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What lies behind Labour's shrinking poll lead?

Over the last week, the party's lead has halved from 14 points to seven. With politics as normal suspended, the Tories may have benefited from a Thatcher effect.

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 19, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

During last week's Commons tribute to Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative MP Conor Burns, a close confidante of the former prime minister, recalled showing her a poll last November with the Tories nine points behind. Thatcher, he revealed, replied, "That's not far enough behind at this stage", explaining that "she took a view that to do things that were right did entail unpopularity until people saw that what you were doing was working."

Thatcher, then, would be alarmed by the latest polls, which show Labour's lead has fallen to its lowest level for months. The YouGov daily tracker puts the party on seven points, down from eight the previous day (and a peak of 14 last Thursday) and the lowest Labour lead since David Cameron's EU speech in January. Yesterday's Guardian/ICM survey made similarly grim reading for Team Miliband, with Labour's lead down to six (from eight last month) and Miliband's net approval rating down to -23, his worst since becoming leader.

It could, of course, be normal sample variation but it's plausible that the Tories, whose YouGov vote share has risen five points to 33 per cent since last week, have benefited from a Thatcher effect. Polls have shown that most voters continue to regard her (if not all of her policies) fondly and, with politics as normal suspended, David Cameron has enjoyed largely free rein to hail her conservative values. Labour, meanwhile, has presented a divided face to the country as Tony Blair's piece in the centenary edition of the NS has been followed by a series of other critical interventions from party grandees. Voters, as pollsters regularly attest, don't like divided parties, the reason why John Prescott told Monday night's PLP meeting that it was "crazy" for Labour to fracture just two weeks before the local elections. 

Thatcher, incidentally, may have been right about the Tories not being far enough behind (or Labour not being far enough ahead). As the data below from YouGov's Peter Kellner shows, no modern opposition has ever won without being at least 20 points ahead in mid-term. But with the right divided and the Lib Dem vote likely to collapse in Tory-Labour marginals, Miliband has some hope of defying this trend. 

Peak poll leads

Oppositions that went on to win            Oppositions that went on to lose

Lab 1959-64:     20% (June 1963)                      Lab 1979-83:    13% (Jan 1981)
Con 1966-70: 28% (May 1968)                           Lab 1983-87:    7% (June 1986)
Lab 1970-74: 22% (July 1971)                           Lab 1987-92:    23% (March 1990)
Con 1974-79:    25% (Nov 1976)                        Con 1997-2001: 8% (Sept 2000)
Lab 1992-97:     40% (Dec 1994)                        Con 2001-2005: 5% (Jan 2004)
Con 2005-10:    26% (May 2008)