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:
- Look at all the great stuff we've already done;
- Here's all the great stuff we're going to do;
- Those guys will screw it all up if you let them.