Labour in dire trouble? Electoral history tells a more nuanced story
Labour Party people are worried – very worried, in some cases. Having enjoyed an opinion poll lead of around ten points or so for most of 2012 and early 2013, their numbers have now been sliding for some time. The party has now dropped from the low 40s to the mid- to high 30s in the opinion polls, while there are also some tentative signs of Conservative recovery in the polls. That precious resource in political life – a sense of momentum – is clearly with the biggest governing party.
The personal ratings of the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband (pictured), are dire, and his net positive or negative rating now hovers (in the latest Ipsos-Mori poll) only one point above the nadirs recorded by William Hague between 1997 and 2001, and Iain Duncan Smith between 2001 and 2003. Above all, the economy seems to be looking up, and polls recording the public’s economic optimism and views of their own personal situation are gradually seeing a recovery in positive sentiment. Labour faces, in short, a darkening electoral landscape: the 2015 election, which once looked as if it was theirs to lose, is clearly up for grabs again.
And yet too many amongst Westminster’s less-than-numerate commentators have little sense of scale and scope: they find it difficult to measure what is a “big” poll lead, and what is a “small” one. It is a flaw that helped to cause many columnists’ failure to accept President Barack Obama’s consistent (if narrow) poll lead over Mitt Romney in 2012 – and led to red faces all round when the President cruised to a relatively easy re-election.
Labour has led the Conservatives by between three and seven percentage points in every poll published in September – apparently an unimpressive, if consistent, advantage. But what are we to make of this in quantitative terms? Well, one way to look at it would be historically. How is Mr Miliband’s party doing when measured against other Oppositions since the dawn of modern polling in 1945?
If we look at Gallup data since 1945 – the only really consistent series available to us, with all its flaws and problems – we can look at how the political parties were doing three years and four months into every government since the Second World War. And on this measure, the prevailing electoral landscape is a lot more complicated than any monochrome picture of an Opposition that is “failing” to surge ahead.
Clement Attlee’s government was only three points behind in the polls in November 1948; in February 1955 the governing Conservatives were ahead by a couple of percentage points, even in the dog days of a peacetime Churchill Ministry led by an old and ailing premier. By February 1968, however, Harold Wilson’s Labour government was reeling from the November 1967 devaluation of sterling and subsequent public spending cuts: the Conservative Opposition, under Edward Heath, led in the polls by a huge 22 points.
Moving on to Heath’s own government, between 1970 and 1974, his government was on the other hand only six points behind Labour in October 1973, even while suffering from the economic crisis and oil shock of that year. By June 1977, though, Labour was again being hurt by the legacy of an enormous financial crisis – this time, it was the need to go to the International Monetary Fund for a loan in 1976 – and was ten points behind in the polls.
The Thatcher and Blair years saw those Prime Ministers riding high at this point in their premierships. Thatcher’s government was thirteen points ahead of Labour in late 1982, following the Government’s success in re-capturing the Falkland Islands. The results for September of 2000 are affected by the brief but alarming fuel crisis of that month, which saw tanker and truck drivers blockade refineries, and the Government’s popularity falter for a few days. But Blair’s government was thirteen points ahead of the Conservatives going into that crisis, which briefly saw Hague’s party take the lead, and nine points ahead again the next month.
So there we have it. Labour is, at the moment, between three and seven points ahead in the opinion polls – depending on which polling company we believe to be most accurate. It is not, by any measure, a stellar performance – especially when facing a hapless and sloppy administration that seems to be making a wilful hash of issues as disparate as the introduction of Universal Credit and their rather sinister and absurd Lobbying Bill.
But new Oppositions have never consistently done very well at this stage of their struggles through the political wilderness. Only Heath in 1968, and Thatcher in 1977, were doing any better – and they had the relatively easy job of facing a Labour Government whose financial credibility had imploded in a very public, and very humiliating, currency crisis.
Ed Miliband faces a number of problems: his relations with the trade unions; his own difficulties in convincing the electorate that he is a credible Prime Minister; his party’s lack of money; a dearth of clear, definite policies. The Conservatives may well end up being the biggest party after the 2015 General Election. They may even gain a majority – though our electoral system, and their own mistakes, make this seem unlikely. But is he really doing that badly? History suggests that it could be a lot worse: ask Michael Foot and William Hague.
Dr Glen O’Hara is Reader in the History of Public Policy at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books on Britain since 1945, the latest being Governing Post-War Britain: The Paradoxes of Progress, 1951-1973 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). He blogs, in a personal capacity, at ‘Public Policy and the Past’Tagged in: conservatives, elections, history, labour
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