by Atul Hatwal
In a momentous week for news, one development has understandably slipped by without major comment: the shift in the polls since the Autumn Statement.
The Sunday Times YouGov poll had Labour’s lead at 5 points, today’s Sun YouGov poll similarly has the lead at 5 points and today’s ICM poll in the Guardian also registers a lead of 5. In comparison, the average YouGov lead in the week before the Autumn Statement was 8 while the November’s ICM poll also had Labour 8 points up.
A drop of 3 points in Labour’s lead, across 3 different polls suggests something has changed since the Autumn Statement.
Although caution is advisable given it is just a week’s polling, this shift has been expected by many and if confirmed in the coming weeks, will presage significant problems for the party.
In the two months since Ed Miliband’s conference speech, politics has been defined by Labour’s energy price freeze commitment.
Regardless of the economics, it has been politically successful in driving debate within the Westminster bubble. Countless column inches and interview minutes have been expended on the fall-out from the announcement. So much so that politics became polarised around support or opposition to the price freeze.
And this is part of the problem.
Labour’s year long slide in the polls appeared to have been arrested in October and November, but the profile of the price freeze has been such that the polls in these months virtually became referendums on whether action should be taken to reduce energy prices rather than predictions of voting at the next election.
The shift in the polls over the past week suggests the impact of the energy price freeze is now diminishing.
There is a precedent for this type of development.
In September 2000, for one month, politics was turned upside down. William Hague’s Conservative opposition reversed months of double digit ICM poll deficits to leap into a 4 point lead. The cause was the fuel crisis.
For that month, as the country teetered on the edge of running out of petrol, the fuel crisis became the defining political issue. Polls reflected the public’s view of the government’s handling of the crisis. People telling pollsters that they would vote Conservative was more an expression of anger at government impotence in the face of rising fuel costs, than a realistic view of voting intention.
I recall talking to Conservative staffers at the time who spoke hopefully of a resetting of the political equilibrium; that the anger with the government and rise in Tory support would last long after the immediate crisis had passed.
I’ve been reminded of those conversations in the past couple of months talking to Labour staffers and politicians: a similar hope, driven by a public outpouring of frustration with the government, albeit this time over energy not petrol.
But by October 2000, the Conservatives were trailing Labour and by December 2000, the deficit was once again in double digits. Normal service had resumed, just as normal service looks like it is about to resume following the energy price freeze announcement.
The fundamentals of politics do not change. Voters generally make their electoral choice on the basis of who they feel is best suited to be prime minister and which party they feel is the most economically competent.
No opposition has ever won an election while being behind on both economic competence and leadership. In today’s ICM poll, David Cameron and George Osborne are favoured on the economy over Ed Miliband and Ed Balls by 39% to 23%, a lead of 16%. In last week’s YouGov poll which asked about prime ministerial preference, David Cameron led Ed Miliband by 34% to 23% – a 9% gap.
In both Autumn 2013 and September 2000, the fundamental doubts harboured by the public on the opposition’s economic competence and the leader’s suitability to be prime minister, were not addressed. As with the fuel crisis in 2000, this year’s energy price freeze has given the opposition a political sugar-rush that transformed the polls but not the underlying drivers of voting intention.
Now the rush is passing, Labour must refocus its efforts and return to tackling the core problems that existed before the price freeze temporarily upended politics. Unless headway can be made on the economy and leadership, history suggests Her Majesty’s Opposition in 2013 faces a similar fate to its predecessor in 2000.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut