Three things we’ve learned from today’s opinion polls

by Stephen Tall on February 11, 2013

Three interesting and important poll findings to report today…

Big lead for Labour according to ICM

polling station -  Some rights reserved by Simon Clayson
First, the Guardian’s monthly ICM poll is out, showing the biggest Labour lead in almost a decade:

    Labour 41% (+3%)
    Conservatives 29% (-4%)
    Lib Dems 13% (-2%)
    Ukip 9% (+3%)
    Others 8% (+1%)

The movements are more or less within the margin of error. Still, the Tories will be pretty disappointed to see the party get no bounce at all from David Cameron’s promise of a post-2015 EU referendum. Perhaps unsurprisingly it looks like the more the Tories bang on endlessly about the subject the more they help Nigel Farage. Couple that with the party’s determination to tear itself apart on issues like single-sex marriage and defeat in 2015 appears almost certain.

… But the 2015 election isn’t in the bag yet

And yet, and yet… the ICM poll has a sting in the tail for Labour, too. Asked to choose the single most important reason for the new economic downturn during the last quarter of 2012, here’s what voters say:

    29% – Debts which the last Labour government racked up to finance unsustainable spending
    16% – Chill economic winds blowing in from the troubled Eurozone
    21% – Banks refusing to provide loans to firms that they need to invest in their businesses
    23% – The sharp cuts in public expenditure being introduced by the coalition government

Growth may be at standstill (at best) but Gordon Brown is still getting the blame from a plurality of voters rather than George Osborne. If the economy grows even sluggishly over the next couple of years chances are it’s going to be Labour which has to defend its economic record in 2015, not the Tories or Lib Dems.

So Labour’s poll lead, whopping as the headlines might lead us to believe, could turn out to be very soft indeed if there’s any sort of viable economic recovery in place. That’s potentially good news for the Tories; but at least as likely for the Lib Dems since most of Labour’s extra votes since 2010 have come at our expense.

And a significant number of Labour supporters will still vote tactically for the Lib Dems

And here’s where the the third interesting poll finding today comes into play. YouGov’s Peter Kellner today published his assessment of the forthcoming Eastleigh by-election, which included the results of a question which put voters in precisely the dilemma that exists in those seats where it’s a Lib Dem / Tory face-off.

Imagine that political commentators and opinion polls were saying that only the CONSERVATIVE and LIBERAL DEMOCRAT parties had realistic chances of winning the by-election in your seat – how would you then vote?

2010 GB result % Current GB support % By-election vote in LD-Con contest %
Conservative 37 33 34
Labour 30 41 23
Lib Dem 24 11 23
Ukip 3 9 10
Others 6 6 10

What this table shows is that Labour supporters are still willing to vote tactically in favour of the Lib Dems where there’s a straight contest between us and the Tories. Sure, the proportion of switchers is unsurprisingly fewer than in the past. But it’s still significant. And it’s worth noting that this is a nationally representative sample, not a sample of voters who’ve been exposed to years of Lib Dem activity at a local level (as, say, in Eastleigh) where you would expect the number of potential switchers to be much higher.

Kellner’s conclusion?

… all else being equal, the by-election is for the Lib Dems to lose. They have a strong local party and an excellent record in recent local elections in the area. Our figures suggest that they should be able to squeeze Labour’s support to some extent. The Tories will hope to match this by squeezing UKIP support; but they may be disappointed. Past by-elections in the current parliament have shown that UKIP is able to win impressive numbers of votes even when they have had no realistic chance of winning the seat. Our poll also shows UKIP’s vote holding up in a Con-Lib Dem battle. To win Eastleigh, then, the Conservatives must overcome a number of handicaps. But if they do, Nick Clegg could be in trouble. … On the other hand, a Lib Dem victory would suggest that the party is able to defy national trends in the seats they are defending.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.