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How to read the Tory poll lead

Cameron's party on top in this morning's Sunday Telegraph/ICM survey.

A seemingly remarkable opinion poll in today's Sunday Telegraph that shows a Tory lead over Labour of two points -- after a week of economic gloom -- prompts Political Betting to ask:

Is it so bad that voters want to stick with nurse?

Whichever way you look at the ICM numbers -- Conservatives 38 per cent (+2), Labour 36 per cent (-2), Lib Dems 14 per cent (no change), Others 12 per cent -- they do not make happy reading for Ed Miliband and the Labour Party.

Yet, as always, outliers such as these should be treated with caution. After all, a weekly YouGov poll, published by the Sunday Times, shows an eight point lead for Labour -- Conservatives 35 per cent, Labour 43 per cent, Lib Dems 9 per cent, Others 13 per cent.

So what's going on? Over at UK Polling Report, Anthony Wells notes:

Whenever a poll shows an unusual result I offer the same caveat - sure, it could be the start of some new trend, but more often than not it turns out to be a blip caused by normal sample error. Pollsters' different methodologies have impacts upon their topline figures, and ICM tends to show some of the most positive figures for the Conservatives

Equally, YouGov tends to record some of the highest numbers for Labour. So until other polls show what ICM shows today, it's more realistic to conclude that Miliband's party still enjoys a small lead.

But before we dismiss today's numbers and move on, it's worth making a couple of points -- and neither reflects particularly well on Labour.

The first is that Labour's poll lead (if that is what it continues to be) has hardly shifted from where it was last December. Indeed its percentage share -- and that of the Conservatives -- has declined slightly. That decline is explained by the rise of the "Others" -- where once the Liberal Democrats as the "third party" would pick up the protest vote, it is now going elsewhere.

Labour is failing to pick up the protest vote because it is still blamed, at least in part, for the economic situation. It must hope that, as the parliamentary session progresses, the blame shifts from red to blue.

The second thing to acknowledge is that the unions made a tactical error last week -- an error not of intention but of timing -- and that may be reflected in the ICM numbers. As one shadow cabinet minister described it to my colleague Rafael Behr, the decision to strike less than 24 hours after George Osborne's Autumn statement was "a source of frustration". Privately, the language was doubtless far stronger. As Rafael notes in this week's Politics Column:

Miliband would gladly have let the news of [George] Osborne's economic woes reverberate through the week. Instead, the focus shifted to an issue that risks discomfort for the Labour leader, given his party's financial reliance on trade unions.

It was not to be and David Cameron and Osborne escaped from a potentially tricky week unscathed.