What should worry Labour in the polls?
Welcome to the 77th edition of The Week in Polls, where I’ve had a go at putting together the best case possible to cast doubt on Labour’s lead in the polls. Let’s see how I do…
Then it’s a look at the latest voting intention polls followed by, for paid-for subscribers, 10 insights from the last week’s polling and analysis. (If you’re a free subscriber, sign up for a free trial here to see what you’re missing.)
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What should worry Labour about the state of the polls?
Both the standing of Rishi Sunak and of the Conservatives in the polls is bad. Very bad. Regular readers will already know that and be bored by the number of times I’ve compared the Conservative poll rating with Labour’s 1983 result. The Mirror really should dress someone up in a donkey jacket to chase around after Rishi Sunak.1
All that can get a bit boring to repeat, so let’s take a look at what there is in the polls that could worry Labour and should at least keep them nervous. (This will also be a helpful piece to quote if Sunak pulls off a miracle win2 as I can then point out how I predicted it all along.)
People aren’t optimistic about a Labour government
YouGov recently asked a question which neatly encapsulates the doubts about a Labour government seen in other polling too:
If Labour were to win the next election, what impact, if any, do you think this would have on the day to day lives of each of the following groups over the next few years?
For “people like you” the answers came in at a mere net +1 (30% picked positive impact, 29% negative).
There were bigger net positives for other groups (e.g. net +32 for “working people on low incomes” and net +30 for “people working in public services:”). But “people like you” is the killer. People don’t think a Labour win is going to make their lives better.
To win a general election, Labour will need to get people to vote for it who don’t think a Labour government will improve their lives.
But you only have to beat who you are up against, which is why Boris Johnson - despite his big unpopularity in the 2019 election - still managed to beat Jeremy Corbyn so handsomely.
So it may well be this is a poll finding that will be more of a problem for Starmer in 10 Downing Street than an obstacle to him getting there.
Keir Starmer’s ratings are lukewarm
There are lots of ways of illustrating this, and perhaps the Ipsos tracker graph of opposition leaders is the best.
At first glance, Starmer’s rating look okay compared with others, but remember most people plotted on this graph were losers. It’s Cameron and Blair who are the lines to compare Starmer with:
Yet it’s not his name that will be on ballot papers across the country and voting intention polls paint a very different picture.
What if MRPs are right about a collapse in tactical voting?
A common pattern in MRP polls at the moment is for them to show relatively low levels of tactical voting. Yes, low levels.
As I wrote about the Stonehaven MRP in an earlier edition:
There’s a common feature of some MRP models, Electoral Calculus’s also included, which is to show a decent Lib Dem overall vote share but to have it distributed rather evenly across the country, rather than it being very lumpy with peaks in target seat and troughs elsewhere. MRPs that score lower on the Lumpiness Test therefore also show a surprisingly large number of close-ish three-way results; i.e. they suggest that far from a wave of successful anti-Conservative tactical voting at the next election we’ll see it flop. If the Conservative vote share is low enough in the MRP that flop doesn’t save Conservative seats, but even so suggesting such a rise in three-way contests seems is another brave prediction.
Or take the most recent Survation MRP for Greenpeace. By my calculations, it shows that there would be 64 seats won by the Conservatives in England where the combined Labour and Lib Dem vote would be higher than the Conservative share and also where there would be 15 points or less between the Labour and Lib Dem share (i.e. where there wouldn’t be a big third party tactical squeeze). That would be up from 41 at the 2019 general election.
In other words, the number of ‘failed tactical voting’ seats held by the Conservative would go up by around half at the next general election. If the poll is right.
The idea that anti-Conservative tactical voting would fare significantly worse at the next general election than at the last very much goes against the mood of most commentary and the logic that flows from, for example, how much better Starmer is viewed by Lib Dem voters than Corbyn was.
So there are three possibilities: that the MRP models which fail the Lumpiness test are wrong; that they are right but that people will mobilise tactically by the time of the election and so while they are right at the moment, reality will play out differently; or … cue Labour nerves … they are right and the data is telling us that conventional wisdom is wrong.
My money is very money on it being some combination of the first two. Though as a purveyor of millimetre-perfect bar charts at scale, you should caveat my judgement a little. Certainly enough to add to the tally of Labour nerves.
If you would like to understand MRP better in general, take a look at my special guide to understanding MRP.
Those don’t knows
Back to another cause of possible Labour nerves: the don’t knows. The don’t knows are beloved by journalists looking to file a story that has some variety from ‘party that was well ahead still well ahead and still on course to win’. News needs to be new. They’re also beloved by editorial teams whose political preferences are at odds with what the polling figures say and want to cast doubt on them.
But saying ‘the don’t knows might yet rescue party X’ is a line with a pretty inglorious record, in British general elections at least.3 (Including my own previous flirtation with seeing hope in the don’t knows.)
For example, the Daily Express earlier in the week and most famously, the Daily Mail’s front page on general election day 1997:
But there is some grounds for a bit of Labour nerves on this front as the pollsters who treat the don’t knows in ways least favourable to Labour, Kantar and Opinium, both consistently find lower leads for Labour.
They both, however, still find consistently large Labour leads, and the polling evidence is that the don’t knows aren’t particularly attracted to the Conservatives. In that poll hyped by the Daily Express, even if every single don’t know voted and they all voted Conservative, that would still leave them on an Ed Miliband level of support. Better than Michael Foot, but still only Ed Miliband.
Similarly, focus groups, although finding lukewarm support for Starmer, find don’t knows breaking for Labour rather than all swinging to the Conservatives.
Nor are the number of people who are saying they may switch (not quite the same as don’t knows, but a different measure of the same bigger point) particularly high for this point in a Parliament, around a year out from the general election:
Labour’s steady slide in the Blue Wall
Finally, what is perhaps the strongest cause for some Labour nerves ahead of the election - other than the fact that they lose two general elections out of three.4
The Redfield & Wilton Blue Wall tracker shows a slow but steady long-term fall in Labour’s standing:
It’s only one pollster, of course, and one not yet tested out in a general election. Moreover, even if that latest figure turns out to be more than just a bit of random variation, it still shows a 13% swing from Conservatives to Labour (and an 11% swing from Conservatives to Lib Dem).
But perhaps a political pitch that seems so firmly aimed at the Red Wall is coming with a Blue Wall penalty?
Cause for some nerves yes, but hard to see a factor here which seriously undermines the overall picture of a consistently large Labour lead. The bigger cause of nerves should be about how weak Labour’s standing likely will be with the public if it wins and then has to make difficult decisions.
Spotted other causes for Labour nerves? Do hit reply and let me know as I suspect this will be a post worth an update or two as the general election gets near.
Know other people interested in political polling?
National voting intention polls
Once again, it a week without a poll putting the Conservatives on more than 30%, extending the run stretching back to late June (when a Savanta poll gave them 31%).
Here are the latest figures from each currently active pollster:
Last week’s edition
Has the electoral mountain got smaller for Labour?, and other polling news
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