Pollwatch – State of the Parties: Lib Dems 18%, Labour 31%, Tories 38% (Mar. 2010 so far)

by Stephen Tall on March 21, 2010

With 15 polls already published so far in March, it’s time for a mid-month reality check on the state of the parties. Some parts of the media watch the polls with breathless excitement, investing even the smallest fluctuations with a significance well beyond what they can bear: a bad-tempered PMQs, a 24-hour Westminster Village row, an ad campaign – any and all of these are sometimes said to have affected the polls.

Well, maybe. But most poll movements are within the margin of error, so it is only looked at over a reasonable period of time that you can detect whether there has really been any significant movements between the parties. So let’s look at the polls published in March to date, in chronological order of publication, to see if we can detect any trends:

    Tories 39.0, Labour 29.0, Lib Dem 15.0 (Opinium)
    Tories 38.0, Labour 33.0, Lib Dem 16.0 (3rd March, YouGov)
    Tories 38.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 19.0 (4th, YouGov)
    Tories 38.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 17.0 (5th, YouGov)
    Tories 40.0, Labour 31.0, Lib Dem 18.0 (7th, ICM)
    Tories 38.0, Labour 33.0, Lib Dem 17.0 (7th, YouGov)
    Tories 37.0, Labour 30.0, Lib Dem 16.0 (9th, Opinium)
    Tories 39.0, Labour 34.0, Lib Dem 16.0 (9th, YouGov)
    Tories 36.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 20.0 (10th, YouGov)
    Tories 37.0, Labour 29.0, Lib Dem 18.0 (10th, Harris Metro)
    Tories 37.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 17.0 (11th, YouGov)
    Tories 39.0, Labour 26.0, Lib Dem 18.0 (11th, Angus RS)
    Tories 37.0, Labour 34.0, Lib Dem 17.0 (12th, YouGov)
    Tories 38.0, Labour 31.0, Lib Dem 21.0 (14th, ICM)
    Tories 37.0, Labour 33.0, Lib Dem 17.0 (14th, YouGov)

All of which produces an average rating for the parties in March as follows (compared with February’s averages):

    Tories 38% (-1%), Labour 31% (n/c), Lib Dems 18% (-1%)

Let’s take a look at the figures from each of the main parties’ perspectives …

The Tories …
13 of the 15 the polls in the first fortnight of March place the Tories in the 37-39% range, which is about as definitive as you can get. For a long time, 40% has been seen as the threshold the Tories need to clear. Partly that figure is psychological; more importantly, it’s psephological. Assuming Labour clears the 30% barrier, the Tories need at least 40% to be sure of a working majority in the Commons. There are signs the Tories realise that they are now in a political scrap. But, still, the Tory message is failing to give voters a positive reason to choose Cameron & Co. As a Lib Dem I’m pleased; as a watcher of politics, I’m amazed.

Labour … The story is a little less clear-cut with Labour’s poll ratings, the party having ranged between 26% and 34% within days of each other. Chances are the polls will converge as we near election day: otherwise Angus RS – who consistently peg Labour in the mid-20s, alone among the pollsters – is going to be left looking smart, or embarrassed. Surprising as it is that Labour is in with a hcnace, how the party must be left wondering: how much better might we be doing with Anyone But Gordon as leader?

Lib Dems … So far, so okay for the Lib Dems. 18% is a small drop on where the party was in February – but given all the polls above were conducted before the avalanche of publicity surrounding the Birmingham spring conference, we may well see the party back up at 19-20% on average when we do our full March Pollwatch round-up. As with Labour, there’s a fair spread when it comes to Lib Dem ratings, ranging from 15% to 21%. As is now traditional, let’s compare the current 18% poll average with the equivalent points in the electoral cycle in the last four parliaments:

    Mar 1992: 17%
    Mar 1997: 12%
    Mar 2001: 13%
    Mar 2005: 20%

So a little better than in 1992 (when the election was in April), a little worse than in 2005. But what is clear is how much better shape the party is in in 2010 than it was in either 1997 or 2001. Few serious commentators now suggest the party faces a wipeout; even the most pessimistic reckon the party will retain at least 50 seats, with most expecting the Lib Dems to at least hold our own.