Opinion poll round-up: The ‘New Leader Bounce’

You can’t have missed the fevered speculation as to whether Gordon Brown will call an early General Election, just two and a half years into a theoretical five-year term. Though such a gamble sounds absurd, if Mr Brown is considering such a thing it will be for the same reason that the rest of us are wondering: he’s seen the opinion polls.

The so-called ‘Brown Bounce’ appears to have turned round the Tory lead and given Labour the better chance of winning the next election. But how do these sudden opinion poll surges compare with similar situations in the past? And is the past, or are opinion polls, any guide to the future?

You might well be better off with tea leaves and sticking your finger in the air (or through a letterbox), but as you’re reading this for some opinion poll fun, let’s start crunching numbers…

The Liberal Democrats’ ancestry goes back to the 17th Century, but we’ve been going as this party since just 1988. That seems the appropriate point, then, from which to make comparisons – Liberal Democrat poll standing with Liberal Democrat poll standing.

During the lifetime of this party, there have been three new leaders before Mr Brown who’ve immediately turned around their party’s fortunes… And none of them have been ours! So what did the early Britain-wide opinion polls make of John Major (who ended badly), Tony Blair (who ended badly) and David Cameron (who may be starting to end badly)?

John Major

John Major became Leader of the Conservative Party on the 27th November, 1990, and Prime Minister the following day. If politics really does follow patterns, then he sounds like the ideal comparison: the dull, reassuring Chancellor taking over from the proven election-winning superstar who’d started turning the voters off by developing a barking mad messiah complex. Of course, he’d been a top political figure for little more than a year at that point, and in terms of his appeal you could argue he was the mirror image of Tony Blair – both popular because you could more easily imagine them as Leader of their largest competitor party than their own.

However, despite a traumatic and continuing split in the Tory Party over the removal of Mrs Thatcher – perhaps because, unlike the Liberal Democrats, they didn’t have a ‘nice’ image to trash – Mr Major started off with a huge boost. Like Mr Brown, you have to wonder whether this was down to the new leader’s qualities or simply the huge sigh of relief that his predecessor was gone, while Mr Major conversely had a popular war with Iraq to his name.

Whatever the reasons, though, Mr Major had a bounce. In September 1990, the Tories trailed on 36.5%, behind Labour on 46.8%, and the Liberal Democrats – still recovering from our merger blues – were on 9.8%. A month later, Eastbourne saw our first by-election victory, boosting us in the polls to 13.3%, bringing Labour down to 45.9% and sending the Tories into a panic on 33.6%. Mrs Thatcher admitted defeat on the anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, 22nd November, and that month’s polls already saw the Tories climbing back to 38.1%.

Once Mr Major was securely in post – well, it looked like it at the time – the December 1990 opinion polls monthly average showed a huge turnaround. Tories on 45.7%, up 7.6% on November; Labour 40.4%, down 4.6%; Lib Dems on 9.1%, down 2.7%. Yes, Mr Kinnock was saying ‘Oh no, we’re doomed’ at a poll rating that would have Mr Cameron crying hallelujah and breaking open the champagne: remember that!

Mr Major’s initial bounce only lasted a few months before Labour was – much more narrowly – ahead in the opinion polls again, while the Liberal Democrat share steadily rose to double that December low. On the other hand, against nearly all predictions and famously out of line with all opinion polls, Mr Major won the 1992 election with an actual vote nearly 8% ahead of Labour. Not that it made him happy for long…

Tony Blair

Tony Blair became Leader of the Labour Party on the 21st July, 1994. John Smith is venerated now in the Labour tradition, but before he died he’d been the subject of quite a lot of hostile press associated with his impatient Young Turks. He’d been the natural ‘safe pair of hands’ choice to follow his party’s previous, more charismatic, red-headed leader; regarded as more serious and credible before his election, he’d become seen as rather an uninspiring and patrician Scottish lawyer (no, sit down, missus, my next one’s a cracker).

Anyway, unlike our slow but steady rise in the year after Mr Major became Prime Minister, Mr Blair’s ascension as Labour Leader did some initial damage to the Lib Dem poll rating – then saw us spiral further down over the next few years the longer his victory looked assured. By June 1994, we were already down from our party’s high point so far – a huge surge in mid-1993 – to 20.6%, with Labour on 47.9% and the Tories 24.9% (note to Mr Cameron: that’s what a winning Opposition lead looks like. Scary, isn’t it?). July saw the Tories recover slightly to 25.6%, Labour rise to 50.2% and the Lib Dems down to 19.2%. With Mr Blair fully installed for August, the Tories fell to 24.3% in the polls, we fell to 17.0%, and Labour soared to 54.3%.

And, though his eventual General Election landslide was won with a share over 10% lower than that, the polls over the next few months and then years showed Labour mostly remaining over 50%; the Tories gradually recovering to the heady heights of, er, 31%; and Mr Blair bouncing all over us, with our vote pretty much a steady line down towards the 12-13% we were registering by the General Election (in which actual votes gave us 17%). It was 2001 before the polls put us solidly past 15% again, and we hit the 20s again only in 2002. Some bounce!

David Cameron

David Cameron became Leader of the Conservative Party on the 6th December, 2005. Michael Howard was seen as a relatively strong and safe pair of hands, and at least better than the previous disaster, but still a scary reminder of their Thatcherite past. So how did he do? Pretty well, but no Mr Blair, or even Mr Major.

In November 2005, the Tories were on 33.4% to Labour’s 38.8% and the Lib Dems’ 19.4%. Taking over in December, he saw an immediate boost to 37.1%, Labour behind on 35.8% and us on 19.1% – pretty much a straight 3% switch from Labour to Tory. In January, the Tories continued to improve, hitting 38.1% (almost his peak so far), while Labour recovered (temporarily, as they fell another 6% over the next few months) and the Liberal Democrats fell to 16.8% (rallying the next month to 18.4%). It’s possible that our own leader may have had a more dramatic impact on our poll rating in January 2006 than the Tories’, though…

May – June 2007

So how had Labour been doing before Gordon Brown became Leader of the Labour Party on the 24th July this year, and Prime Minister on the 27th? If I take you back to my last opinion poll round-up, covering the month of April (oops), the answer is ‘very badly’. This April’s 30.2% was, in fact, their worst opinion poll showing for exactly twenty years. However, they started to come out of it almost immediately. In May’s published polls, Labour rose from 30.2% to an average of 33%, ranged between 31% and 35%, but in real votes, they hit just 27% in the local elections. In June, their opinion poll recovery continued, with an average rating of 35.4% (between 32% and 39%), marking their best opinion poll performance since March 2006.

After falling back in April, the Tories only slipped slightly further in May, from 37.3% to an average of 36.7% including from 34% to 39%, with no polls that month above the crucial 40% barrier – unlike the local election votes, in which they hit 40%. In June, there was a further small slip but it looked like they were steadying as they fell to 36.1%, but with an unusually tightly clustered range of between 35% and 37%. Again, it doesn’t seem that big a decline – but it was the third-worst result for them since Mr Cameron took over (after a wobble in March and April of last year).

April had seen the Liberal Democrats on the up a bit in the polls, to an average of 19.5%; deprived of pre-election publicity, we fell back to 17.5% in May – despite gaining 26% in opinion polls the votes cast in the local elections. It wasn’t just the sudden lack of publicity from journalists keen to spread a ‘two-party fight’ story once the awkward facts of an election were out of the way, though.

Labour evidently won the spin war, after moving 1% ahead of us since last year: we won 300 more councillors than Labour but no, said the BBC, we lost because we got slightly fewer votes than they did. Except in Scotland, where the BBC said we lost because we won fewer seats (but more votes)! Either way, Labour spin doctors successfully presented themselves as recovering and us as losers – never a helpful tag to boost our ratings.

Looking at the reasons for our slippage, there are the pollsters to consider, too. Regular Lib Dem poll-watchers will know that ICM’s methodology tends to give us higher shares than those of other pollsters, while YouGov almost always gives us the lowest ratings. Naturally, this means that ICM is the most accurate and YouGov the least… Though, if you’re a non-Lib Dem supporter, you may draw other conclusions.

True to form, that 17.5% average ranged from two YouGovs dragging the average down by giving us just 15% to an ICM up on 21%. There was another 21% measured by ICM at the end of May and published in June, but sorry to say it’s significantly higher than any polls taken in June, with 18% the next-highest; you’ll not be surprised to learn that YouGov’s 14% was lower than anyone else in June, too – all adding up to 16.9%, only our lowest average since last December.

A more intriguing ICM poll finding from May seems – unusually for a poll – such a strong result that it’s likely to reflect a real divide (and may chime in with the less strong but often-recorded poll tendency for women to lean more towards the Liberal Democrats than men do). What did this cover? Asked if they agreed with the Government’s policy of building new nuclear power stations, those polled split 44% in favour of the Labour-and-usually-Tory policy, and 49% were against more nuclear power, along with the Liberal Democrats. Sounds fairly even? It wasn’t. 62% of men and just 27% of women polled were in favour; 63% of women and just 34% of men opposed nuclear expansion.

After May and June, then, the 13 Britain-wide opinion polls appeared to show Conservative support dipping slightly across the two months, Liberal Democrat support dipping slightly more, and Labour support climbing significantly – by more than five points, according to the polls. At the beginning of that period, Tony Blair announced he was finally going; at the end of it, he finally went…

In my next piece, I’ll look at July and August, and make some educated guesses as to whether the ‘Brown Bounce’ is to be one that puts the largest opposition party in a panic like Mr Major’s, a huge, lasting, and very damaging to the Liberal Democrats one like Mr Blair’s, or a rather modest and soon-fading one like Mr Cameron’s.

Standard health warning: all opinion polls should be taken with several sackloads of salt, whether they show your favourite option going up or down. They are not ‘news’, merely irresistible, so remember that however fevered the analysis, we’re only pretending they matter until actual elections come along.

If you take them very seriously, though, you should know that the polls of polls I’m using are compiled using the mean average for each month. And just to confuse you, they’re compiled in two slightly different ways (though not as different as the adjusted and unadjusted and readjusted polling methods over the years that mean none of it’s really like-for-like). With ‘new’ monthly poll averages for these reports, I use all the polls published in a particular month.

However, when referring back to historical data, the tables I use have the average of polls conducted during a named month. Although this means there may be the occasional polls in some months which would be included in the preceding / following month using the other method, doing it this way means I might sometimes get the roundup done at the beginning of the month and not have to wait to see if any delayed fieldwork emerges. There, now, aren’t you glad you read that?

* Alex Wilcock blogs at Love and Liberty. This is one of his briefer articles.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Polls.


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