Today’s Populus poll in the Times looks like good news for Labour: opening up its biggest lead over the Conservatives since last year’s general election; Labour 41%, up three points on last month; Conservatives down one on 33%, and the Lib Dems down four on just 8%. Let’s not get too excited. The latest YouGov poll in the Sun gives Labour a lead, but significantly smaller and more or less unchanged over the last month: CON 37%, LAB 40%, LDEM 9%.
So, across the polls it looks something like: Labour at 40ish, Tories 35ish and Lib Dems not quite hitting double figures. It is always better to be ahead than behind, yet Neil Kinnock enjoyed some massive poll leads until people had to put stubby pencil to ballot paper. But pouring cold water on poll leads is not the purpose of this post.
Whenever there is a new poll I watch with interest the Twitter traffic, by enthusiastic activists from both parties, trying to highlight the good news for their party. You sometimes see the same thing on a late Thursday night/Friday morning when @Britainvotes post their excellent results local council by-election service.
The important thing about mid-term polls though, is not what they say about current voting intention – unless they show a complete collapse or something equally dramatic, of course – but what they say about preparation and positioning for any future contest. About the relative development and performance of the parties’ political communications strategies. About what they tell us the public are hearing as parties try to tell the story about their journey between elections.
There is something rather interesting in recent polls that I think Labour, in particular, needs to watch. It is about the cuts.
Look at some of the findings in the latest YouGov poll for example, taken 16-17th October. On the surface it seems to show that Labour’s message that the cuts are too far, too fast might be hitting home: 50% believe the way the government is cutting spending to reduce the government deficit is bad for the economy; 59% believe it is being done unfairly; 47% believe these cuts are too deep; and 51% too fast. And, women voters tend to believe this more than men.
Looks like Labour’s message is breaking through? Perhaps that’s right. But is it benefiting Labour in the short to medium term? That’s a different story.
The very same poll – and remember it is the one which has Labour’s lead lowest – shows that far from blaming the Conservatives or the current coalition government for these cuts, 38% blame the last Labour government; and another 25% share the blame between both. Only one in four voters blame the Conservatives for cuts they regard as harsh, damaging, unfair, too far and too fast. In London 43% of voters blame Labour; in the rest of the South that figure rises to 48%.
And, given that Ed Miliband’s strategy appears to focus quite a bit on winning back ex-Lib Dem voters it is worrying that people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 blame Labour more than the Conservatives for the current cuts.
This seems to show that whilst Labour can connect by complaining about the cuts, it is still getting punished for them. It suggests that Labour can not win a general election by simply hoovering up disenchanted voters on the cuts issue arguing they are too far, too fast.
This is born out in some of the recent polling for Populus. I haven’t yet seen the detail from today but last month, Populus reported that 65% agreed that Labour criticised the Coalition plans to tackle the debt and deficit but had ‘no coherent plan of their own’ while 29% disagreed. Amongst the crucial C2 voters 73% agreed Labour had no coherent plan with 45% saying they strongly agreed. And 67% of previous Lib Dem voters in 2010 agreed with this view.
A more sophisticated political communications strategy is necessary. One which gives the electorate an opportunity to reassess Labour’s credibility and coherence on dealing with the deficit. That may well mean an acknowledgement which goes beyond saying Labour didn’t regulate the financial services sector hard enough but which explicitly acknowledges mistakes in previous spending levels. Unless Labour moves towards where the electorate is on this issue, rather than waiting for the voters to move towards them, it is unlikely they can make the breakthrough necessary to secure victory.
At the moment the voters appear to be buying Labour’s diagnosis but can’t see their prescription. Without it voters will not put their trust in Labour to cure the problem.