Many people in the real world would probably agree that the party conference season is a bit of a weird time of year, but this is especially true if you are a pollster. When you look at voting intention polls it is clear that things get rather odd during that period, as each party takes its turn in the limelight. Much of the talk is of ‘conference bounce’, blips, slumps, spikes and stumbles.
As the head of political and social research at YouGov I am lucky enough to visit all three party conferences and the people I come into contact with while attending can generally be divided into three distinct groups: the smart, the silly and the stupid.
Smart people will largely ignore short-term fluctuations in polls during the conferences and instead focus on the underlying, longer-term trends to identify broad themes. Silly people, meanwhile, will cheer from the rooftops when the party they support gets a bump, but then become disheartened when other parties subsequently benefit from the same phenomenon.
Stupid people, on the other hand, will go out of their way to publicly attack specific pollsters when they publish an individual poll they don’t like, only to then have to keep quiet and hope nobody remembers when that same pollster comes up with a poll far more favourable to them just days later.
The good news for smart people is that at YouGov we produce a great deal of opinion data on a regular basis and so there are an awful lot of long-term trends to examine (our full data archive can be found here). But what are the long-term trends smart people should particularly focus on? And what conclusions can they draw about the broad themes that emerge?
Perhaps most important of all is the question of voting intention. Who would people vote for in the mythical ‘general election tomorrow’? The chart below shows the lead the Labour Party has held in YouGov surveys since the start of 2013 with the black line added as a linear trend line.
It is clear that, despite regular (and occasionally sharp) fluctuations along the way, the overall trend is broadly one of the Conservatives gradually closing the gap on Labour. While Labour remains ahead, the gap between the two has gone from typically around the 10 to 12 point range back at the start of the year to around 4 to 6 points now.
So Labour are losing ground, but why?
When you ask the British public what are the most important issues facing the country at the moment, the economy comes top, and it comes top every time. Then, when you ask the British public what are the most important issues facing them and their family, the economy again is the most important issue. For many it may even be the only game in town come the next general election.
And how is the economy doing? Well you don’t even need to conduct a nationally representative study to conclude that the perceptions of the economy are mostly negative. When we at YouGov ask ‘In your opinion how good or bad is the state of Britain’s economy at the moment?’ the number of people saying bad always outnumber those saying good. However, while we British are certainly not optimistic about the general economic situation, we are less pessimistic than we were at the start of the year.
Individuals’ perceptions of the economic situation can be made up of a variety of different factors, and their individual influence can vary wildly both from person to person and over time. Economic growth, unemployment, inflation, even house prices and the exchange rate can all go into the mix. However, the chart above shows that there is a strong, steady upward trend.
A similar pattern emerges when you ask people to look forward to the next year and assess their personal economic expectations – the all-important ‘feel good factor’. Their responses to the question ‘How do you think the financial situation of your household will change over the next 12 months?’ are also moving upwards, as can be seen in the chart below.
It is worth noting that people tend to be less pessimistic about their own household’s future economic circumstances when compared to Britain’s current economic situation as a whole. While the latter have broadly moved between the -80 and -40 point, the former fluctuate between -40 and -20, a phase shift upwards.
With the economy so important to the electorate, these two long-term trends should be viewed as good news for the Conservatives. They also point to a possible explanation for why the Conservatives are increasingly likely to be seen as the best party when it comes to handling the economy.
At YouGov we say to respondents ‘Here is a list of problems facing the country. Could you say for each of them which political party you think would handle the problem best?’ and then provide them with a list of important issues. The chart above below shows the Labour lead over the Conservatives when respondents are asked about ‘the economy in general’.
Since the turn of the year, Labour have gone from being neck-and-neck with the Conservatives, to trailing them by around 12 per cent. To make matters worse for Labour, even this far into the parliamentary cycle they are still most likely to be blamed for the current cuts that are taking place. When respondents are asked ‘Who do you think is most to blame for the current spending cuts?’ the proportion of people blaming Labour is consistently 6 to 12 per cent higher than the number of people blaming the coalition government and, as the chart below shows, that situation has not really changed throughout 2013.
So the economy is seen as the most important issue for the electorate, and while people are still pessimistic about it, the general economic situation is perceived to have improved and is expected to continue to do so. The Conservatives are most likely to be seen as the best people to deal with the problems, while Labour are still most likely to be blamed for the cuts, even after being out of Downing Street for so long.
Does this mean all doom and gloom for Labour? Well, not entirely in my view.
There are two important reasons why Labour can be hopeful. The first of these is that, as previously mentioned, perceptions of the economic situation are driven by a host of different factors and that, while the long term trend for handling ‘the economy generally’ is moving against Labour, they fare better (relatively speaking) when judged on handling, for example, economic issues such as unemployment or taxation. While specific policy proposals may operate above the heads of the average person in the street (and the 50 per cent of people less engaged than the average person in the street), the development of broad, favourable narratives in these policy areas could prove to be productive.
Second, there is the issue of fairness. The chart below shows results for the question ‘Thinking about the way the government is cutting spending to reduce the government’s deficit, do you think this is being done fairly or unfairly?’ It illustrates that, while economic expectations have become less pessimistic since the turn of the year, the belief that the cuts being made are unfair has remained largely unchanged.
This resilient narrative of unfairness, of economic gains being made but at the expense of certain groups and of people being ‘left behind’, is one that the Conservatives have consistently struggled to address and represents, in public opinion terms, an Achilles heel.
Whether this, or indeed anything else, will be enough for Labour to reverse the long term voting trends remains to be seen. The economy is consistently important to the electorate and the long term trends have the Conservatives in the ascendancy, but the battle is far from won. To use a baseball analogy, a home run has yet to be hit and Labour still has some fastballs at its disposal. The game is far from over and both teams need to keep their eye on the ball.
At the Labour conference in Brighton I met someone who, it subsequently transpired, had even gone as far as having ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’ tattooed on her ribcage, albeit out of public view.
Joe Twyman is Director of Political and Social Research at YouGov. You can follow him on twitter @JoeTwyman