A look back at the polls: May '09

by Stephen Tall on May 31, 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. (And how true does that sentence read after the contrasting results in successive days from Populus and ICM, the former showing the Lib Dems as laggards, the latter as the real opposition.) 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 nine polls* published in May:

Tories 43%, Labour 27%, Lib Dems 18% – YouGov/S. Times (10th May 2009)
Tories 39%, Labour 26%, Lib Dems 22% – Populus/Times (12th May)
Tories 41%, Labour 22%, Lib Dems 19% – YouGov/Sun (15th May)
Tories 40%, Labour 21%, Lib Dems 18% – ComRes/S. Independent (17th May)
Tories 39%, Labour 23%, Lib Dems 19% – YouGov/Telegraph (18th May)
Tories 39%, Labour 28%, Lib Dems 20% – ICM/Guardian (19th May)
Tories 39%, Labour 27%, Lib Dems 17% – Populus/ITV (22nd May)
Tories 41%, Labour 21%, Lib Dems 15% – Populus/Times (30th May)
Tories 40%, Labour 22%, Lib Dems 25% – ICM/S. Telegraph (31st May)

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

Tories 40% (-3%), Labour 24% (-4%), Lib Dems 19% (+1%)

Phew, what a scorcher! It seems almost incredible to recall that, just a couple of months ago, there was still some talk that Gordon Brown might call a snap election off the back of his relative triumph at the G20 summit on the financial crisis. A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times at the beginning of April showed the Labour party on 34%. Eight weeks is an eternity in politics.

Of course all this poll talk of just how dire things are for Labour is in some ways to their advantage – or at least to Mr Brown’s advantage (the two things may not be the same). In terms of managing expectations, it’s hard to see how much lower Labour could sink on 4th June than has already been anticipated.

Finishing behind the Lib Dems in the popular vote in the local elections? – well, that’s happened three times before, in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Finishing third or even fourth in the European elections? – well, most of the pollsters are already predicting Labour will be tussling with the Lib Dems and Ukip for the runners-up spot. As I wrote in last month’s round-up:

Labour is, at heart, an establishment party. Its leadership believes in hierarchy; its membership in deference – it’s a mutual arrangement which suits the delusions of each. As a result, Labour will likely be wounded still further by the coming results, but lack the will to do anything about it. Gordon will live to limp on another day.

For the Tories, the last month has been a real set-back, masked by quite how much more dire it has been for Labour. In May, four polls put them below 40%, five polls above 40%: that is not a comfortable position for the main opposition party ranged against a government this woefully incompetent.

For the Lib Dems, May has finished on a polling high thanks to today’s remarkable survey in today’s Telegraph, showing the party at 25% ahead of Labour for the first time in ICM’s history. That it comes just a day after Populus showed the Lib Dems markedly down at just 15% shows the necessity of caution when it comes to over-interpreting any individual poll – best to treat the two imposters just the same.

May has, in the main, been a good month for the Lib Dems – though we should expect no less. As I commented last month, “In the month leading up to an election, the party’s ratings usually creep up thanks to increased local campaigning and greater national media coverage – we’ll see soon enough if this trend repeats itself in May 2009.”

For sure, the party has been caught up in the MPs’ expenses row, and we’ll see on Thursday the extent to which the (relatively minor) indiscretions of a handful of our MPs see us tainted with the ‘you’re all the same’ electoral brush. Perhaps the bigger positive from all this is how the party is – probably for the first time since Charles Kennedy’s downfall – being treated seriously by the news media. On the credit crunch, transparency of MPs’ expenses, the Gurkhas, Parliamentary reform, it’s the Lib Dems who’ve been making all the running. It’s a moot point how far the general public has picked up on all this, but political commentators definitely have, and this is being reflected in more generous news coverage.

One thing does now seem pretty clear: Nick Clegg, after what even he concedes was a “pretty bumpy” first year, is gaining good, positive recognition. In April, when YouGov asked, ‘Do you think Nick Clegg is doing well or badly as leader of the Lib Dems?’, 33% said well, 31% said badly – a net satisfaction rating of +2%. When the same question was asked again this month, the figures were 43%/28% – a net satisfaction rating of +15%, a big jump. Meanwhile the latest PoliticsHome.com Tracker survey shows Nick Clegg level-pegging with David Cameron, both at +31%.

Of course, the real test is not polls: it’s actual votes in real elections. However cheered we may all be by the ICM poll (and however helpful it may be in allowing us to forget Populus’s more pessimistic findings), the real test is this Thursday. If we find ourselves nursing losses in the English local elections on Friday morning, and then pushed back into fourth (or God forbid fifth) place in the European elections on Sunday night, then today’s moment of happiness will seem a lifetime away when I come to write June’s polling round-up.

So let’s spend the next four days making sure that nightmare scenario doesn’t come to pass, eh?

* NB: Lib Dem Voice does not include polls from BPIX, pollster for the Mail on Sunday, which refuses to comply with industry codes of conduct.