Pollwatch – State of the Parties: Lib Dems 19%, Labour 31%, Tories 38% (March 2010)

by Stephen Tall on April 2, 2010

March may have 31 days, but it saw an extraordinary 39 polls conducted. So frenetic has been the activity, we at Lib Dem Voice even published a mid-month report to keep track of their findings. And despite all the hyped-up headlines – both in print and online – of minor fluctuations signifying some grand new trend which will transform the electoral arithmetic, the reality is that remarkably little changed in March.

As you can see from the full list of polls conducted in March, in chronological order of publication:

    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)
    Tories 36.0, Labour 28.0, Lib Dem 18.0 (19th, Harris)
    Tories 39.0, Labour 28.0, Lib Dem 16.0 (16th, Opinium)
    Tories 40.0, Labour 31.0, Lib Dem 20.0 (16th, ICM)
    Tories 37.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 21.0 (16th, YouGov )
    Tories 37.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 19.0 (17th, YouGov)
    Tories 39.0, Labour 26.0, Lib Dem 21.0 (17th, Angus RS)
    Tories 36.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 20.0 (18th, YouGov )
    Tories 36.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 20.0 (19th, YouGov)
    Tories 38.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 19.0 (21st, ICM)
    Tories 38.0, Labour 31.0, Lib Dem 21.0 (22nd, Populus)
    Tories 35.0, Labour 28.0, Lib Dem 17.0 (24th, Harris)
    Tories 38.0, Labour 31.0, Lib Dem 19.0 (21st, YouGov )
    Tories 37.0, Labour 30.0, Lib Dem 15.0 (23rd, Opinium )
    Tories 35.0, Labour 30.0, Lib Dem 21.0 (24th, MORI)
    Tories 36.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 20.0 (23rd, YouGov)
    Tories 37.0, Labour 33.0, Lib Dem 18.0 (24th, YouGov )
    Tories 36.0, Labour 34.0, Lib Dem 17.0 (25th, YouGov )
    Tories 37.0, Labour 33.0, Lib Dem 18.0 (26th, YouGov )
    Tories 39.0, Labour 31.0, Lib Dem 19.0 (28th, ICM)
    Tories 37.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 19.0 (28th, YouGov)
    Tories 38.0, Labour 28.0, Lib Dem 18.0 (30th, Opinium)
    Tories 37.0, Labour 30.0, Lib Dem 20.0 (30th, ComRes)
    Tories 39.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 18.0 (30th, YouGov )
    Tories 38.0, Labour 31.0, Lib Dem 19.0 (31st, YouGov)
    Tories 37.0, Labour 28.0, Lib Dem 22.0 (31st, Angus RS)
    Tories 37.0, Labour 27.0, Lib Dem 19.0 (1st, Harris)
    Tories 38.0, Labour 32.0, Lib Dem 19.0 (1st, 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 19% (n/c)

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

Tories … The consistency in the Tory score is pretty remarkable. Of the 39 polls in March, 36 placed them in the 36-39% range. Of the three ‘outliers’, one had them down at 35%, two others pegged at 40%. This has prompted numerous jitters within the Tory camp, including the emergency drafting in of M&C Saatchi to beef-up their flat-footed advertising campaign. Most Tories seem still to expect a Tory majority at the election, not least thanks to the Ashcroft effect in key marginal seats. Though I incline towards that view, too, if I were a Tory (eugh) I’d find the party’s inability to break the magic 40% barrier concerning.

40% isn’t just a psychological threshold, it’s a psephological one, too. Just try putting a figure below 40% into Anthony Wells’ UK Polling Report blog seat predictor, and see if you can generate a Tory win. Now, granted his calculator works on the basis of uniform national swing, and we will most likely see numerous regional variations, and umpteen individual constituencies which buck the national trend (in particular those involving incumbent Lib Dems). But Tories relying on their campaign seeing off the national trend are, I suspect, in for a rude awakening on 7th May.

Labour … After the excitement of February’s sudden (and still largely unexplained) uptick in Labour support, and the occasional poll suggesting a near-tie, the latter half of March has been a little disappointing for Labour: 7 polls in the past fortnight have placed the party below their psychologically critical 30% marker. And just as it’s tricky to see the Tories gaining a solid majority if they don’t hit 40%, so it’s difficult to see Labour remaining the largest single party in the Commons if they don’t hit at least 30%. (That it’s not an impossibility is entirely down to this country’s remarkably obtuse electoral system).

It seems the budget has done a reasonable job for Alistair Darling’s image as a doughty survivor, but to have hit Labour’s popularity. Alternatively, it may be that voters when facing up to the very real prospect of Labour remaining in power, are turning their backs on Gordon Brown & Co. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the Piers Morgan interview with the Prime Minister did provide a real but short-lived boost in Labour popularity which has now subsided back to its truer levels. And that’s the fun of polls, folks: you can speculate endlessly, and no-one can ever prove you’re wrong.

Lib Dems …
As so often, support for the Lib Dems appears more difficult for the pollsters to divine, with the party’s popularity ranging from 15-22% during March. (Today’s 23% with ICM falls just outside our repoorting range for March). The party will definitely be encouraged to have hit 20% or more in one-third of the poolls in March, these uplifts occurring when the party received a healthy dollop of publicity (such as spring conference, and the Ask the Chancellors debate), as we will do during the general election campaign itself.

As is now traditional, let’s compare the current 19% 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%

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago: “… 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.” All in all, the party has every reason to look forward to the coming campaign with a sense of excitement at the possibilities it presents.