The ‘Polling Observatory’: the state of party support in Britain

Nott 04-12-12 low res

By Rob Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup. Cross-posted at @NottsPolitics.

This is part of a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

The Chancellor’s Autumn statement marks the midpoint of this parliament, delivered against the backdrop of a stagnating economy and with the tough medicine of austerity now prescribed until 2018 at least (with OBR’s poor track record in forecasting leaving doubts there too), well after the next election. But with conference season now a distant memory and winter upon us, has there been any real shift in the political weather?

In our latest estimates, Labour are at 41.4% (down 0.5% from last month) and the Conservatives at 30.6% (down 1.3%), meaning that the Labour lead has widened to almost 11% despite downward movement in support for both the main parties. The beneficiaries of this have been the Liberal Democrats at 8.5% (up 0.6%) and UKIP at 8.8% (up 1.1%), who have both gained support. Our polling data runs up to the start of this week, so does not capture any post-Leveson fallout for the Cameron government over its rejection of statutory underpinning of press regulation, or immediate reactions to the budget. Certainly things are not looking good for the main coalition partners, the Conservatives, who have hit an all-time low in our estimates.

The budget statement of April 2012 will go down in history as one of the most politically disastrous in history, leading it to be tagged the ‘omnishambles’ and severely damaging the reputation of the Chancellor and the government for competence as well as reinforcing the perception (deserved or not) of the Conservatives as the party of the rich. Support for the Conservatives has never recovered from this crash in April 2012. While the Autumn statement has received nothing like the bad press, there are few rabbits for the Chancellor to pull out of the hat in austere times. Significantly, Osborne continues to suffer from poor standing with the public. Depending on your choice of pollster, he has an ‘unfavourable’ rating of 58% (Ipsos-MORI, April 2012), 56% (ICM, August 2012) or 53% (Opinium, October 2012). These figures are high by historical standards, though do not quite reach the dissatisfaction rating of 70% reached by Norman Lamont (Gallup, March 1993) or Nigel Lawson’s 61% (Gallup, January 1989), each of whom were soon given the axe. They are not far off though. If Osborne is to avoid being a drag on Conservative support at the next election, he is going to have to reverse this state of affairs soon.

The continued rise of UKIP has attracted a great deal of discussion, not least with regard to the relative intolerance of its supporters (see articles by Rob Ford here and here). It has also stimulated debate over the methods pollsters use to survey vote intention for ‘other’ parties, discussed by Damian Lyons Lowe of Survation and Anthony Wells. Our method enables us to put a figure on the degree to which each pollsters’ estimates of UKIP support are above or below the underlying industry average. These are consistent with Anthony Wells’ findings, with the internet pollsters Survation (+3.0%), Opinium (+2.1%) and Angus Reid (+1.3%) reporting the highest share for UKIP on average, and the telephone pollsters TNS-BMRB (-1.1%), Ipsos-MORI (-1.4%), Populus (-1.5%) and ICM (-2.1%) reporting the lowest share. As UKIP seem to be a political force to reckon with, at least for the time being, the question of such polling ‘house effects’ (i.e. the systematic tendency for a polling firms to report higher or lower support for a particular party) is going to be increasingly important in assessing the state of support for the parties.

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