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Will the Olympics change our politics for good?

Voters should not be underestimated.

Vice-President of Brazil Michel Temer, Pele, David Cameron and Mo Farah
Vice-President of Brazil Michel Temer, Pele, David Cameron and Mo Farah at No 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images

We British can give ourselves a rather tough self-assessment. For instance, only one in four of us (24 per cent) think Britain is a good place to invest and just 13 per cent of Brits think we have a strong economy. Among global consumers looking at Britain from a distance, the figure rises to 42 per cent for investment in the UK and 48 per cent thinking we have a strong economy. Indeed, across a whole range of topics we find people around the world seeing Britain in a pretty positive light, compared to how we British see ourselves.

Of course, that pessimism is not that surprising, especially given the economic situation.  According to the Ipsos MORI Issues index, the economy and unemployment are constant anxieties for many people – the economy has been top of the country’s agenda every single month since September 2008 - and increasing numbers are worried that government and public services will not be able to do enough to help people in the years ahead.

This year, however, Britons have been looking to the Olympics for a feel-good effect to brighten up the national outlook. Just before the Games, seven in ten said they thought the Olympics would help to improve the mood of the British public, while politicians such as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, speculated about a possible boost to the UK economy thanks to the Games.

This brief pause between the Olympic and Paralympic Games provides a good moment to see if a feel-good effect has really materialised.

Our recent post-Olympics poll shows that in the light of the Olympics success British people do say they are now more positive about a whole range of organisations and people involved in public life. Four in five (81 per cent) said the London Games had a positive effect on their opinion of the BBC, seven in ten (70 per cent) of the Royal Family and around three-quarters (74 per cent) said it had improved their opinion of Londoners.

Even Londoners themselves say the Olympics has left them upbeat, with 83 per cent saying the Games has improved their view of their fellow citizens of the capital. Londoners are also most likely to say it has given them a positive view of their public transport system with 65 per cent saying they have become more favourable towards it.

Has this feel-good factor also reached perceptions of the Westminster village? On the face of it, yes. Benefiting particularly from the halo effect is Boris Johnson, with 61 per cent saying it has improved their view of him (even higher among Conservative voters).  Nevertheless, he is not the only one; the overnment and the three main party leaders have all seen their approval ratings go up over the last month, according the latest Ipsos MORI Political Monitor. Satisfaction with David Cameron is up six points, Ed Miliband up eight points, and Nick Clegg up five points.

But the question is, is this a real change in the political landscape? Approval ratings for all the party leaders are up, but it does not seem to have had a great impact on voting intentions.  Labour retains a clear lead over the Conservatives, despite their share dropping two points on last month to 42 per cent. A third (32 per cent) say they would vote for the Conservative Party and 11 per cent for the Liberal Democrats, both just one point different from July.

The public also remain as sceptical as ever about politicians and their motives, and there is much change in public perceptions of the coalition. Two in five (42 per cent) say the coalition is providing stable government (compared to 39 per cent in July), just over a quarter (27 per cent) say it is working as a united team (no change compared to the 26 per cent in July) and just over half (54 per cent) say it is unlikely to last until 2015 (compared to 52 per cent in July). To top it off, we also find this month that a clear majority of voters think that all three main political parties put the interest of their party before the national interest.

It is also worth questioning the extent to which national occasions such as the Olympics really do have an impact on people’s perceptions of politics – perhaps because their very nature as unifying events, above the usual cut and thrust of daily politics, means that people do not see them as so relevant to their judgement of the different parties.

The Diamond Jubilee this year is a very recent example, which despite leading to very high satisfaction ratings with the Royal Family seemed to have no significant impact on voting intentions.  Looking back to the Royal Wedding in April last, there was no positive effect for the government immediately afterwards (nor was there from the wedding of Charles and Diana in July 1981 in our polls from back then). Satisfaction with the leaders actually fell slightly, with the exception of Mr Cameron’s rating which remained the same from April to May. 

Even the Golden Jubilee celebrations of June 2002 seem to have had no obvious impact on voting intention, with Labour holding a consistently strong lead over the Conservatives during that period. There was a seven-point rise in satisfaction with the way Tony Blair was doing his job but that was relatively short-lived dropping off in the month afterwards.

When England won the rugby world cup in November 2003, there was a four-point rise for the sitting Labour government in December to 40 per cent but certainly no lasting effect as it was straight back down in January. There was hardly any change in satisfaction ratings for the then leaders either. And England’s procession to the semi-finals in 1996 – for better or worse – didn’t seriously impact Labour’s stranglehold in the polls. 

And, of course, perhaps that is just as it should be. The public should not be under-estimated; they know what is important to them when making their judgements about politicians, and it is those factors that the parties will need to return to when normal political life resumes.

Gideon Skinner is head of political research at Ipsos MORI