Is the Coalition Government’s honeymoon really over?

by Stephen Tall on July 27, 2010

Forget the Lib Dems’ current poll-ratings for a moment – though today’s 19% from ICM will have done a fair amount to repair nerves frayed by YouGov’s poorer recent scores – and let’s focus on the Coalition Government as a whole.

Last week, YouGov’s Peter Kellner stated categorically: The honeymoon is over. His logic was simple enough:

Over the past four weeks, the coalition’s approval rating has slipped slowly but remorselessly. Our latest figures report a net rating of plus four (approve 41%, disapprove 37%). In just over two months, the coalition’s rating has declined to levels that were not reached for almost three years under Tony Blair.

Clearly the Coalition’s performance is now being judged more critically, not least by the right-wing and left-wing media (ie, pretty much all newspapers), which appear to be as tribally polarised as some of the more screeching commenters on Twitter and blogs.

But is it really helpful to compare the Coalition’s approval ratings in 2010 with Labour’s inheritance in 1997? The differences are far more profound than the similiarity: true, both elections saw the end of a long period of one-party rule – but in 1997 the economy was growing healthily, the party that had won the election gained an overwhelming majority, and the losing party was reconciled to licking its wounds for a period. None of that applies this time round.

No, the comparison with 1997 is wrong-headed. If we’re going to try and compare periods of recent history, as a pointer to future performance, let’s at least try and match like-with-like. And though I’m too young to remember the 1979 election, it strikes me that 2010 is closer to it than to ’97: an economy widely perceived to be in the doldrums, and a new government with a majority but nowhere near a landslide.

So how did Mrs Thatcher’s government perform in its early months? Pretty poorly is the answer. Mori’s satisfaction ratings reach back as far as the 1970s – they show that other than in its very first month, the first-term Thatcher government had a negative satisfaction rating every single month until May 1982, when the Falklands effect kicked in. Even this was short-lived, though, lasting just two months: there was net dissatisfaction with the Tory Government from July 1982 right through until Mrs Thatcher’s landslide in May 1983 (achieved of course on a minority vote).

Let’s look at one other period which bears some similiarities with current times: Mrs Thatcher’s overthrow in 1990 also brought to the end a long period of rule, in this case by a dominant Prime Minister, at a time of economic downturn. Again Mori’s net satisfaction ratings are quite clear: the government of John Major attracted negative satisfaction ratings every single month from December 1990 right up until the Tories’ fourth successive election victory, in April 1992.

From which I draw two conclusions. First, you choose the period of comparison that best suits the argument you wish to make. Mr Kellner wants to pronounce the Coalition honeymoon dead; I think he’s being unduly hasty. For a government to announce massive public spending cuts and put up taxes including VAT and still have a positive approval rating suggests to me a honeymoon that has yet even to near the end of the beginning, let alone the beginning of the end.

Secondly, the idea that a government must always attract a positive net satisfaction rating as a pre-condition for staying in power is plainly wrong – as Tony Blair demonstrated when winning elections in 2001 and again in 2005 despite his government having negative approval ratings.

Where I do agree with Mr Kellner, on the whole, is this argument – which Lib Dems well understand is a real danger for us:

In past periods of Conservative rule, moods of anti-government protest often helped the Lib Dems as much as, and sometimes more than, Labour. The early signs from the current parliament are that Labour will be the overwhelming beneficiary if the coalition stumbles.

But it’s worth juxtaposing that shaft of realism/pessimism with this snippet from Ian Leslie’s excellent Marbury blog:

It’s assumed by most pundits that when the Labour leadership contest is resolved the party will start doing even better. I’m not sure. It may be that, counter-intuitively, Labour’s poll rating is artificially high precisely because it doesn’t have a leader. At the moment, people are effectively being asked if they prefer the current government – which is announcing more bad news every week – or a fuzzy, vague alternative; the Labour Party as they’d like it to be. But when the new leader takes his position – whoever it is – voters will be faced with a more concrete choice. At which point some of them may decide to stick with the devil they dislike least.

And it’s choosing to “stick with the devil they dislike least” which is the main reason governments with negative approvals so often win general elections. Well, that and our unfair electoral system … but that’s another article.