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11 November 2019

The one thing that has changed in this election is Boris Johnson’s approval ratings

So far, the polls aren't showing much change at all. 

By Stephen Bush

As far as the opinion polls go, they’re more reliable at measuring change than measuring the level. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense: it doesn’t matter if your watch shows the incorrect time – if it reads 2:30pm when you start reading this article, and 2:34pm when you stop, then you know that four minutes have passed, regardless of the true time.

Similarly, when looking at how public opinion changes, analyses based on how the polls are changing – be it “Jeremy Corbyn is becoming more popular” in 2017 or “the SNP attack line is hurting the Liberal Democrats” in 2015 – have aged a lot better than looking at the headline polls.

So how is public opinion changing in the 2019 election? So, far, the headline polls aren’t moving about very much – people are getting very excited or depressed about margin of error movements that show the Conservative lead increasing or decreasing, but we have very little in the way of concrete or discernible patterns as far as headline voting intention is concerned.

The perception that we have seen change looks at the moment to have been created because the first YouGov poll of the contest had Labour down at 21 per cent, at the bottom of the usual 21-25 per cent range we’d “expect” from Labour with that pollster. I said at the time that this looked like an outlier and people shouldn’t pay it too much attention as a sign of Labour decline. Now that YouGov have shown two polls with Labour on 25 per cent, people are paying too much attention to that 21 per cent figure as a sign of Labour growth.

But we do have one interesting change in the underlying figures – a rise in Boris Johnson’s popularity ratings, although it is perhaps more accurate to describe it as a reduction in his unpopularity. He started out the campaign with a historically bad popularity rating – he was less popular than Nick Clegg during the AV referendum, David Cameron during the Panama Papers, or Theresa May at the end of the 2017 election campaign. He is now about as popular (that is to say, his net approval rating flickers between minus five per cent to plus five per cent) as David Cameron was in 2015.

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That’s not particularly suprising: when there is a gap between a leader’s approval ratings and the voteshare of their political party, one of three things tends to happen: the two numbers meet in the middle, or one number falls or rises to meet the other. So far, there is nothing particularly unusual or noteworthy about the polls, but we have the big, potentially disruptive events like the televised debates and the manifesto launches to come.

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So far, dullness is the unwritten story of this election. It’s dull for journalists if the story of this election is nothing more than “Conservative frontrunner maintains his lead, result under first past the post uncertain”. Just because it’s dull, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.