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21 April 2020updated 18 May 2020 10:54am

Almost all national governments are surging in the polls – but that information is not useless

In the UK, the latest polls confirm that voters are increasingly volatile and that the next general election is more unpredictable than it may appear. 

By Stephen Bush

Around the democratic world, incumbent governments are enjoying huge increases in popularity – both individual ministers and the ruling party as a whole.

There are a handful of exceptions that are fairly self-explanatory: in Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has seen his own approval ratings climb, but because he is not identified with the Five Star Movement, nor the centre-left Democrats, who keep him in office, neither party has enjoyed an uptick in their fortunes.

In the United States, President Donald Trump continues to provide a real-world “control group”: his handling of the pandemic has been incredibly poor to any fair-minded observer, regardless of their politics, and he has enjoyed a much smaller rise in approval than politicians elsewhere, as well as state governors of both parties. In Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s response has been similarly incoherent, he too has seen his figures slump.

Some people say that this makes opinion polls at this moment “a product without a purpose”: essentially we know that unless a government visibly sets itself on fire, it ought to be enjoying a big boost in its approval right now. Added to the usual health warnings about election polling this far out – the next UK general election isn’t for four years – there’s a temptation to just declare all of this information “junk” and be done with it. However, I think there are still a couple of useful things about the polls, both for observers of British politics and for politics more generally.

They tell us that we should avoid drawing too many specific conclusions

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Because the centre-left is doing so poorly around the globe, there’s an understandable desire to look at the few examples of semi-success. In South Korea, the left-leaning parties won their first parliamentary majority in 16 years. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took office in a coalition and is running for re-election in September.

I don’t think we can draw any meaningful lessons for Keir Starmer from the success of President Moon Jae-In beyond “be an incumbent in a political moment that creates favourable circumstances for them”. If Ardern is re-elected in September, while polls continue to give big leads to incumbents around the world, we should similarly be wary of suggestions that there is all that much to “learn” from that campaign, from a strategic perspective.

Similarly, anyone writing long thinkpieces about what Starmer is doing wrong or what Johnson is doing right from an electoral perspective should, at this point, be ignored.

They do usefully reveal a couple of things about British politics, though

As we wrote repeatedly during the general election, British voters are increasingly volatile and willing to shop around the parties. We saw that both at a national level, with the Conservatives winning many seats they had never won before, and also at a constituency level. Take Redcar: a solidly safe Labour seat under different names from 1964 until 2005. At the 2010 general election it went Liberal Democrat, before being won by Labour in 2015 and then the Conservatives in 2019. On all three occasions the “swing” – the change between parties was very large, far beyond what we would have expected in elections in the 20th century.

With that in mind, there’s an open debate about whether the Conservatives and the SNP are doing well or badly, to be polling at around 50 per cent of the vote in their respective theatres – a figure that we associate with Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair at the peak of their political powers in eras when people were far less willing to switch parties.

But that’s unanswerable, because we can’t know how a different initial response to the crisis by the national and Scottish governments would have been received by voters. What we can say is that it confirms that voters are still volatile. That is a reminder that the 2024 election is not as much of a foregone conclusion as the 2019 result might have indicated in times past – and it is also a reminder that 2019 does not necessarily represent the nadir of Labour’s fortunes.

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