England’s march to the final of Euro 2020 has been accompanied by an increasing number of Conservative ministers hoping to harness an uplift in the mood of the nation by donning England shirts on social media. While it is tempting to assume such bounces in national optimism would benefit the government of the day, history tells us it’s not so simple
Public opinion of the government or the prime minister can, on occasion, be shaped by feel-good events such as sporting wins. After the Royal Wedding in 2011, Labour’s pre-nuptial lead of between five and seven points in the polls drifted to around four points. The extent to which any of that can be attributed to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is hard to say, but it is notable that in the days following, perceptions of the Conservative party softened: a greater number of voters told YouGov the government’s “heart [was] in the right place” and that it had “succeeded in moving on”.
The success of the vaccine roll-out appears to follow a similar pattern, as the arrival of a more general optimism in 2021 has helped to detoxify a government that had flagged in the polls towards the end of last year.
The 2012 Olympics, another episode of mass positivity, did not move the dial for the government or the opposition, but one politician was able to capitalise on it: Boris Johnson, the then London mayor, for whom 58 per cent of voters declared feeling respect towards in September 2012 (David Cameron’s respect rating in the same poll was -17).
But athletics is less a matter of national pride than football. One oft-quoted example of football’s power at the polls is the 1970 general election, held four days after England, the reigning champions of world football, were eliminated by West Germany in the quarter finals. Some voting intentions in the run-up had given Labour a lead of seven percentage points, and many at the time, and since, have pinned Labour’s defeat on England’s defeat. But this ignores voters’ other concerns, and surveys from Gallup imply the late swing to the Tories came from greater anxiety over the economy and the cost of living .
Then again, perhaps England’s defeat allowed the public’s attention to wander to economic issues. With England out of the World Cup, less positive economic facts and figures dominated the front pages. What might the public mindset have been, following an England victory? Would a more optimistic public have felt more comfortable gambling on a party that was perceived as a greater economic risk?
Counterfactuals are just that, but it’s fair to say that events make the mood music, even if they don’t define the swing itself.
So, to answer: who benefits if England win? It’s more a question of which party can react well to a change in the national mood. In 1966, for example, England’s World Cup win did little to shape the public mood – because, according to Gallup, the public mood had already been in a state of optimism – and what effects there were in the polls were fleeting.
As for an England defeat – for Gareth Southgate’s team to have come this far is already good news, and while polling responses after a win would likely be characterised by greater optimism, there is unlikely to be a corresponding negativity in defeat. Rather, the public will revert more quickly to other things – perhaps, concerns about rising infection rates and growing scepticism about the end of lockdown measures.