As party conferences begin, is Labour’s lead for real?

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George Osborne’s 2012 budget changed the political landscape. Following a winter where the polls had narrowed to parity, Labour started consistently showing double-digit leads within a week of the budget.

At the time I wasn’t alone in arguing that, while Labour’s lead looked impressive, it was precarious. The evidence I cited included that Labour still didn’t have a lead on being best to handle the economy, and indeed had gained no support at all on this, only benefiting from a fall in belief in the Tories’ economic competence.

But five months later, and on the eve of party conferences, Labour’s lead is still pretty much exactly where it was a week after the budget: around ten points. So was I wrong that the lead was so fragile?

I don’t think so, though while it may still be vulnerable, the longer it lasts the more Labour are able to benefit from being ahead.

The questions I looked at in May still show almost exactly the same results. In particular, the question that asks, essentially: “Now think seriously. Which party do you actually want running the country?” shows that Labour and the Tories are still pretty much tied. Labour only pull ahead if you include those who’d prefer a coalition with the Lib Dems; given Lab-Lib’s lead over Con-Lib, tactical voting could benefit Labour:

One place where there’s been a little movement is in the question about which party “is led by people of real ability”. In the four polls after the budget, the Tories had a lead of four points. That’s now narrowed down to just one point. Both, though, are dwarfed by the 47% who say ‘None’:

But the stability of Labour’s lead is still important. Firstly, it suggests that people who came over to Labour in the spring weren’t just temporary visitors. Even over the Olympic summer, with an absence of political news, they have stayed with Labour rather than drifting away. The assumption now has to be that they will continue to support Labour unless persuaded to leave.

Secondly, the fact of Labour’s lead itself changes the way the parties are perceived. Cameron is facing discontent from his backbenchers and threats of a leadership challenge, presumably as he is seen to be letting down his side of the bargain with the right: “you win elections for us and we’ll put up with you”. Such public division is only going to make it harder for the Tories to win back support.

At the same time, Miliband is being presented by the media for the first time as a man who could become prime minister. The Telegraph’s interview with him this weekend is a good example. Not only did it give Miliband a generous hearing, it was accompanied with a statesmanlike photo rather than, as might have been the case previously, one from the ‘Awkward Ed Miliband’ file.

Things like that can help to change the underlying views of parties and leaders that drive voting decisions. Not only does looking like a prime minister help, but the expectation of victory creates space for Labour to be taken seriously when it sets out plans for government: something that was much harder at a time when few people thought Labour had a chance of winning. It has the potential to create a virtuous circle, although of course it also brings added scrutiny and pressure.

And yet, so far there’s been no evidence of perceptions of Labour changing since soon after the budget. Until they do change, and the poll lead is reinforced by more than opposition to the government, Labour will continue to be vulnerable to the risk of the Tories getting their act together.

Leo Barasi writes about public opinion at the website Noise of the Crowd

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