by Atul Hatwal
So what is the real Labour lead? Sure, we’ve all seen the polls, and they tell a consistent tale across different pollsters. Looking at YouGov, the latest results from the weekend have Labour 10 points up over the Tories, 42% to 32%.
It’s a commanding lead but for those who remember the 1980s and 1990s, there remain nagging doubts.
At the end of 1980 Labour was registering week after week of double digit leads, peaking at 24% for Gallup in mid-December. But we all know what happened in the 1983 election.
Almost a decade later, it was déjà vu.
In 1990, Labour was once again posting massive poll leads. Between the end of February and end of April, Labour averaged a 22% lead across nearly 20 different polls. Impressive. Except, once again, we all know the result of the 1992 election.
The purpose of this trip down a rather painful stretch of memory lane isn’t to be a Cassandra. The future is not written and any form of poll lead is better than a deficit.
But caution is needed. Taking these leads at face value can breed complacency and for Labour, the experience of the past thirty years is clear: as the actual general election draws near, the poll leads have regularly evaporated.
Since those heady days of Dave and Nick in the rose garden, there has been a fundamental shift in how the public regards the government; and David Cameron in particular. The question is how would this translate in the polling booth? Would voters turn away from the Tories, and more pertinently, would they choose Labour?
The problem with attempting this judgement has been the absence of polling data that can be compared to an actual election, outside of the general election.
While there is a regular cycle of local council elections punctuated with by-elections, the pollsters rarely poll these specific areas, and even on those rare occasions when they do, only after the campaign is underway. So it’s almost impossible to compare like with like.
But regional elections offer a new opportunity. London has been polled by YouGov regularly since 2010 and recently voted.
Looking at the polling following the start of the government’s omnishambles with the budget, but before the election campaign was front and centre in London, gives us a snapshot of poll support comparable to current mid-term national polls.
Comparing this polling against the final results in London then gives us a percentage by which current national polling for Labour and Tory can be adjusted, to reflect a likely actual vote.
The YouGov London poll after the budget had Labour at 50% with the Tories on 33%. Taking the Assembly vote as the best proxy for actual voting (mayoral performance being subject to the personality distortions of Boris and Ken) the final result was a Labour victory on 41% to the Tories 32%.
This means the polling following the budget over-stated Labour’s vote by almost 20% and the Tories by 3%.
Adjusting YouGov’s latest national poll proportionately by these percentages transforms the electoral picture: Labour still leads, but by 3%, on 34% compared to the Tories’ 31%.
A lead is a lead, but it’s close. Almost within the poll’s margin of error. And these are the worst of times for the government: political incompetence, economic recession and a judge-led inquiry roaming around the minutiae of their private dealings with Murdoch.
It could be that this is the pattern for David Cameron’s government, and the current shambolic performance continues all the way to the next election. Could be.
More likely, by 2015, there will be some form of economic upturn, and Leveson will have concluded. In this more benign political environment for the government, even allowing for Number 10’s serial bungling, would Labour’s 3% lead hold?
The lesson for Labour is that the party cannot rest on its current lead. History, and London’s election, shows it is likely to be much closer in reality. To resist a Tory fightback, Labour needs to press the advantage. Now.
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut