With Labour’s lead narrowing, the next election is now too close to call

by Rob Marchant

Setting aside for the moment the fact that the Westminster lobby seems to be yet to clock the political turmoil in store for Labour over the next six months as it approaches its special conference, there is another issue to which Labour must pay attention if it is serious about winning: its polling.

As we start to edge towards the home strait of the electoral cycle, new polling tells us some interesting things.

The conventional wisdom has become, owing to its consistent poll lead since early 2012, that “Labour is on course to win”. Meaning that, even if it means winning as part of a coalition, it would be hard for it to lose the election from here.

This is rather dangerous thinking, for two reasons.

The first is that it overlooks a statistical fallacy, in extrapolating a poll lead in a hypothetical election tomorrow directly out to an equal poll lead in eighteen months’ time. A lead now is patently not the same as a lead then.

If you ask someone the question “if there were an election tomorrow, who would you vote for”, this is not the same as calculating the expected value of their future answer in 2015, for the simple reason that there is not an election tomorrow, nor will there be, barring the “political lightning” of an unexpected no-confidence vote.

No, day-to-day polling is an indicator of future voting intention, nothing more. For example, it omits the effect of all governments deliberately manipulating their administrative and economic cycles so that the necessary bad news mostly falls in the middle of the electoral cycle and the good news towards the end (obviously, having too much bad news at the end is suicidal). Hence, the economic and other government programmes tend to get a deliberate boost in the final year before an election.

It seems reasonable to conclude that this could be at least one reason why, as pointed out here at Uncut at the start of the year, the polls almost always narrow approaching an election.

Back then, we suggested that the 11% lead enjoyed by Labour would, on previous trends, tend to edge downwards to approximately zero over the final two years of the parliament.

So far, during the nine months January to October (approximately the first third of that remaining period), that model has held: the YouGov lead which was 11% in January has now tailed off to 5%*.

Now, we cannot read too much into this just yet, apart to remark that it’s consistent**; obviously there will be fluctuations deriving from short-term factors, and this election could be an outlier, of course.

But it’s also reasonable to expect this trend to continue, given that this is what’s happened in most other elections studied.

Bottom line: while there may be fluctuations (particularly around next year’s Euro elections), don’t expect too much of that already-shrinking 5% comfort blanket to be left by May 2015. Oh, and that’s if UKIP support stays at its current historical high level rather than returning to the Tories; an extremely debatable point.

The second reason to be wary of the conventional wisdom is Miliband’s personal polling.

None of the main party leaders has been doing well recently, in that all have net negative approval ratings. At the time we started writing our book,Labour’s manifesto uncut, we noted Mililband’s April approval rating: this was fairly poor, a net rating of -27%***. According to YouGov’s latest figures, it is now a little worse (-30%). Nick Clegg’s is awful (-48%) and has stayed so (-49%).

Cameron’s rating, meanwhile, has surged upwards, from -21% to -11%.

In other words, whereas Miliband was generally felt by the media to have “won” the battle of the party conferences, this polling is telling us a different story.

But if your headline party polling is good, what is the point of worrying about leaders? After all, it’s the party that counts in a parliamentary system, right?

Not really. Whether we like it or not, our modern, media-driven politics is increasingly “presidential”. As we approach an election, it is not merely “do I like this party?”. It’s “can I see this person as Prime Minister?” It is natural to expect, therefore, that poor personal polling for a leader would start to exert some downward pressure on the party’s own polling as we approach election day.

Now, as Chapter 2 of the Uncut book argues, there are positive, constructive ways to address this, the principal one being delivery on the promise of party reform, showing the world that Miliband can make things happen, not just talk about making things happen.

But it is not just that delivery on party reform could help. The reverse is also true: failure to deliver would likely push things the other way and send an already poor personal polling sliding towards disastrous. Miliband would then be ruthlessly painted by Tory press and CCHQ as someone who (a) talks but doesn’t deliver, and (b) is powerless in the face of resistance from union leaders. And damage to personal polling at this stage of the parliament, as we have just noted, would further hurt party polling, already on target to converge down to a zero-point lead by 2015.

All in all, a pretty unedifying scenario.

Interestingly, there seemed to be a marked scepticism among the Twitterati last weekend to John Rentoul’s suggestion that Miliband is preparing for a two-term, not a one-term, opposition. But it’s really not that outlandish at all. Whilst he may not necessarily see this as the probable outcome – and even if he did, he could not reasonably admit it except to the closest of advisers – it would be frankly foolish not to entertain the possibility.

There is still all to play for: given the strong possibility of hitting May 2015 with one of the two main parties having a very minor poll lead over the other, things are far too close to call.

But in short, the conventional wisdom that a Labour loss is unlikely from here is dangerously wide of the mark. Anything can, and probably will, happen.

*This number, from Sunday, is chosen to be fairly conservative and avoid more extreme fluctuations (yesterday’s YouGov poll lead was down to 1%). Also, for those of you rightly concerned that this reflects only YouGov, and therefore is subject to pollster-specific error, we should note that Labour’s lead in the BBC Poll of Polls has also fallen from 12% on 15 Jan 2013 to 6% on 2 Oct 2013, i.e. exactly the same fall over the last nine months.

**in fact, it has fallen a little further that a “straight line depreciation” over two years would imply. Not that a straight line is necessarily likely – the convergence effect could in reality be concentrated more at the beginning or more the end – but it at least gives us a starting point.

***the % of respondents which think the party leader is doing a good job as leader minus those who think they are not.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left. “Labour’s manifesto uncut”, of which he contributed Chapter 2, is available for download here.

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16 Responses to “With Labour’s lead narrowing, the next election is now too close to call”

  1. uglyfatbloke says:

    Good article – if not very encouraging. The situation is further complicated by regional variations and the nature of FPTP. As things stand at the moment it is very probable that the gnats will have a pretty good election – the Scottish Glib-Dumbs are pretty much washed up. The only MP that is safe now that Campbell is standing down is Carmichael who continues to be very popular in the constituency. It does n’t look good for Labour either and it will get worse if it looks like the Tories might win the GE. If the gnats can repeat their performance from the last Holyrood election there will be a massive cull of Labour MPs north of the border and frankly some of them would not be a great loss, unfortunately it’s generally the better ones that are at most risk.
    There is a real sense of entitlement among many Scottish MPs and activists. In the past the party has won a great many more seats than the vote share would justify, but if the Salmondistas get 40% of the vote they will have a good day at Labour’s expense. It’s not all gloom – the remaining Scottish Tory and at least one of the Glib-Dumbs are likely to fall to Labour, but be prepared to see a lot of Labour MPs entering the job market in 2015.
    There are tow things that could be done to turn this around. One is to stop dancing to the Tory tune in Better Together and the other is to offer what most Scottish people want – FFA within the Union. Cameron is n’t stupid and insisted on not having that as a referendum option because he knows that in the long run that will hurt Labour more than the Tories and it won’t break his heart to see the social democrat vote in Scotland come out for the gnats…he’s got nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Ed must know that the gnats will never go into a coalition with the Tories, but Cameron knows that Scottish Labour will never accept any kind of deal with the gnats.

  2. swatantra says:

    Rob we knew that a year ago, and things won’t change in the next 2 years. Despite what some people think, the Great British Public in their wisdom voted in quite intentionally a Hung Parliament in 2010, and they’ll do the same in 2015, and I’m speaking as a Labour optomist. What Labour should be doing between now and the GE is preparing for Coalition. And bring back Mandelsohn to oversee the Election Strategy.

  3. john reid says:

    There wil be some former Labour voters,voting Tory, some Ex Libdems voting both Labour and Tory, some ex Tories voting UKIP, but the majoirty of Libdem voters who have disapeared from their 23% ,they got in 2010, to their current 15%, mean that they’ll abstain,,I reckon the Tory and labour vote wil be the same as 2010 ,but due to A low turnout their percentages will go up both by 1%, with UKIP getting an increase of about 5% and the others getting 5.5%

  4. Danny says:

    “And bring back Mandelsohn to oversee the Election Strategy.”

    Credibility destroyed.

    Or was that a joke?

  5. steve says:

    “if UKIP support stays at its current historical high level rather than returning to the Tories”

    Not at all convinced that UKIP are dependent on ex-Tory voters. Recent council by-elections suggest UKIP are able to win a very significant number of votes from those who previously, in recent times at least, haven’t voted. In addition, they take votes from Labour and Tories.

    As Mike Smithson suggests*, in a significant number of seats UKIP will be able to present themselves as viable challengers to incumbents of all parties. Hardly surprising now that the mainstream parties are indistinguishable from one another.

    * http://www1.politicalbetting.com/index.php/archives/2013/10/10/im-starting-to-think-that-ukip-could-surprise-us-at-ge2015/

  6. paul barker says:

    Your maths seem a bit off. If you project a 6% fall in 9 months over the remaining 19 months that comes to a further fall of 13%, not 5%. Logically you should be predicting a Tory lead of 8%, a repeat of 2010.
    As you acknowledge, thats assuming the whole “Reform” process goes OK.

  7. Alex Harvey says:

    Oh “blah blah blah, we’re going to lose”, give it a rest already.

  8. Robert says:

    I agree that it is perfectly possible that the Tories will have a small lead in 2015 but a majority for them is verging on impossible. A more likely result is Labour being the biggest party in a hung Parliament but receiving fewer votes than the Tories. This will clearly raise issues of legitimacy for any Labour-led government, although the Tories will not be able to complain due to their support for FPTP.

    A personal view is that Labour should aim for a left of centre pact after 2015. This would mean not standing against left of centre candidates in 2020 where Labour has no chance of winning.

  9. Mike Homfray says:

    But Labour’s lead hasn’t narrowed for quite some time.

    Also, it depends entirely on who votes and where. The fact is that both Tory and Labour blocs have hardened and there are not likely to be very much movement from one to the other.

    What does seem to be the case is that the Tories are maintaining and increasing their support in the areas which are doing well and where they already hold virtually all the seats in any case

    We are doing well enough in the marginals.

    The electoral system means that a hung parliament is actually very unlikely unless the LibDem,s can raise their game and that clearly isnl;t going to happen – too many of their former voters will never touch them again, particularly in the north, midlands and London

  10. Danny says:

    A Labour majority with less votes than the Conservatives might actually be perfect. We’d kick the Tories out and it would create an environment where it would be immoral to pursue electoral reform. And I’m not talking some half-hearted, sham compromise that no one is really happy with, I’m talking all our proportional representation which would solve so many problems with our terminally-sick democracy in one swoop.

    But it’s not going to happen. Despite what Rob Marchant and Atul Hatwal say, Labour will get more votes than the Tories at the next General Election and it will probably be enough for a workable majority.

    Or alternatively I’m talking rubbish and the only way Labour can ever win another election is to ditch Miliband and bring back Mandelson, Campbell and Blair and revert to the New Labour ways which after 13 years did so, so much good for society. They won three elections you know. That automatically means they were good for the country. Just look at Thatcher. Oh, and Unions are evil. And war is brilliant. How much is the membership fee for Progress? And will it get me a discount at Sainsburys?

  11. Rob Marchant says:

    @paulbarker: But Paul, I think you’re missing the point. I am not predicting a win or lose for anyone. My whole point is that it’s too close to call. Where you are right is that – as I point out in the second footnote – it has fallen a little further than a “straight-line depreciation” to zero would imply. But we don’t know that it should fall off in a straight line – it could be more at the beginning or more at the end. There are ways of working this out, I’m sure, but the maths gets pretty complex.

    So, I don’t believe you can just extrapolate the 9 months out to 28 months as you are suggesting. You can, however, see if it roughly follows the trend line.

    Bottom line, yes, I am being conservative, for the good reason that plus or minus a few per cent moves are not necessarily significant and can bounce back. But there is a visible overall trend towards narrowing, which we would expect to continue. I expect it may just widen a little around the Euros, but then re-converge again after.

    But even a zero projected lead at May 2015 proves my point – Labour is not “on course for a win”. If the lead is -8%, clearly it is *really* not on course for a win.

  12. Danny says:

    “yes, I am being conservative”

    @Rob: Subtract the small c for a capital one and you’ve pretty much summed up the majority of your political opinions!

  13. Rob Marchant says:

    @MikeHomfray: Mike, I don’t know how you can look at this graph http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/voting-intention-2 and tell me that the polls haven’t narrowed since the start of the year. The lead was steady between about May last year and about June of this year, but polls have now narrowed. This is not a blip.

  14. uglyfatbloke says:

    That’s true Rob, but Mike does raise the issue of who voted where, and that’s an important consideration. Regional variation will make a huge difference to the outcome that we would expect from looking at national scores. The Libs are unlikely to get anything like 23% of then vote – I think they’ll be lucky to get 13. As I understand it and please correct me if I’m wrong – the tories are generally in second place where there are vulnerable lib MPs so Cameron stands to make a few gains there and the loss of his only Scottish MP really does n’t matter to anyone.
    The more the polls narrow, the worse things will look in Scotland. If it looks like Cameron is going to win outright it’l be very hard to persuade the electorate that electing a big raft of Scottish MPs will help at all…the 50 (yes, 50) Scottish MPs in the Thatcher years don’t exactly provide an inspiring example. Things are n’t much better just now really. If the gnats want to do well at the next GE all they have to do is point at the shining raft of talent sent to London – and Murphy, Davidson and Curran are n’t even the worst I’m afraid.
    Will UKIP make a major difference? Probably not. Most people are aware that our electoral system is a nonsense and will vote Tory …and of course there are more Labour voters inclined toward UKIP that any of us would really like to admit…but they will doubtless continue to do well under the more democratic format of the European elections.

  15. NBeale says:

    In the two most recent polls the Labour lead was, on average, 2%. One month ago that would have been 6.5%.

    If present trends continue Labour’s lead will evaporate before May … 2014. Which give a whole year for Cameron/Crosbie to get a majority.

  16. Stephen Hildon says:

    If the polls have moved in the Conservatives’ favour by 4% since January (10 months ago) it doesn’t mean that this movement will continue in a linear fashion for another 10 months.

    In fact the narrowing mainly occurred between April and September. Since the conferences the narrowing has if anything reversed slightly.

    It is always best to look how the polling average moves rather than focusing on individual polls.

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