A look back at the polls: August '09

by Stephen Tall on September 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 six polls published in August:

Tories 43%, Labour 26%, Lib Dems 19% – ICM/S. Mirror (16th August 2009)
Tories 42%, Labour 28%, Lib Dems 18% – YouGov/S. Times (16th August)
Tories 41%, Labour 24%, Lib Dems 18% – ComRes/S. Ind. (23rd August)
Tories 41%, Labour 25%, Lib Dems 19% – ICM/Guardian (25th August)
Tories 43%, Labour 26%, Lib Dems 17% – Mori (unpublished, 30th August)
Tories 42%, Labour 26%, Lib Dems 18% – YouGov/Telegraph (31st August)

Which gives us an average rating for the parties in August as follows (compared with July’s averages):

Tories 42% (+2%), Labour 26% (+1%), Lib Dems 18% (-1%)

August polling tends to be light for a very obvious reason: so many people are away it’s difficult to get a reliable data-set. What’s most notable about this month’s polls is the extent to which the different polling companies’ figures agree; often we will find at least one ‘outlier’, perhaps with ICM being most generous to the Lib Dems and YouGov most miserly. But this month, all published polls place the Tories in the range 41-43%, Labour at 24-28% and the Lib Dems between 17-19%. Perhaps this isn’t so very surprising in a month when political news has been pretty thin.

The increases in Labour and Tory support are probably best ascribed to a continuing ‘unwind’ in support for other parties which spiked in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandals. In fact, neither party has recovered the levels of support they recorded in April, immediately prior to the Telegraph’s revelations – back then, the Tories were on 43%, Labour 28%, with the Lib Dems on 18%.

What of the Lib Dems’ 18% – should we be pleased, or disappointed? Probably both. Historically, it’s not such a bad rating. Let’s have a look at the party’s August average poll ratings in the year before a general election:

Aug 1991: 15% (GE ’92: 18%)
Aug 1996: 14% (GE ’97: 17%)
Aug 2000: 14% (GE ’01: 19%)
Aug 2004: 22% (GE ’05: 23%)

The glass-half-empty news is clear: we are 4% down on our equivalent rating in 2004. Combine that with the fact that the Tories are almost certain to poll significantly better in 2010 than they did in 2005, and that the Tories are the main challengers in a number of marginal Lib Dems seats, and you can see the party’s problem.

However, the glass-half-full news is also clear: the party has gained support between August and the subsequent general election every time. Indeed, it’s noticeable that the biggest jump – of 5% from August 2000 to June 2001 – coincided with Charles Kennedy’s first general election as leader. We shall see if Nick Clegg might also gain the party a similar popularity premium when he is exposed to the public during the white heat of a campaign. The evidence so far (as covered in last month’s poll round-up) is that Nick’s personal ratings are positive and on the up (and, indeed, ahead of David Cameron’s).