On their own, opinion polls offer little more than a fleeting glimpse of a point in time, a snapshot of the immediate thinking of a sample of the electorate – they are dated before the ink is dry. Different polls have their own biases depending on the sampling methods they use and, dare I say, the association of particular media outlets or individuals associated with the polls. These differences are often slight, and looking at a number of polls within a recent timeframe does broadly afford the viewer clear trends in current voting intention.
Between election cycles, observers and hacks spend a considerable amount of time using polls to reinforce current conventional wisdom. The most interesting points in any cycle are those in which the direction changes, where one party usurps the other at the top of the voting leaderboard, and when this happens the commentariat shifts into overdrive. Just as Manchester City usurped Liverpool with days to go in the Premier League, so have the Conservatives usurped Labour in two new polls released today for the for the first time since George Osborne’s “omnishambles” budget in 2012.
Back then, the Conservatives faced the double jeopardy of sweeping opposition to austerity and shaky economic forecasts. The Conservative-led Government was almost two years into a legislative term that had yet to yield visible results, and Labour took an 8-point lead in the Guadian/ICM poll in April 2012 at 41% and the Conservatives fell to 33%, their lowest showing since before the 2010 General Election.
Labour has fluctuated in polls since the 2012 Budget between 41% and 36%, but has consistently kept a distance of several points between themselves and the Conservatives. Today’s ICM poll is interesting in two respects: first, the Conservatives have retaken the lead as the party that would – were an election held today – receive the most votes. However the second respect is, at this stage, the more salient one: the Conservatives have not so much leapfrogged Labour as wheezed ahead of them into a 2-point lead four-fifths of the way into a marathon. Labour have dropped 6 points, which brings its own worries for the party and its leader, Ed Miliband. However, just as worrying for the Conservatives should be the rise in support for UKIP, perhaps to the tune of 5% (putting them at around 15% overall). The Liberal Democrats have also moved up 1 point to 13%, but this remains consistent with their longer term stagnation at between 10-15% and will not cause any shockwaves among observers.
If the General Election one year from now replicates these polls, the likely outcome is that Labour will be the largest party (just) in a hung parliament as a result of Labour’s continuing (but diminished) geographical bias. This is not the first time that Labour has led the pack in Opposition into the final stretch of a legislative cycle before stumbling; indeed they led in most polls right up until the 1992 General Election, where the Conservatives’ victory over Neil Kinnock’s party was hailed as an unlikely one after the event. Then, as now, the voters harboured an uncertainty great enough to deny the Opposition a victory, despite their considerable concerns over the stability and capability of the incumbents. The Conservatives’ recovery in the polls mirrors the economic recovery that voters have been reading about in their newspapers and watching on television reports. This recovery is being described as ‘tentative’ with decreasing frequency and more media outlets are covering sustained (and thus, normalised) economic growth and consistently falling unemployment.
Labour has therefore made quality of living its key battleground on which it will fight for the hearts and minds of the nation’s voters – positing a ‘crisis’ to be fixed in place of the vanquished economic one in the battle of rhetoric. As Labour continues to struggle to convince voters that it is a trustworthy governor of the nation’s economy, so they have turned their attention to quality of living in a bid to convince voters that the recovery is benefitting the few and not the many, and that they are a viable alternative to further austerity measures and cuts in public spending.
If the economy continues to grow and unemployment continues to fall, the Conservatives will find it easier and easier to say ‘mission accomplished’ and secure the seats that will make them at the very least the leading party in British politics beyond 2015. Regardless of one’s view on the success or failure of this ‘mission’, an economy that continues to grow across the next 12 months will likely prove that old political adage (borrowed from across the Atlantic) about voting intentions ever true: ‘it’s about the economy, stupid’.