Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Same polls, different opinion

Hopi's been thinking about opinion polls; what they actually mean and, crucially, what sort of decision you should use them to make. I don't disagree with his conclusions, but I'm not convinced by his initial reading of the trends:

Hopi's take on this is that, "Looking at that graph, there appear to be two periods where an informed observer could see a settled will of the people emerging. In both cases, a disruptive event transformed the political situation. The emerging trends became irrelevant as peoples views of the parties changed." I think he's kidding himself , or at least confusing "settled will of the people" with "support for Labour". There's a pretty clear settled will of the people in that graph, and it's a trend that is going to stay relevant.

Shock political news: people are fundamentally bored with Labour. I don't mean angry, or upset, or disappointed. They're just bored. That's the story of the first half of this graph, up to the Brown bounce. Labour weren't less popular than the Tories because they'd screwed up. The Tories were up because they were fresh - shiny new leader, new team, old guard safely back in the coffin - while Labour were looking increasingly stale. Cash for honours and sordid tales of Prescott's love life added to a view of a party that had nothing more to offer, and was too damn comfortable in office.

As if to prove that people's main problem was boredom rather than fundamental disagreement with Labour, along comes the Brown bounce. This wasn't a time of dramatic policy shifts or repudiations of past ideologies; it was a fresh lick of paint and a chance to start talking about the future, not the past. It didn't hurt that various crises allowed Brown to demonstrate gravitas and statesmanship, but the main point is that people had a fresh look at Labour and realised that actually, yes, they did trust these guys to run the country. Note that Blair announced his resignation almost a year in advance, and that the world and his wife knew Brown would succeed. Why then should there have been any kind of Brown bounce, if people were genuinely, fundamentally unhappy with Labour?

However, the underlying boredom with Labour didn't go away. Changing the leader gave the party a chance to redefine itself for the future, and show the electorate that it knew how to keep delivering what they wanted. But they needed to keep looking very good indeed. The inept handling of the snap election issue, coupled with the Northern Rock crisis, suggested to people that this wasn't a new era of high-minded competence, but more of the same aimless time-serving. (Of course, Brown's close identification with anything to do with the economy didn't help.)

If people were looking for change, innovation or vision from Brown, they weren't finding it. Political novelty was on offer elsewhere; as the failing economy pushed Brown onto the back foot, the Tories took the opportunity to a) shatter the bedrock of his political reputation and b) present themselves as the people with the new and exciting ideas. Various Ministers, MPs, journalists and bloggers took it upon themselves to critique these ideas, point out their inconsistencies or show that the sums didn't add up. However accurate and barbed these criticsims, they were beside the point. On one hand, a government mired in a deteriorating economy; on the other, an energetic opposition with a scheme, initiative or taskforce for every occasion.

At the end of 2008, Labour's fortunes were rising again. People had begun to feel better about the economy, and Brown was positioning himself as the man with the experience to handle a global crisis. But it didn't last. Internal and international disagreements about fiscal stimulus, a sandbagging by Mervyn King, rising unemployment... truth is, it didn't take a huge amount to reverse that trend. Labour no longer have the benefit of the doubt. As a rule of thumb, I'd guess it takes 3 positive news cycles to win a polling point for Labour, and only 1 to lose one.

The boredom factor is Labour's biggest problem now. It means that they to get everything right first time, every time. Even a small slip just encourages people to give up on them. Incumbent parties win elections with three messages:
  1. Look at all the great stuff we've already done;
  2. Here's all the great stuff we're going to do;
  3. Those guys will screw it all up if you let them.
But now no-one's listening to 1), no-one believes 2) and they're willing to take a gamble on 3) just to see what will happen.


Anonymous said...

Chop the chart into four - stop it at May 2006, September 2007 and the end of 2009. then try and work out what you could predict forward from each segment.

Such predictions, though totally reasonable in each case would be way off. That's the point I'm making.

To try and then impose a meta-narrative on the above, to say that this impossibility to predict is made explicable by a wider tide of boredom, I think can only be true in retrospect.

Do people get bored? Naturally. Do they have to be bored by a government in office for a certain period of time? I don't see any particular reason.

In my view the reasons governments decline and fall is because whether for internal structural or external shock reason, they stop offering attractive solutions to peoples problems relative to their competition.

In other words, I don't think it's inevitable people will be bored, but that we're just not appealing to them.

Which seems a statement of the obvious, but gives Labour an internal locus of control. It's what we do, not "events" or inevitable processes, that will determine Labour's electoral prospects.

Andrew R said...

"Past performance is not a guide to the future. The value of your polls can go down as well as up. Remember, your Houses of Parliament may be at risk if you do not keep impressing the electorate."

I don't disagree with either your basic point or the lesson you draw from it. But I'd argue that, compared to 2000 or 2004, the standards by which Labour are being judged are much more stringent, and the tolerance for error greatly reduced. People don't have to be x% bored with a government after y years, but things will tend in that direction. After a certain point in time, it's going to be more difficult to win a poll lead than to lose it.

One of the more annoyingly popular all-purpose criticisms flung at Ministers with new policies today is "If it's such a good idea, why didn't you do it in the last 12 years?" The fact that nonsense like this is allowed to stand, suggests that a) people have forgotten what's already been done and b) they feel Labour have shot their bolt.

Labour (and supporters) absolutely need to believe that they can make a difference to the next election; I'd add that they also need, contrary to the title of this blog, to get it right first time. Every time, for the next 9 months.