A look back at the polls: February 2009

by Stephen Tall on March 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 seven polls published in February:

Tories 40%, Labour 28%, Lib Dems 22% – ICM/S. Telegraph (8th Feb 2009)
Tories 42%, Labour 28%, Lib Dems 18% – Populus/Times (10th Feb)
Tories 41%, Labour 25%, Lib Dems 22% – ComRes/S. Independent (15th Feb)
Tories 44%, Labour 32%, Lib Dems 14% – YouGov/S. Times (15th Feb)
Tories 48%, Labour 28%, Lib Dems 17% – Mori/unpublished (17th Nov)
Tories 42%, Labour 30%, Lib Dems 18% – ICM/Guardian (24th Nov)
Tories 41%, Labour 31%, Lib Dems 15% – YouGov/Telegraph (27th Nov)

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

Tories 43% (n/c), Labour 29% (-3%), Lib Dems 18% (+2%)

What to make of this month’s polls, which paradoxically convey both stability and fluctuation? The Tories seem to be relatively stable, in the low 40s% – except for Mori which elevates them to 48%, touching the heights of New Labour before its landslide. Labour appear relatively stable, hovering just at or below 30% – except for ComRes which relegates them to 25%, only a margin of error’s breadth ahead of the Lib Dems. And the Lib Dems seem to be relatively stable in the 17-22% range – except for YouGov which sees the party stuck firmly at a pretty paltry 14-15%.

All this statistical noise is, of course, ironed out by our monthly average, which sees Labour ceding ground to the Lib Dems. Indeed, it seems a lifetime ago, but just back in December Labour’s poll average was 35%: they have dropped 6% in the space of just a few weeks, with the spoils evenly shared between the Lib Dems and Tories.

Such has been Labour’s decline that it has prompted a brief effervescence of speculation that Gordon Brown might be tempted to resign if he thought it would assist his party’s fortunes. This prompted ICM to ask the question on behalf of The Guardian: ‘Putting aside your own political party preference for a moment do you think Labour will do better at the next general election with Gordon Brown in charge, or with another leader?’

By a sturdy two-to-one majority (63% to 28%) voters opted for political life sans Brown. It’s noticeable, though, that ICM asked the question in the abstract, without naming possible Prime Ministerial successors – in direct matches against Messrs Miliband, Johnson, Straw, Miliband, Balls, Miliband (sic), Purnell et al, or even Mesdames Harman, Smith or Cooper, I suspect Mr Brown would fare rather better in stark reality than fluffy hypothetical.

Can the Lib Dems read over-much into the polls right now? I’m always reluctant to attribute poll trends to specific news events – the swirling churn of public opinion, especially just now, negates easy analysis – but I suspect the three polls which showed the Lib Dems significantly up earlier this month did capture a snapshot that the Lib Dem leadership of Nick and Vince was striking a right, popular and distinctive tone, whether on Gaza or bankers’ bonuses.

It’s also worth noting that YouGov detected a small-but-marked improvement in Nick Clegg’s personal popularity. In answer to the question, ‘Do you think (name) is doing well or badly as (position)?’, Nick recorded a score of -5% in January, and +4% in February, with 35% reckoning he is doing a good job as Lib Dem leader and 31% having a negative impression. This is the first time since last June that Nick has registered a net positive with YouGov – though he has regularly scored positively in Mori’s leadership rankings, indeed often ahead of David Cameron.

Finally, a couple of points to note from ICM’s survey for the Guardian, looking at the public’s perceptions of which parties are best equipped to deal with specific issues. The question asked is always in the format, ‘Irrespective of how you yourself will vote at the next election, which political party do you think is putting forward the best policies on (issue)?’ Here’s the percentages of the overall public who rate the Lib Dems as the best party in the following top 10 issues:

1. The environment 19%
2. Europe 12%
=3. Education 11%
=3. Taxation and public services 11%
5. The economy 10%
=6. Health 9%
=6. The economic crisis 9%
=6. Asylum and immigration 9%
9. Law and order 8%
10. Fight against terrorism 7%

No real surprise, perhaps, that the Lib Dems are so well-rated on the environment – it is part of our brand that we are, by a long way, the greenest of the parties. What is more surprising is to see Europe as the second best issue for the Lib Dems, with 12% of the public reckoning the party has the best policies. And this isn’t simply restricted to Lib Dem voters: 10% of Labour voters think the Lib Dems are better on Europe than their own party, and even 8% of Tory voters prefer Lib Dem policies on Europe, both high figures relative to other issues.

It’s worth highlighting this finding, I think, because it shows the potential opportunity for the Lib Dems at the European elections in June. The party has tended to fight shy of mentioning Europe over-much, preferring instead to turn Euro elections into a referendum on the unpopular government of the day. The reason is easy to understand: most of the public tends towards Euroscepticism, as do many of our natural voters.

What the ICM poll demonstrates, though, is that our very clear pro-European, internationalist message resounds with a significant number of voters, including many who vote Labour and Tory. Like our green policies, the Lib Dems’ pro-European credentials are well-recognised by the public: to be sure, many don’t like us for just that reason. But many do, and they are quite likely to be the liberal Labour/Tory voters which this party needs to reach out to if it is to grow.