The clouds in last night’s silver lining

by Atul Hatwal

As Ed Miliband surveys the results after his first major test as leader he will have mixed emotions.  Great in England, good in Wales, bad in Scotland and rapidly forgotten on AV.

A curate’s egg, whatever one of those might be.

While the dynamics of devolved government mean the results in Scotland and Wales are driven by regional factors, and AV is done for a generation at least, it’s the English local elections where the tea leaves for the next general election can be best read.

England is where Labour needs to win the key seats, and its England where Labour has proportionately lost most voters since 1997. Ostensibly, the results give a sound basis for hope.

Not quite street party territory, but at least a couple of glasses of sherry.

On this happy path, the numbers of new Labour councillors elected take Labour back to respectable mid-2000s levels of representation in local government. Gains in a single election on this scale have not been seen since the mid-1990s.

This is not to be lightly dismissed. Revival in local government is an essential pre-requisite for national success.

Then there’s the overall vote share. While not spectacular, it was much improved over the election last year and progress at this rate would lead to a solid Labour majority at the next general election.

But still, there’s doubt.

Can a national result be extrapolated from local elections? Is this really a foundation for victory built by winning back Labour sceptics? Or a house of cards made from passing protest votes?

A few months ago in this column, I highlighted Labour’s poll challenge by looking at three specific questions asked intermittently by YouGov in their daily and weekly polls, and tracked their responses over the previous three months. These questions examined voters’ attitudes to the defining issues for the next general election.

The updated results to Labour’s poll challenge hold the key to interpreting last nights mixed election results.

The three YouGov questions look below topline voting intentions to reveal how voters feel the government is hitting them in the wallet, their view of how the government is cutting the deficit and who they prefer as a leader – David Cameron or Ed Miliband.

The public’s answers over this year have involved responses from tens of thousands of people and give a clear view of the scale of the problem.

To misquote William Cobbett, I defy you to agitate a man on a full wallet. The higher the wallet line, the better things are for the government.  Because it focuses on peoples’ perceptions of their own financial future it gives quite a different response to doom and gloom about the general economic state of the country.

The wallet line has remained largely constant this year. In January, 74% of people didn’t view the coming year as posing a major financial drama. In April this had risen a little to 75%.

In key Labour battlegrounds such as London and the Midlands, there are the early rumblings of actual optimism. The latest figures show that well over 40% think the worst is over and that the situation will either get better next year or at least stay the same.

That’s three-quarters of Britain thinking that things aren’t actually so bad and almost half of the public in key English regions, rich with key seats, thinking things can only get better.

This doesn’t suggest an electoral situation ripe for people to reverse their vote from the general election last year.

But, while worry about personal finances is often a driver of change, it is not sufficient alone. Winning the economic argument is what is needed, and can make the difference on its own.

This is what the middle band on the graph tests. The deficit is the defining economic issue of the day and the public’s attitude to how the government goes about cutting it will be a key determinant in how people vote at the general election.

The results here for Labour are worst of all.

On this central economic argument, Labour has not only failed to make ground, it has fallen further behind. At the start of the year, the majority who felt the way the government was cutting the deficit was necessary compared to unnecessary was 17%. In April, this had grown to 28%.

Well over 50% of the public consistently believe that the government approach to cutting the deficit is necessary.

And voters remain in no doubt as to who to blame for these cuts.

In January, 41% of voters blamed the last Labour government for the cuts, compared to 25% blaming the current government and 24% blaming both. In April, it was virtually the same. 41% blamed the last Labour government, 25% the current government and 23% both.

The public’s basic position is that Labour is responsible for the deficit and the government’s cuts are necessary.  If anything, people are becoming more, not less, convinced of it over time.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of economic policy, purely in political terms this is a huge problem. From the mid-1980s through to 1992, Labour made an economically cogent but politically suicidal case for higher taxation.

The deficit is this decade’s tax.

Ed Balls is a big beast who knows how to take the fight to the Tories. He’s added vigour and aggression to Labour’s attack on the economy. But when he became shadow chancellor, he set himself the measure of putting Labour “on the front foot” on the economy.

Three months into his tenure, beyond the rough and tumble of day to day debate on the economy where Labour’s performance has improved significantly, the party is now more distant than ever from being trusted on this defining economic question.

Perceptions of Labour as a realistic government in waiting are further undercut by the leader gap.

At the start of January, Cameron’s lead over Miliband as peoples’ preference for PM was 12%. By the end of April, this had been pegged back slightly to 10%.

While this measure is going in the right direction, the level of reduction in Cameron’s lead begs the question – why so little?

Miliband’s press operation has been much sharper since the appointment of Tom Baldwin and Bob Roberts at the start of the year, he has been getting the better of Cameron at prime minister’s questions on an increasingly regular basis and the government has gifted Labour a conveyor belt of gaffes and U-turns.

Forests, defence, the NHS, schools, universities – virtually no corner of public policy has been left without a government crisis entirely of its own making.

If, after all that, Cameron still has a double digit lead among voters as the preferred PM, its hard to think what will shift the numbers decisively.

Looking at the three elements of the graph in the round, the overall picture is not a pleasant one for Labour.

It describes an electorate for whom the personal financial salience of the cuts is limited. Where Labour is seen as the cause of the problem and opponents of the solution.  And where leadership is something only Cameron can provide.

In this context, the happy path that starts with these English election results ultimately leads back to the general election of 1992, or maybe even 1987.

The reality is that yesterday’s result in England was a blind trail of protest votes. People aren’t enamoured of this government, and showed it. But the local elections weren’t a choice between Labour and Conservative; they were a chance to vent at the government.

Based on the underlying factors picked-up by the wallet line, the argument gap and the leader gap, any pressure on Labour in a real election and the poll lead will collapse. Unless Labour can shift these key drivers, future mid-term victories or upturns in the headline polls will just be more false hope.

The sad truth is, one year on from the start of the Tory-led coalition, Labour’s journey has taken it back to square one.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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17 Responses to “The clouds in last night’s silver lining”

  1. John Ruddy says:

    England might be where Labour wins the next Westiminster election, but Scotland could be where it loses it. It doesnt matter if Labour picks up seats in the West Midlands, if they lose them in the West of Scotland.

  2. iain ker says:

    Middle England Ed thinks the results ‘Thendth a throng methage to the Torieth’.

    Sundry LibDem rentagobs think, ‘The gloves are off, now we’re going to make sure more of our policies are enacted’.

    Sundry Scots/ West Albanians think, ‘We’re now closer to surviving as an independent country as in not dependent on taxpayers in the South East of England and/ or EC hand-outs’.

    There a parallel universe somewheres that I’m missing out on?

  3. iain ker says:

    Oops, some of my twitter followers in Albania have taken me to task for conflating Scotland with West Albania.

    They have pointed out that Albania is completely self-financing and not almost entirely dependent on taxpayers in another country.

    While I could cough and say EC at the same time, I am nevertheless happy to set the record straight.

    I shall henceforth refer to The-Country-Formerly-Known-As-West-Albania as North South-East England.

  4. Simon says:


    Are you also tracking the results to the questions asked in the same poll which produced your “argument gap”, which found that:

    – 59% thought the cuts were being imposed unfairly (27% thought they were being imposed fairly)

    – 50% thought the cuts were too deep (compared to 34% who thought they were too shallow or at about the right level)

    – 57% thought the cuts were being imposed too quickly (compared to 33% who thought they were too slow or at about the right pace).

    You’re right to say that a majority think the way the government is making the cuts is necessary. However, I’m concerned that you’re interpreting that as meaning the public support the scale and depth of the cuts, when the other questions clearly demonstrate this not to be true.

    As I said when Rob Marchant similarly argued that Labour had “lost the argument” on the economy, you can only reach this conclusion by cherry-picking the evidence. I’m afraid you’re cherry-picking the evidence too, by selecting these three questions which look unfavourable for Labour and ‘tracking’ them without any reference to other questions which give a more mixed picture, such as the ones I refer to above.

  5. sunbeam says:

    I see no way this can be called a ‘great’ night in England.

    All we’ve seen today is Liberal Democrat votes shifting to the local party of opposition. In Scotland this has seen the SNP clean-up, in the south we’ve seen Tory GAINS.

    There has been some Labour success in the Midlands but these have tended to be in areas where Labour held on in 2010 (see Notts). Labour cementing their position in already red-MP areas is hardly going to regain power.

    This government was always going to have a very hard 2011. It’s likely to have a nasty first 24 months in power. And then the economy should be in full-recovery and the wallet-line should dive in the Tories’ favour. We are also likely to see a gradual improvement in Liberal fortunes.

    Put today’s results in to perspective:

    In 1999 Hague gained 1,348 seats. In 2003 IDS added 657 seats. In 2007 Cameron was able to pile on another 892 seats. From a rock-bottom base all we’ve seen today is Labour gain 800 seats.

    I appreciate boundaries have changed but Labour should have easily gained 1,000 to 1,300 seats. Remember there are two governing parties to feast-on.

    Just imagine if The Tories had won a majority and Clegg was leading the Lib-Dems in opposition. Would Labour even be ahead of the Liberals in the polls right now? Or would Cleggmania be back and Cameron more concerned with the Liberals than with Labour?

    And then there’s Scotland. And Wales.

    If Ed can’t win now, when can he win?

  6. Toby Chopra says:

    That’s a pretty depressing assessment. If you’re right, it basically means we give the two Eds six months to come up with another strategy or they get the push. And start all over again. Grim.

  7. Alistair says:

    “England is where Labour needs to win the key seats, and its England where Labour has proportionately lost most voters since 1997. Ostensibly, the results give a sound basis for hope.”

    If Scotland wins independence – Labour will drop about 40 seats on the Tories right there.

  8. Steve says:

    Nice to hear someone speaking sense, unlike the many delusional people in the Labour Party. Ed Miliband will never be prime minister, and the sooner we wake up to that the better. The Conservatives can do ruthlessness (Thatcher, Duncan Smith) when they realise that their leader has become an electoral liability, but we can’t (Brown). We need to learn from them, or risk seeing another 9 years of Tory-led government.

  9. Atul Hatwal says:


    In the research for these pieces I did indeed review the questions you mention. And on the face of it they do indicate public worry about the cuts.

    But politics is a comparative business.

    It doesn’t matter if the public are unhappy at the cuts if they are even more worried about what Labour would do if we got into power. I refer you to the point in the article about who the public blame for the cuts. It was us last May, us at the turn of the year and us right now.

    The combination of public belief in the necessity of the cuts with their blaming us for the need to make them mean that in terms of a choice between us and the Tories, we’re toast.

    If anything, their unhappiness at the unfairness of the cuts makes them even more anti-Labour, since we are perceived as having brought this problem down on Britain.

    Like I say, its not about the rights and wrongs of the economics, just the politics.

    When I wrote the piece, the final results weren’t clear. A miniscule 2% lead over the Tories with Tories actually increasing their numbers of councillors says many things – a road back to government for Labour, is not one of them.


  10. Simon says:

    Thanks for that explanation, but I still think you are selectively interpreting the data and your conclusions are highly speculative.

    The “blame for the cuts” question is limited because it prompts respondents to assign party political blame. If there were an option to blame the global financial crisis (or similar) then you would get a different picture, but as it comes down to a party political choice it is hardly surprising that people blame the party under whom the deficit was generated. That’s a retrospective issue and there’s nothing much Labour can do about it. (Because of that, I doubt that there is really any point in tracking the question.)

    When it comes down to the detail of the cuts, though, the public are manifestly closer to our position than the Tories’. Even if you think this fact can be dismissed, you need to at least acknowledge it in your series, or you risk giving a misleading impression of what the polls are actually saying.

    “If anything, their unhappiness at the unfairness of the cuts makes them even more anti-Labour, since we are perceived as having brought this problem down on Britain.”

    I don’t know where that assertion comes from. There is certainly little evidence for it in the polling, which – after all – shows a lead for the Labour Party. If we were to assemble the rounded view of the average voter based on these polls, it would be something like: “The country has a problem with the deficit which the previous government had some responsibility for, and cuts are necessary. However, the way the coalition is cutting is unfair – the cuts are too deep and too fast”. How would that voter vote at the next election? At the very least, the answer is subjective. And that’s why I don’t take “Labour’s poll challenge” seriously: you’re selecting data to present a subjective point of view as if it were an objective bit of polling analysis.

  11. Robert says:

    If the turn out gets any smaller the best way is to toss a coin, it will save money.

  12. iain ker says:

    ‘The country has a problem with the deficit which the previous government had some responsibility for, and cuts are necessary. However, the way the coalition is cutting is unfair – the cuts are too deep and too fast”

    Rounded view of the average voter ?????

    Only in your dreams.

  13. Simon says:

    “Rounded view of the average voter ????? Only in your dreams.”

    The views expressed in the second sentence are held by a majority of voters, according to the Yougov poll which Atul cites – see my post of 6 May at 2.30pm.

  14. Matty says:

    “The deficit is the defining economic issue of the day”

    Really, who says? It is ludicrous. Unemployment is at nearly 3 million, long-term unemployment blights lives and communities, surely that is more important. The debt we have is manageable and will be paid off if growth returns to normal.

  15. Amber Star says:

    Labour & Tories are, at worst, neck & neck in You Gov polls.

    The current government is only one year in; for Labour to be level (& occasionally as much as 10 points ahead) means Ed M is doing very well.

    What did the naysayers think? That Labour’s only problem was Gordon Brown & a change in leader would immediately result in a huge lead. If so, then that was naivety on a grand scale. Labour’s return journey will be a five year hike not a 12 month stroll.

    Ed M, & any Labour activists with more than half a brain, know that Labour are currently fighting on ground chosen by the Tories. On the economy, the deficit is still framing the debate. Labour needs a new narrative about the economy & I have every confidence that we will find one. However, to unveil any Labour strategy as much as 4 years before a GE, would be foolish. Either the Tories will spend 4 years planning how to rip holes in it or they will adopt it & then our differentiation on the economy is gone. Labour have no choice, in the short-term, but to go with damage limitation on the economy whilst planning how best to change the terms of reference.

    The wallet line is, at worst, neutral. Voters did well under Labour & they aren’t suffering too much under the Tories. That was exactly how it was (in reverse) for the majority, wallet wise, before Labour’s 1997 victory.

    Ed Milliband v David Cameron as Prime Minister is where it gets really interesting.
    Politics junkies have seen Ed M go from a tentative start at PMQs to a confident performer who can force DC into evasion, bluster, bullying & small – but embarassing for DC – fibs that the Downing Street PR team are later forced to characterize as ‘errors’.

    That’s all very well but, of course, the important thing is to convince the wider public. And here is where there is an important choice to be made. Should Labour try to change the public’s view of what they want in a PM? Or should Ed M try to become more ‘Prime Ministerial’ in the style of the accepted model?

    IMO, Ed M can mount a three pronged attack.
    1. He can be a caring, listening, consensual leader until he has all the information. Then he needs to make a decision & stick to it. If the public don’t, initially, agree with our policy, then he (& the entire Party) needs to make it our job to convince the public that he has made the correct decision. Even if we fail to 100% win the argument, Ed will ‘get points’ for not being a populist flip-flopper.

    Ed should aim for gradually being more statesmanlike. He has made a variable start on this. At the March for the Alternative rally he reached a little too high, a bit too soon but his speech to the house on Libya was well done & cleverly left some room for future criticism of any mission creep or other, non-humanitarian, intervention actions. I am sure Ed’s team will be actively looking for opportunities where he can show that kind of political & popular statesmanship.

    Thirdly, Ed M must take care to be ‘appropriate’. Alex Salmond is the master of this. Ed M should show a LITTLE of the endearing scrappy, insurgency that is appropriate for a ‘man of the people who is opposing the government’. AS used this brilliantly in the run up to the election that got the SNP a minority government. And he actually had the nerve to continue to play this card during the 2011 election campaign when he was already First Minister. That he did it so successfully, is why I say AS is the master of this. Somehow, anything the SNP did that was unpopular, or didn’t do that would’ve been popular, wasn’t the SNP’s fault. The public were told that the SNP fought the good fight but lost through no fault of theirs. AS managed to do this without sounding like he was making excuses or dodging responsibility. If Ed M wants a role model for associating himself with popular New Labour achievements whilst distancing himself from things that were, or have become, unpopular then he needs to look at how AS brilliantly managed to do this. (For the avoidance of doubt, I am in the minority who are not AS fans – I can’t stand the man – but I give credit where it’s due).

    To conclude a rather long post: Complacency – which was somewhat in evidence during the Scottish Parliament campaign – is not a winning strategy – But Labour has reasons to be cheerful & lots of opportunity to become a Party we can all be proud of.

  16. Roger says:

    Unless there is a snap election called before the Fixed Term Parliament bill becomes law the opinion polls right now are not very helpful.

    For the first 18 months of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership even Michael Foot – for all his admirable qualities the least successful Labour leader since George Lansbury in electoral terms – was in the lead: but he still suffered the greatest defeat in our history at the GE.

    And while the remarks on Salmond are very perceptive, Alex had a very long apprenticeship in opposition (even at one stage being expelled from his own party) with even his minority administration at Holyrood being a constant battle, while Ed has spent almost of his political life working in the backrooms of a party which was either rolling unstoppably back into office or was actually in power.

    He’s done a much better job so far than many of us who didn’t vote for him thought he would – but he is just not a natural insurgent.

    For an example just look at his thank you message to Labour members from last week:

    ‘We should be proud of our achievements but we should be humble about how much further we also have to go and what we have to do to win trust. We started on the journey, we’ve got further to go.

    Today’s results are a symbol. A symbol for what we have achieved and a symbol for what we need to do in the future’.

    If this is fighting talk then I’m Uriah Heap.

  17. iain ker says:

    Either the Tories will spend 4 years planning how to rip holes in it or they will adopt it & then our differentiation on the economy is gone.


    ‘Or they will adopt it.’

    You see why I come on here.

    Where else am I going to get such big laughs.

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