Why Miliband's dismal approval ratings should worry Labour

Personal ratings are often a better predictor of the election result than voting intentions.

On the surface, the lastest monthly Ipsos MORI poll contains good news for Labour. While ICM had them level-pegging with the Tories on 36%, MORI puts them 11 points ahead, up seven points since June and the kind of lead the opposition needs to justify hope that it can win the next election.

But dig deeper, and more worrying findings emerge. While David Cameron's net satisfaction rating has risen by eight points since last month to -16, the highest level this year, Miliband's has fallen by five points to -26, the lowest level since January 2012. As the graphic below shows, the Labour leader's rating is now as low as William Hague's was at this stage of his leadership. While Cameron outpolls his party by nine points (38-29), Miliband trails his by 10. 

But this is a parliamentary system, you say, why should we care? The answer is that personal ratings are frequently a better long-term indicator of the election result than voting intentions. Labour often led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance (sometimes by as much as 24 points), but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister. A more recent example is the 2011 Scottish parliament election, which saw Alex Salmond ranked above Iain Gray even as Labour led in the polls. The final result, of course, was an SNP majority. 

There are some notable exceptions to this rule. Margaret Thatcher won in 1979 despite trailing Jim Callaghan by 19 points as the "best prime minister" and Ted Heath defeated the more popular Harold Wilson in 1970. But Labour should not assume that history will repeat itself in their favour. Miliband's substandard ratings mean the Tories are confident that if they frame the next election as a presidential contest, they stand a good chance of remaining the largest party. 

Ed Miliband speaks on the high street in Worcester town centre on April 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.