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  1. Election 2024
  2. Polling
11 August 2023

The polling data that shows the Tories could recover

Harold Wilson narrowed a 26-point polling deficit to just two. Could Rishi Sunak do the same?

By Ben Walker

Let’s assume two things. First, that the polls are right, and second, that the next general election will be held in the first week of October 2024. That puts us more than 400 days away from polling day and leaves the Conservatives around 20 percentage points behind Labour.

Using PollBasePro, a dataset that adjusts the polling for previous elections to better reflect actual public opinion (accounting for error, essentially), this means the Tories are about as far behind Labour as they were at this point in 1996 – but not quite as far behind as Harold Wilson’s Labour government was before the 1970 election. 

Ted Heath’s Conservatives won the 1970 election, but only by a very small margin. Look at this chart and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

The Tories have a huge challenge ahead, but the recovery that Wilson’s Labour achieved from 1969 to 1970 was in the face of a polling deficit far greater than the current one. In isolation, this could be cited as evidence that the Conservatives can recover. And yes, they could. From 1969-70, Labour’s polling deficit shrunk from 28 points to just two points. Were the Tories to achieve a comparable recovery now, they would win 274 seats to Labour’s 300.

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But this is a question of probability. Voting intention surveys and party popularity are not, in isolation, a water-tight metric for determining whether a zombie government can regain its standing. For speculative purposes, however, let’s assume the Tories can recover.

[See also: Who would win if an election was held today?]

I’ve taken elections at which there was a change of government and, using PollBasePro, examined how much governments typically recover by in the preceding year and a half. The median recovery is ten points, meaning that if a party is 25 points behind, that margin will likely be reduced to 15 points by polling day. The best-case scenario for a government, as in 1970, is a shift of 26 points in the space of 400 days; the worst case is the polling deficit increasing by three points.

Under these three scenarios, the Tories could either reduce Labour’s lead to ten points (median case), see it widen to 22.5 points (worst case, with Labour winning more than 400 seats) or achieve an eight-point lead of their own (the best-case scenario).

And the probability of that happening – of the Tories transforming public opinion in their favour? One in four. (Based on historical precedent in voting intention polls alone.)

But, as I’ve long argued, the party’s actual chances are likely lower. Once we factor in public opinion on which party is best placed to manage the economy and which leader has the best approval rating – areas where Labour presently has an advantage, unlike before the elections in 1992, or 2015, or 2017 – then the Tories’ prospects look far bleaker.

It’s an interesting theory nonetheless. The government’s current standing is comparable to that of its predecessors ahead of the 1997 and 1964 elections – and even 1970. This spoils the prevalent narrative somewhat. If Wilson’s Labour can recover, then maybe Sunak's Conservatives can, too. Maybe.

[See also: The problem with young voters]

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