Why Labour’s lead is vulnerable

Anthony Painter

There has been much debate over the last few weeks about whether Labour is on track for an election victory on the basis of its current support and leads in opinion polls. The underlying numbers suggest that Labour’s lead is actually extremely vulnerable. The purpose here is not to say whether Ed Miliband is doing well/badly (see my thoughts here on that) or to make any prediction. It is simply to consider underlying issues and salience that may swing votes as 2015 approaches.


The poll I have used in this analysis is a survey conducted by Lord Ashcroft into UKIP support. There were lots of other numbers buried in that survey too which reveal a lot about where the electorate currently broadly sits. The most interesting questions were on issue salience – how important people regard a certain issue as a factor in their vote. The top six issues that people placed in their three issues that will most impact their support were, in order: growth and jobs, welfare dependency, controlling immigration, cutting the deficit, improving the NHS, and treating people fairly.

The following table supplies the numbers on salience, the Conservative lead, issue salience amongst Labour voters, and Labour voter support for the Conservatives on particular issues. I have also included ‘best Prime Minister’ ratings in the table. For context, the poll had topline results of 42-31 in Labour’s favour and was a large-scale poll of 20,000 respondents.

These figures show Labour behind on three of the top three most salient issues and present three key challenges to Labour that together comprise a vulnerability. First, growth and jobs – the highest salience issue – shows a Labour lead which at first sight is very good news. Indeed, it is good news. However, it is the only one of the four most salient issues on which Labour leads and the lead is very narrow (easily within the margin of error). The IFS/Oxford Economics forecast growth of 2.5% in 2015 – the election year – last week. There has to be a question mark over the vulnerability of Labour’s lead on jobs and growth if that scenario occurred. So what looks like a neutral issue becomes a vulnerability. Sure, economic forecasting has hardly distinguished itself over the recent past but it’s a scenario worth taking into account.

The second vulnerability is the red-zone highlighted in the table. These are welfare dependency, immigration, and cutting the deficit. Labour not only trails the Conservatives on these issues but significantly so. Moreover, there is a sizeable proportion of Labour supporters who back the Conservatives on these issues. For now they are in Labour’s column perhaps because of jobs and growth or their concerns about the NHS (it’s not possible to be certain of this with the raw data as it stands).

The final vulnerability is that people still prefer David Cameron as Prime Minister by a margin of 10%  (including 12% of current Labour supporters). In a sense, this is hardly surprising given that David Cameron is Prime Minister and Ed Miliband is still establishing himself in the mindset of voters. This category is subject to significant change but as things stand, it is a vulnerability.

There are two basic strategies to address this vulnerability: you either have to narrow the gap in your favour on the issues that matter to people or you have to shift salience. The latter strategy tends to be very difficult.

Take the ‘bedroom tax’ as an issue. Labour is currently campaigning hard on this. It’s essentially Labour backing ‘fairness’ (the six most salient concern) against the Conservatives backing a reduction in welfare dependency and reducing the deficit. Labour may win the debate by connecting to the real stories of people who will suffer but the underlying dynamic of the debate would seem to be in the Conservative’s favour (of course, there are many other considerations other than political advantage on such an issue with a significant impact on lives!). The ‘strivers’ tax’ debate was entirely different: people don’t see their tax credits as welfare dependency.

If Labour fails to narrow its deficit on welfare, immigration and debt and the economy turns for the better before 2015 then its poll lead is likely to narrow very rapidly. All of this can be addressed and there is a very long way to go until 2015. The challenge for Labour is not simply motivational, it also has a convincing job to do – both to hold on to its current supporters and to persuade others it is to be trusted. To make bold predictions about the next election requires a degree of forecasting prowess that it is difficult to imagine many possessing. All we can say with certainty is that Labour’s current strong position is not impregnable by any means.

There is much to do if it is not simply to leave the next election to fate.

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