The polling that shows why Labour’s lead is soft

by Atul Hatwal

The terms of the debate are shifting within the Labour party. Since the underwhelming local elections, the question is no longer whether the poll lead is soft but why. Just this morning, one of Ed Miliband’s more doughty supporters in the media, Mary Riddell, penned her most pessimistic piece to date on Labour’s position.

This change has been partially obscured by the recent writhing of the Tory right over Europe and gay marriage but as the spending review approaches, it will come into sharp focus.

As ever, the answer to the question is to be found in voters’ views on the economy and specifically spending.

Labour’s case against the government has been clear: excessive Tory cuts killed off the flickering recovery of 2010 with the deficit rising as growth flatlines.

It is hard to disagree with the economics. But there’s a political problem.

More and more of the public back the cuts.

YouGov have asked a detailed series of questions on deficit reduction over the past three years and the shift in responses shines a light on why Labour’s poll lead isn’t so much soft as aqueous.

The public’s support for action on the deficit has been constant: at the start of March 2011, 57% felt that “the way the government is cutting spending” was necessary versus 32% who thought it unnecessary. Last week the figures were 57% and 29%, virtually no change over the past two years.

This should have been a warning that something wasn’t quite right with the poll lead: how could the public support Labour while also agreeing with the government’s approach to cuts.

But the YouGov surveys also had seemingly contradictory responses. The key question is on whether the public believe the depth of the cuts to be “too shallow,” “about right,” or “too deep.” The answers to this question initially suggested a consensus that the cuts were too deep. But that is changing.

Source: YouGov

Since April 2012 when 13% more felt the cuts to be “too deep” than either “about right” or “too shallow”, the position has shifted radically. This week, the poll had the pro-cuts camp 2% ahead.

As the graph shows, there is a good deal of volatility in the responses but applying a trend line demonstrates a very clear direction of travel. The public are more and more accepting of the scale of Tory cuts, and based on the past year’s trend, support for the depth of the cuts will consistently exceed opposition by the end of the year.

In answer to Labour’s central charge that the Tories are going “too far,” the public response is increasingly, “no they aren’t.”

The softening of Labour’s poll lead has occurred at the same time as the public have progressively made their peace with the government approach to spending cuts. The drop from an equivalent national vote share of 38% in last year’s local elections to 29% this year is impossible to pass off as tittle tattle or froth. The increased support for cuts too important to ignore as mere coincidence.

This shift will have  fundamental implications for Labour and the spending review at the end of June.

This will be the fork in the road for the parliament . Inevitably it will be an eye-wateringly tight spending round, littered with traps for Labour to portray the party as profligate. How Ed Miliband responds to this will define the next election.

The rhetoric from the left of the party, and Ed Miliband’s union backers, is clear. Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, has been vociferous in his demands for the party to commit to a wholesale rejection of austerity.

The polling evidence suggests the public is moving in the polar opposite direction.

The standard Miliband response to this dilemma has been to equivocate and obfuscate. Warm words for both sides but no commitments. Rhetoric on “tough choices” without any sign of actual spending plans.

This won’t be possible in June.

The political pressure to produce some tangible spending proposals is mounting from all sides: the unions want clear commitments just as much as the more fiscally moderate sections of the party. The media are clamouring for some detail on spending.

But most importantly, the YouGov polling on the level of public backing for the  cuts suggests that if Ed Miliband opts to delay offering anything specific again, then public opinion will simply continue along its current trajectory of growing support for the Tories economic plans.

If Labour want’s to solidify it’s poll lead it needs to present a credible alternative on spending to an increasingly hawkish public. It will mean political conflict with the unions and a major fight within the Labour movement.

The alternative, to reject the cuts, will be politically a path of lesser resistance within Labour but confirmation that the party has decisively parted ways with the public on the economy.

The spending review is Ed Miliband’s last chance before the election to signal a change in approach, move the party towards the public and disrupt the drift towards support of the Tories’ economic policies.

Time for the leader to make one of those “tough choices.”

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut

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10 Responses to “The polling that shows why Labour’s lead is soft”

  1. aragon says:

    Well another name for consensus seeking is ass covering. If you wish to follow public opinion, then leadership is not the correct term.

    As Labour can’t outbid the Tories on austerity every time you agree with them you re-enforce their position as the better party on the economy.

    Offer an alternative, a vision of progress and a brighter future,

    Even the IMF suggests that spending on infrastructure should increased.

    In the unlikely event the leadership has any kind of backbone (no evidence so far), they should embrace the charge of profligacy and commit to spend! spend! spend! stating that this will stimulate the economy and improve the lot of the 99%.

    Unlike the Tories who are the party of the 1% of the public who are shareholders in a booming stock market.

    Do not let the Tories set the agenda and meekly follow behind.

  2. Ex-labour says:

    Very good assessment but obviously won’t be welcomed or taken on board by some on here.

    Miliband is still trying to make intellectual arguments in favour of spending more. That is going to be a tough sell and if labour are boxed in further by the spending review then it really will spell trouble.

    The public realise and accept that cuts are necessary. Combine this with a lack of trust in economic stewardship from labour and the admission that spending will rise I just don’t see how labour will win the argument.

    Time to face some political realities for Miliband I think. Does he support his union backers or go with public opinion? My instinct tells me that from all we’ve heard so far the unions will win out and a commitment to spend more is on its way.

  3. john problem says:

    I do wish Ed would get jugular. You know, stop burbling on about policy and just go for the throat with the Head Prefect. Simply criticise everything the Tories do. Be nasty. Stop playing at intellectual games. He’s never going to get anywhere, burbling on about policy. The voter is not impressed. The voter is more impressed by the guy who comes through the door with a gun. (And of course, not being stupid, he knows that statements made today mean little.)

  4. Robert says:

    It is very odd to refer to the public as if everybody has the same right-wing views. Labour is in the lead because it has had a monopoly of the centre-left vote ever since the Lib Dems went into coalition with the Conservatives. Labour only needs about 35% to be the biggest party and about 40% for a majority, so who cares what the other 60% think?

  5. Graeme Burrell says:

    I’m not sure that a steady ‘Poll of Polls’ lead of between 8-10 for over a year (with a drop to 7 on only 9 occasions) can be described as ‘soft’..

    And I think that if you run that projection with a polynomial trendline, the result shows the support for government cuts is close to leveling off: the next few polls will show whether or not the public’s gaining or losing trust in Coalition cuts & ‘austerity’.

    It should also be remembered that recent criticisms of Osborne aren’t widely reported in the Tory press: that’s 70% of it.

    Labour should dispel the Tory lie that Public Spending was high under Labour – in fact it was *higher* under Thatcher/Major than Blair/Brown. This should be repeated loud and often.

    The global message is becoming clear: austerity has never fixed a recession in the past, and it’s not doing so now. Ed Miliband needs to shift the debate away from bogus attacks on Public Spending, and on to *investment*: that’s the only way we’re going to stimulate the economy, return to growth, and get the debt/deficit down.

  6. John Reid says:

    I don’t know what the torypress is, the Daily Express and sun backed labour the three times we won,technically the Sun has backed labour 6 timesTories 5 since its inception, and apart from 1970 Heaths victory and no one winning. Lasting e they’ve backed the winner, if labour had been more fit to rule over the years then they may have backed us more often, the times backed us in 2001 and 05′ even the mail didn’t back anyone in 97 and 01′ ,I’d hardly call the sun and Mail fans of the current Govt’t,

    And Wilson won elections without the other papers like the times and Mail not backing him,

  7. John Reid says:

    Robert regarding your view that labour cold win with 35% , yes, but we won in 1974′ with 37% and I believe Callaghan actually got a few more votes in 79′ than 74 although the percentage was the me, the point was that the 74 manifesto was so far from what the public felt, that the following election lots of liberals or stay at home voters came out and the Tories would get 13 + million for the next f our.

  8. BenM says:

    The graph backs my observation about the nature of the economic coverage in the UK.

    Due to the unrepresentatively Tory nature of the national press, you get this effect where individual data points of ok-ish economic news (usually published monthly) are hailed as green shoots in the economy, only for poor quarterly GDP data to inject some reality into the public perception every three months or so.

    One could call it Tory propaganda. Ok, then I will. It is Tory propaganda and it doesn’t serve the country well at all.

  9. Oldman says:

    This to me anyway!, is why the unions are making a stand, of sorts, the labour party are now very much to the right, the problem with labour, in fact with all the parties, they are run by career millionaire MP’s, they do not represent the working class, that is a generic problem in politics today, I don’t think the working class have a voice anymore.

  10. Oldman says:

    Not being a fanatically political person I was a tad amazed to see Mr Cameron at PMQ’s slating the closeness of the unions with labour, well ! in the history books I have read, the labour party & the unions are virtually as one, they to me !, they are of the same ilk, so it does bring up the question, what part of history are the Tories trying to rewrite, strange.

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