Why Labour’s lead is vulnerable

11th February, 2013 7:00 am

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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  • JoblessDave

    Excellent analysis: I do feel that the current poll lead appears to be right at the highest end of credibility against my own (albeit highly selective and limited) view of politics, and this provides context for that feeling.

    The bottom line of the analysis is surely for PLP and members alike to avoid hubris, and continue to graft on bringing issues to the doorstep, but more importantly there has to be a strategic shift by the front bench team: too much of PMQs recently has sounded either Punch and Judy or like A-Level debating practice. The onus is on Ed M to rise above this and connect more widely, and given Cameron’s “Trade Union” jibes, I would say he knows this too, and will fight hard to stop it.

  • Monkey_Bach

    So what you’re suggesting is that Labour should deliberately develop policies designed to scapegoat and impoverish benefit claimants (just like the Tories), swear to keep Johnny Foreigner from our doors (just like the Tories), and rob the poor to reward the rich (just like the Tories) in order to cut the deficit a little bit faster and begin paying down the nation’s astronomical debt a little bit sooner, eh? Personally I do not believe that imitating the Conservatives will give the Labour Party a bigger poll lead or a better chance of beating the Tories in the next general election. Surely unthinking admirers of authentically awful and socially unjust Tory policies will always, in the final analysis, cast their vote for the original Tories themselves rather than for some polluted, cod-Conservative version of the Labour Party.

    I’m very dubious of forming policy based on snapshot polls and psephology.

    Such behaviour is indicative of politicians that don’t really know what to do, or how to do it, always being nudged this way and that policy-wise by the fads and fashions of media driven fluctuating public opinion. We monkeys prefer honest and principled government on the whole; you humans would be a darn sight better off if you did too.


  • Monkey_Bach

    So are you suggesting that Labour should contrive to develop policies designed to scapegoat and impoverish benefit claimants (just like the Tories), swear to keep Johnny Foreigner from our doors (just like the Tories), and rob the poor to reward the rich (just like the Tories) in order to cut the deficit a little bit faster and begin paying down the nation’s astronomical debt a little bit sooner (just like the Tories)? Personally I do not believe that turning the Labour Party into a counterfeit Conservative Party will give the Labour Party a bigger lead in any political poll or a better chance of beating the Tories in the next general election. Surely unthinking aficionados of authentically awful, socially unjust Tory policy will always cast their vote for the original Tories rather than some imitation, cod-Conservative version of what once used to be Labour?

    I’m very dubious about forming policy based on snapshot polls and psephology. The general public are oblivious to the truth and often base their opinions on urban myths and hearsay. For example here’s the results of a survey commissioned by the TUC demonstrating how hopelessly misled public opinion is vis-à-vis the issue of welfare:


    Should Labour be tougher on welfare because enough people believe lies and nonsense?

    Basing policy on polling is indicative of politicians that have no core values, don’t really know what to do, or how to do it, continually nudged this way or that by the fickle fads and fashions of fluctuating public opinion. We monkeys prefer honest and principled government on the whole. You humans would be a darn sight better off if you did too.


    • As it happens, no.

      • Monkey_Bach

        What are you saying then? Do tell. Eeek.

        • It’s all in the piece.

          • rekrab

            Cut welfare, cut immigration, cut the deficit and accept the OBR’s ever lasting resolve of a continuous level of 2 million unemployed. After all what a wonder wall.
            O’ and all the best on your forthcoming marriage.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      It is the classic dichotomy. Principled but unelectable versus unprincipled but electable.

    • Chilbaldi

      There is a middle ground between pandering to peoples’ prejudices and trying to take people with us. We have to meet the electorate somewhere towards their collective position if we are to drag them towards our position over time.

      • aracataca

        Correct Chilbaldi. The ‘middle ground’ can be shifted leftwards.

    • taylor

      I don’t disagree with you, but the welfare reforms were started under Labour. If welfare does need reforming (and in some areas it does) then I would rather Labour did it than the Tories.
      The Tories are using deficit cutting as a means to cut the state back. Labour’s difficulty is not just appealing to its core voters but also to the business community,

  • aracataca

    Re : growth in 2015.
    A few caveats need to be borne in mind here:
    1) ‘The ‘science’ of economic prediction makes astrology look respectable’ – JK Gailbtraith
    2) Have you looked at the scale and number of downside risks in this report Anthony?
    3) The report broadly mirrors the OBS’ predictions for growth, Check out their record since 2010.

  • PeterBarnard


    You say “If Labour fails to narrow its deficit on welfare, immigration and debt ….all of this can be addressed….”

    So what should Labour say on welfare, immigration and debt?

    • For another day……

      • PeterBarnard

        I look forward to “another day,” Anthony …

  • Jeremy_Preece

    Hi Anthony
    There are a lot of very important points that you raise in this article, but finding the solution is the problem.
    1. You are right about the economy. “It’s the economy dummy” is exactly the point. When John Major was seen to have lost economic credibility and Blair was ahead on that front. Result – Tory melt down, Labour landslide. My main concern is that we are dependant on economic bad news and that surely by 2015 there must be an upturn inspite of this government. The whole issue is about whether that in itself would end our poll lead.
    I have often said, and yet again I repeat, that Labour has allowed itself to believe that it could allow the Tory lies that Labour caused the worldwide bankng crisis to stay unchalleneged. Somehow over a few years the notion that everything was Labour’s fault whereas the Tories are blameless, will somehow go away by iteslf. In fact it leaves us in the vulneralbe position that “it was all Labour fault anyay” and worse, that any improvment and the “Tory solution is working (even if it took longer), so we don’t want to let Labour screw it up again”. This is what makes out lead so vulnerable.

    We did not shout about the Tory’s record in opposition and their promise to match Labour’s spending, or their opposition to any controls over banking.
    We have not really pushed the great reponse which Brown made at a time when the USA looked shell-shocked in the last days of GW Bush. We have not mentioned that a massive crash was avoided and that by the end of the last government we had a fragile recovery and unemployment (which never got as high as it is now) was falling.
    As a result weak leadership allowed this Tory myth to take hold in the minds of the electorate while Labour was off refounding itself.
    Moreover we continue to kid ourselves that the current lead in the opinion polls means that we no longer have to worry about a perception that is waiting to bite us hard in the event of any economic upturn. We need to get back our economic credibility – end of.
    Just because we have left it so late, doesn’t mean that it is no longer worht setting the record straight.
    2. Again we allow the Tories to set the agenda in terms of cutting the deficit and over welfare. We have not challenged the fact that welfare is high because of the number of people who have lost their jobs and the number of opportunites that have been lost due to the auterity programme. We fail to mention that tax dodging of megga rich and particulalry of large corproations cost far more than welfare, so that addressing that would really be more profitable than vicious cuts inflicted on those most vulnerable.
    3. We allow the myth to persist that getting rid of debt and deficit is the be all and end all. In reality an economic upturn and a good old Keynes boost actaully promotes growth and sees large numbers of unemployed back in work and paying taxes (rather than claiming benefit, as most really want their jobs back), and companies then making the profits will pay their corporation taxes. This is how a deficit and debt can be reduced.
    The idea that just cutting our way back is going to help is plain stupid.
    In short it is better if a company is failing, to win new business and generate growth than to try and cut its way into profit. The latter is usually the beginning of a downward spiral that results in the company declining.
    4. In all of these things it is a matter of getting our message out and it is about having leadership that cuts through a world dominated by hostle media, and communicates Labour’s ideas. This is exactly where our biggest weakness lies.

    Finally we know that there have been some major lies about deficit and debt reduction from Cameron and Osborne. Yet we don’t seem to have a clear explanation of what the truth is. It is no good pointing to obscure artucles on the internet, or to refer to backroom wonk discussions, the reailty needs to be got out there where the voting public as a whole can see it, and where at least some of those who don’t at the moment even vote, can see that Labour would really be different from the Tories – and might even make life a bit better.

    And it is here that I would have to agree with Monkey_Bach, that the way forward is not to try and out Tory the Tories, but to proclaim lound and clear what we would do that is different, and why most of the Tory assumptions that set the agenda are wrong.

    • aracataca

      ‘surely by 2015 there must be an upturn inspite of this government’.
      It’s written in the stars is it?

      Check Japan’s economic performance 1991-present to confound this prediction.

      • Jeremy_Preece

        You are ultimately correct aracataca. However there seems to be a consensus of economists who expect an upturn by then.
        My key point is that we are not in a good place if we are relying on endless bad economic news. And we certainly do not want to be seen as the cause of all of the bad news either.

      • I agree with your broad point but there is some dispute over Japan’s economic performance interestingly….


        • aracataca

          Well we might replicate Japan’s performance here if there is a massive demographic shift and our working age population numbers fall off a cliff. Interested to hear an explanation of how that’s going to happen before 2015.

        • robertcp

          I hope that there is an upturn by 2015 because the country is stuffed if we don’t.

  • John Reid

    How about ,we should stop giving welfare to those who look at hand outs as an alternative to working and on debt we can’t sustain the level of paying back what we owe, and by using tax to fund this, or In Immigration that While The EU has done us alot of good and that we don’t have the means to train plumbers and electricians, so bosses are getting them from Eastern Europe ,that we let to many people settle here when we should have got the workers we needed on temporary terms for their time here

  • postageincluded

    The main problem for me with your statistics, Anthony, is the lack of a comparison with similar situations in the past. This isn’t fully rectifiable as we just don’t have polling evidence from a period of coalition government but even a comparison with other examples of mid-term salience polling would be useful. Without that evidence your speculations about the meaning of the polls are just speculation.

    A second problem is the use of Ashcroft’s data. He is polling to help the Tories, not us. I’m sure the polling is honest and good practice, but the questions are chosen with the aim of advising Tory policy. If Labour had a friendly multimillionair to conduct mass polls different questions would be asked, and different selections could bemade from the answers.

  • John Ruddy

    Interesting that this also came out today…. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/feb/11/labour-lead-conservative-12-point-poll
    Labour lead increases by 4 points in the widely recognised “Gold Standard” poll.

  • David B

    When was this completed, if it was before the Mid Staff. report, the lead on the NHS may be a lot narrower as well

  • David Parker

    Jeremy Preece is absolutely right. Allowing the lie that the deficit was a consequence of Labour profligacy to become a popular assumption has been a tactical and strategic disaster. Virtually the whole Tory strategy has been built around this. The alternative narrative is obvious and it has to be built on showing that the whole point of the lie was as a pretext for conducting a class war on the poor, the vulnerable and on public services. Millions of people who know in their bones that we are not all in this together can be won for an alternative narrative if the leadership is sufficiently clear, incisive and courageous.

    • Dave Postles

      William Keegan, Saving the World. Gordon Brown Reconsidered (Searching Finance Ltd, 2012)

    • taylor

      Well said.

  • November.

    • David B

      There has been a lot of water under the bridge since November

  • aracataca

    ‘How about ,we should stop giving welfare to those who look at hand outs as an alternative to working’
    Like investment bankers for instance?

  • Monkey_Bach

    How come the flagship Work Programme, with all of its conditionality and regime of the severest sanctions, only managed to get 3% participants six months work during its first fourteen months if the opportunity to work is available to all? Eeek.

  • Guest

    You can get 4/1 on the Tories winning an outright majority at the next election.

  • Dave Postles

    ‘we don’t have the means to train plumbers and electricians’

    Really? Most FE colleges perform precisely that function – although this government has damaged their capacity very badly, the FE courses still exist for firms which are prepared to accept apprentices and day-release training for them. We still have the capacity, but the employment prospects are eroded by the attitude of some employers – so, not so well done, some SMEs. The guy who assisted me at Costa this morning – he makes a startlingly good cappuccino – is a trained plumber, but cannot get a plumbing job yet. He consequently does two jobs on contract hours. We are wasting such talent and initiative with a race to the bottom.

    Another young man whom I know trained as an electrician on day release as an apprentice at Loughborough Colleges.

    No, what we need is investment in plant and equipment, building stock, and good employment practices, especially in the SME sector – precisely the opposite to this government’s policies on investment in infrastructure and conditions and terms of employment and service.

    BTW, if you’ve ever been the process of completing an ESA50 form – as I recently did at the weekend for someone – you will realize how much intolerable pressure is being placed on people.

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