repeated. It means a consistent pattern of questions can now be tracked back over the past few months.

These questions fall into three areas: the impact of cuts on voters’ wallets; support for the Tories’ approach to the deficit now it is being implemented, and voters’ views on whom they prefer for PM.

The results are unequivocal and give some hard numbers to quantify that intuitive doubt.

The top line on the graph shows that for all the angst and outrage on cuts as covered in the media, at a time of global downturn, most people are pretty sanguine about their personal prospects.

Three months ago, at the start of December, 76% of people thought that things would only be a little worse, if at all, in the coming 12 months. Last week 74% thought this way – a change of all of 2%.

Despite a sustained assault on Tory cuts, Labour’s attacks are failing to resonate in the place that matters most, voters’ wallets. The new focus on VAT on petrol is the type of lightning-rod issue that might begin to move these numbers. But, for the moment, the overwhelming majority of voters are clear that neither the cuts nor poor economic growth will be a major financial concern for them.

It creates the context which determines how voters assess the parties’ arguments on economics. The lower the personal financial impact of policies, the weaker the imperative for change.

The middle band on the graph describes an electorate that has not moved at all on the central argument over the deficit in the past three months. Even looking all the way back to October, the number who viewed the government’s approach as necessary was 56%, with 34% viewing it as unnecessary. Two weeks ago the figures were 55% and 33%.

The net result of six months of battle on the economy has been literally nothing. No change whatsoever in the 23% majority who view the government’s approach to cutting the deficit as necessary.

Optimists will recoil from such a bleak perspective, and can point to some apparently contradictory polling. In the Sun two weeks ago, YouGov had a net majority of 23% agreeing the cuts were too deep and 32% that they were too fast.

But, politics is a comparative choice. Voters might not be too happy with the Tories, but they are even less keen on Labour when it comes to spending.

At the heart of defeat in the election was a lack of public trust on spending. After months of bad publicity for the Tories, the most recent YouGov polling from the end of February had 41% blaming the last Labour government solely for the spending cuts, while 25% blamed the current government and 24% blamed both – numbers that were virtually unchanged from the start of December.

For nearly half the public, these cuts are all Labour’s fault.

The combination of voter indifference to the personal financial impact of cuts with the legacy of mistrust on spending has knee-capped Labour in the fight on the deficit.

Unless there is either a game-changing policy shift which convinces wary voters that Labour is now sound on finance, or a calamitous new recession which persuades voters that deficit reduction is no longer a priority, or both, the gap on deficit reduction will remain.

Labour’s position on the economic argument is mirrored in voters’ preference for David Cameron as PM over Ed Miliband.

Cameron’s lead over Miliband has stabilised at around 12% this year. The difference compared with headline voting intention is stark.

In the most recent YouGov poll in which questions on voting intention and preference for PM were both asked, the Labour lead over the Tories was 8% (44% to 36%) but Cameron’s lead as the preferred PM was 12% (36% to 24%).

That’s a net divergence of 20% between voters’ choice for party and PM.

This has two implications for the party.

First, it means that Labour can’t rely on the leader’s standing to gain a hearing for the economic argument. In fact, the lack of standing further undermines economic credibility. And vice versa, neither can it use a lead on economics to neutralise public doubts about a new leader. Quite the reverse, an unpopular economic policy helps define the leader.

Second, in an increasingly presidential political environment, it raises the spectre of 1992 –  potential Labour voters going into the booth on election day and voting for the wrong person not the right party.

The leader gap compounds the issues on economics and builds a picture of Labour for voters where precious little that matters has changed since the election, when Labour failed to break 30%.

Looking at the wallet line, argument gap and leader gap together, the detail of voters’ position becomes clear. They are relaxed about the personal impact of cuts. The reality of cuts is in line with their expectations and they remain resolutely in favour of the need for action on the deficit. There is a resonance for Labour’s attack of too far and too fast. The diagnosis chimes with public concerns, but the patient doesn’t trust Labour to administer the medicine. Doubts on economic policy are reflected and reinforced in views of the leader.

Without a breakthrough, either on economics or support for the leader, there is a danger that voters’ view of Labour will be of a party with a rookie left-wing leadership responsible for an unchanged and already rejected economic policy.

This is why the current Labour poll lead is soft.

These remain early days in what will be a long parliament. Sharper attacks such as on VAT on petrol may change things. Over the coming quarters, we will return to track the progress of the wallet line, the argument gap and the leader gap. As the party raises its game, the gaps must close and the wallet line dip down if Labour is to make the progress it must. Unfortunately, we can’t expect an awful lot of Barnsley-style by-election results in the next few years. But we can expect an awful lot of polls.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut


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12 Responses to “The trend beneath the Barnsley triumph is that Labour’s poll lead is soft”

  1. Tacitus says:

    Good to see someone else not putting out the bunting to celebrate a Loabour vitory. Of course I am pleased that we won – that goes without saying, but with less than 40% of the electorate voting, it wasn’t a huge vote of confidence.

    Moreover, over 30% of voters voted for minority parties, with the BNP vote only shifting slightly downward. Given the hassles they have had recently that disturbs me greatly.

  2. Forlornehope says:

    The major problem for Labour is that it is not presenting any serious alternative. The logical position of opposing the LibCon cuts is to accept that for civilised levels of benefits and public services government expenditure has to be higher than that planned by the coalition. That means that all of us on, or above, median income will have to pay more in tax. Forget all the daydreams about cutting tax avoidance. If there was really a big pot of gold there Gordon would have had it during the last 13 years. During the great Labour governments of the 60s and 70s we had basic rate tax at 33% and it might now need to go higher. It is time the party had the courage to make the case for a “tax and spend” government.

  3. G. Tingey says:

    What a triumph for “democracy”
    NOT

    The “winning” candidate got 60% of those voting, with an erm … le3ss than 33% turnout.
    You too, can get to parliament on less than 20% of the eligible vote.

  4. John A Bateson says:

    Of course the big difference between now and the early 80’s is the condition of the Labour party itself. Then we were deeply, deeply divided – today there is more or less unity, at least on the surface.
    The party does need to develop a coherent economic strategy this year, and admit mistakes – such as over reliance on financial sector booms. We are too cautious and constrained, fearful of the tabloid press – now is the time for boldness.

  5. Mark W says:

    I agree that there’s a danger of being to sanguine, but I think that this is an overly pessimistic account, first of all ‘the who’s to blame?’ numbers have been consistently coming down in recent months, and though they matter it’s at least as significant that many people blame both parties or the Tories considerig how long Labour were in power and the hatred against us.

    As for Ed Milliband he hasn’t really broken through into the public consciousness as a PM: but then he isn’t until the Tories make a defining error (they may have made some already). The only real way to seem more Prime Ministerial is to get a big call right when the PM gets it wrong. As ever with polls it would be interesting perhaps to see some comparative polling (Blair & Brown v Cameron pre autumn 2007?)

    Overall I think Ed’s done a good job, as far as possible he’s not let us be defined by our past whilst not engaging in self flagellation. Yes we’re not murdering the Tories but what did people expect? If you’re thirty then your entire adult political life is defined by how ‘rubbish’ Labour were and profound dislike of Blair and Brown. Yes we shouldn’t be hugging ourselves about poll leads and by-election wins, but the major battles are yet to come.

  6. Excellent analysis, Atul. Interesting conclusion that people are generally relaxed about the cuts, as it goes somewhat against our current strategy. But that’s not to say it mightn’t be true.

  7. Simon says:

    I note the author has moved on from the assertion he made last time he wrote this article that a 5% Labour lead “looks more like a ceiling”, presumably because most polls since then have shown a greater lead.

    Sadly, you still haven’t got over your enthusiasm for cherry picking favoured data to suit your argument. Labour has substantially won the argument on “too far, too fast” to the extent that the phrase has almost become a cliché.

    Your emphasis on personal financial circumstances treats voters as entirely self-interested, but the deficit itself is a nebulous concept for the self-interested voter. Its prominence in political debate ought to tell us that voters do look at economic matters in the round if the message is hammered hard enough.

    The reality is that polling data is mixed for Labour, with some good and bad points and much work still to do, but a tentatively encouraging topline polling figure. That’s not a situation which requires a wholesale rethink of economic strategy, still less one which apparently involves conceding the coalition’s decreasingly popular economic stance.

  8. Henrik says:

    One wonders whether the fact that the candidate was a gallant former Parachute Regiment officer – and hence thoroughly atypical of Labour apparatchiks – may have influenced the electorate as well. Best of luck to Major Dan, he may be confused in his politics, but he’s a man of courage, integrity and intelligence.

  9. David Horsham says:

    Heartened by the result in Barnsley, but very sad to see the turnout so low. Does anyone stop to think hard about WHY voters don’t go to the polls? One very obvious factor is the the conviction and imprisonment of an MP which led to the by-election being called. But aside from this, we live an political age of unaffordable promises (Lib Dems on tuition fees) and betrayal (Blair/Iraq and the Brown govt spending money we simply didn’t have). The real cruelty of this latter betrayal is that many poorer members of our society have come to EXPECT a level of spending which is simply unsustainable. And it is the hardest thing in the world to cut living standards when we have to make ends meet. How hollow Ed Balls now sounds when he campaigns against “Tory cuts”! Voters remember (all too well) his role in Brown’s economic shufflings, based on irresponsible borrowing. People know what happens when they max out their own credit cards. Payback time is painful, costly and cannot be avoided forever. As Labour faces the future, do we really want to see Jacqui Smith being paraded on Question Time and This Week (representing the party) as if the boxroom scandal and porn-on-the-taxpayer simply never existed? Can you blame disillusioned voters for staying away while this saddening pantomime persists? Labour really has to clean up and shake up its act. An apology on the economy – and utter truthfulness about the party’s overspending – would be a sound start. We are in dire need of an effective opposition, ready to be completely honest with voters. For it is honesty and honour that will bring people back to the polling stations.

  10. steve howard says:

    Personally I think Labour isnt doing enough to counter the aurgument that its all labours fault. They do little to defend the previous methods of fiscal control as if they are saying “yes Mr Ripoff tory/lib you are so right when you blame us for it”
    The coalition keep on harping on about 120 million a day pay back. That figure must be sticking. Labour should be pointing out the contextual arguments. 120 million is a lot of money but what do we normally pay back and what is this 120 million? We the electors dont know and need it in Noddy language just as the Tories are doing. You dont fight a battle with one hand tied behiond your back. Expose the disengenious tories for what they really are, opportunists of the lowest order. Come on Labour, show your teeth. You havent had them all pulled yet…..

  11. G. Tingey said:
    > The “winning” candidate got 60% of those voting, with an erm … le3ss than 33% turnout.

    So what has that got to do with the price of Eggs. The opponents of the First Past the Post system are always banging on about winning candidates not getting more than 50% of the votes cast. When one does, all of a sudden that is not enough, and the victory does not count because of the low turn out. I sense goal posts being moved. That the determination to prove the lie that there is something wrong with our voting system means that anything that shows the lie up for what it is will be ignored.

  12. theProle says:

    >Does anyone stop to think hard about WHY voters don’t go to the polls?

    It’s not like it’s hard in this case – the result was a foregone conclusion, so why would anyone be bothered to vote?
    It’s been a safe labour seat since it’s conception in the 80’s, and it’s predecessor was solid labour from 1935 on.

    There was more chance of waking up this morning and finding Obama had resigned than of waking up to find anyone other than Labour had won.

    Frankly I think the only people who bothered voting were mostly either voting from civic duty, or out of a desire to save their chosen candidates deposit (if they weren’t labour voters).

    I vote in a safe seat, but only to attempt to save my chosen party £500, rather than from any expectation of changing the results.

    And no, I don’t know what the answer to safe seat is either…

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