A look back at the polls: January '09

by Stephen Tall on February 1, 2009

We tend not to be too poll-obsessed here at LDV – of course we look at them, as do all other politico-geeks, but viewed in isolation no one poll will tell you very much beyond what you want to read into it. Looked at over a reasonable time-span and, if there are enough polls, you can see some trends.

Here, in chronological order, are the results of the eight polls published in January:

Tories 41%, Labour 34%, Lib Dems 15% – YouGov/The Sun (9 Jan)
Tories 43%, Labour 33%, Lib Dems 15% – Populus/The Times (13 Jan)
Tories 41%, Labour 32%, Lib Dems 15% – ComRes/Independent (17 Jan)
Tories 45%, Labour 32%, Lib Dems 14% – YouGov/Sunday Times (17 Jan)
Tories 44%, Labour 30%, Lib Dems 17% – MORI (unpublished) (18 Jan)
Tories 43%, Labour 28%, Lib Dems 16% – ComRes/Independent (26 Jan)
Tories 44%, Labour 32%, Lib Dems 16% – ICM/Guardian (27 Jan)
Tories 43%, Labour 32%, Lib Dems 16% – YouGov/Telegraph (30 Jan)

Which gives us an average rating for the parties in January as follows, compared with December’s averages:


Tories 43% (+3%), Labour 32% (-3%), Lib Dems 16% (+1%)

At the end of 2008, all the talk was of the ‘second Brown bounce’ – our December poll average showed the Tories just 5% ahead, leaving us in hung Parliament territory. Just one month later, and all the polls are agreed: the Tory lead has grown, and David Cameron’s party, now polling consistently above 40%, is on course for a majority. The sharp about-turn in Labour’s fortunes has caught most commentators – and seemingly most Labour MPs and strategists – off-guard, unsure how to respond to the reversal.

There has been no single event which explains the ‘second Brown slump’ – rather it seems to be that recession reality is kicking in. The last few months of 2008 can perhaps be seen as a ‘phoney war’ – though we all knew the recession was coming, few of us had been personally touched by its effects. As more and more people face the threat or reality of losing their jobs, we are looking at a government which claimed to have ‘saved the world’ and instead see a government flailing about desperately, grabbing at any and every lever they can see, with no sense that the guys at the wheel have any control over where we’re going.

We can see this reflected in Gordon Brown’s personal popularity ratings. In the middle of November, both Mori and YouGov found 41% of the public with a favourable view of Mr Brown’s performance as Prime Minister; 50/54% (respectively) viewed him unfavourably, a net satisfaction rating of -9/13%. The equivalent figures now? Mori and YouGov find 33/35% view Mr Brown favourably, 59/60% unfavourably, a net satisfaction rating of -26/25%. That’s a heck of a drop in two months.

Which begs the question for Labour: what next? Might ditching Gordon perhaps give them one last lifeline? Or should they just resign themselves to their fate, and prepare for opposition?

And what of the Lib Dems? Well, our ratings have stabilised within the range 14-17%, with even ICM – usually the pollster kindest to the party – pegging us at 16%. In fact, our poll average is ever so slightly up on December’s. But let’s not pretend it’s where we would want it to be. That said, the last time the party’s January poll average was this low was 2001, when we were stuck on 14%. In the subsequent June general election we polled 19%, winning 52 seats. As ever, there’s a fine line between looking back at the party’s polling history and either complacently assuming all will be well, or throwing up our hands in despair.

Finally, what of Nick Clegg’s performance as party leader. As I noted in December, this partly depends on which pollster you look at – according to Mori, he continues to enjoy the best net satisfaction ratings (+9%, compared with David Cameron’s +6%) of any of the three main party leaders. YouGov, as so often, is less kind to the Lib Dems: it shows Nick at -5% against Mr Cameron’s +12%. What both surveys do agree on is that about one-third of the public has still to make up their mind about Nick: while over 80% of the public express an opinion (good or bad) on Mr Cameron, less than two-thirds have a view about Nick. His challenge is to make sure that those who have yet to see enough of him get a positive impression when they do.