Britain’s unpopularity contest: the year in polling

The most surprising thing about polling over the last year is how stable is has been, despite all the squalls and alarms that obsessive Westminster watchers fixate on.

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After two general elections in which polling is not thought to have performed very well, the frequency and influence of polls seems to have dipped slightly. That’s a pity, because what information we have tells a fascinating story: one of two parties apparently marooned on very similar shares of the vote, while increasingly inhabiting parallel universes.

It’s not of course possible to tighten down with vast precision on exactly how the Westminster parties would do if there were a General Election tomorrow – British polling has a mediocre, though not in truth an appalling, record in this respect – but the broad lines of politics in 2018 have been long-established. Labour and the Conservatives are locked together, somewhere between the high 30s and low 40s in terms of vote share: sometimes one moves higher and threatens to break away, but neither seem able to gain a decisive advantage.

In truth, it’s Labour who have had a strangely mediocre time of it. If we take a look at the excellent Britain Elects website, Labour entered the year in the low 40s, with an advantage of a couple of percentage points: the party had, of course, enjoyed an extraordinary year, during which it had surged in the polls during the 2017 general election. When I reviewed 2017’s polling in this space a year ago, I thought that the passing of time and the rules of political gravity might help Labour break away entirely.

That hasn’t happened. Labour has drifted downwards, especially after a torrid spring marked by the ugly anti-Semitism row and its hesitant reaction to the Salisbury chemical attack. A raw average of every polling companies’ most recent survey right now in fact produces a very slight Conservative lead. They stand on 39.1 per cent, as against 38.7 per cent for Labour. If we factor in the latest polling from Wales, Scotland and London, that gives us a House of Commons that looks very roughly like: 301 Conservative MPs, 272 Labour, 39 SNP and 15 Liberal Democrats. That’s not very much movement on the 2017 result: 317 Conservative, 262 Labour, 35 SNP and 12 Liberal Democrats. The most surprising thing about polling over the last year is how stable is has been, despite all the squalls and alarms that obsessive Westminster watchers fixate on.

A new House of Commons wouldn’t look exactly like that. Polls very likely wouldn’t prove precisely accurate; regional trends and tactical voting would change the picture. But as a very basic guide to where we are now, what we can say is that things are finely balanced. You would in general say that Labour were in pole position to form a very weak minority government, but the Conservatives are ahead at the moment in the race for most seats. That would make for a very unstable situation, to say the least: those numbers would probably lead to another government that would struggle to deliver any sort of Brexit at all.

These Labour scores are middling by historical standards, and they fall somewhere in between the performance of recent Labour oppositions. Eighteen months after the Conservative election victories of 1983 and 1987, the Tories led by 7.2 per cent and 8 per cent respectively before going on to win the next election; in 1980 and 1993, Labour were racking up huge leads of 11 per cent and 16.2 per cent. That first lead evaporated, while the second of course led to the Labour landslide of 1997. It’s not clear from these numbers whether the present neck-and-neck horserace means either victory or defeat next time.

One other key point is how much the Liberal Democrats have struggled. Normally, the two main parties’ relative unpopularity would see them power ahead. The last time the two party leaders were this distrusted at the same time, in the early 1970s and the mid-1980s, saw Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals and then the SDP-Liberal Alliance surge.

But now, out of money, struggling for airtime and led by the strangely lacklustre Vince Cable, they seem to be going nowhere. Their polling average stands at 8.6 per cent, up only a point from the 7.6 per cent they gained in 2017. It seems like they will have to wait for some more general realignment to feel renewed wind in their sails.

It’s clear that the parties are favoured to govern two very different Britains. If we turn to leadership, identity, immigration, security or Brexit, then the Conservatives have the upper hand; if the agenda moves onto the increasingly parlous state of the threadbare public services, as it did during the 2017 General Election, then Labour gains sudden traction. One recent report from the pollsters Britain Thinks, appropriately titled Breaking the Deadlock, summed things up very well. The single biggest thing the Conservatives could do to break out of their trenches would be to increase spending on the National Health Service – and, of course, convince voters that they had done so; the most important thing Labour could do was to dump a leader perceived as weak and out-of-touch.

Both parties look superficially as if they command a whole tranche of the British electorate: but their grip on that share is much more uncertain that it looks. The first to abandon their fixed positions and launch a war of manoeuvre, accept their weaknesses, and talk straightforwardly about the choices ahead as they see them, could capture all that ground that now looks so heavily fortified.
Can either make the leap? For now, it looks doubtful. But after a tumultuous 2017 and 2018, one thing’s for sure: you can rule nothing out for certain.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (2011). He is currently working on A History of Water in Modern Britain (forthcoming, 2016). He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past