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Swingback is happening – how far will it go?

April 12th, 2014

Crossover may be in sight but crossover isn’t enough for Dave

The Omnishambles Budget of 2012 was perhaps Ed Miliband’s high point of the parliament. In that response, he set the political narrative for at least a Summer and put the government, and George Osborne in particular, right on the back foot. He introduced a readily reusable slogan and one which penetrated well into public consciousness. Unsurprisingly, translated into healthy opinion poll leads, reversing the brief bounce the Tories enjoyed after Cameron vetoed the EU treaty at the turn of 2011/12. It’s been mostly downhill since, but only slowly.

    The figures above show how the polls have moved over the last two years. They’re based on all the opinion polls from the five firms to have conducted at least one per month since May 2012 (which is when UKIP figures generally became available without a great deal of digging). From that raw data, I’ve taken a weighted average of each firm’s own average figure for the month, the weighting being a combination of accuracy at the 2010 election and a factor for how many polls per month they typically conduct.

While averaging polls can be dangerous and does not necessarily produce a more accurate or reliable figure than the best individual firm, it is very useful in identifying a trend direction (i.e. even if there’s a bias in the methodology, it is at least likely to be a consistent bias). And what the average shows is that between May 2012 and March 2013, Labour was typically ten points or so ahead; in the year since, the gap’s been at least halved, with progress coming fairly steadily, month by month.

That turning point – March 2013 – almost exactly coincides with the start of the recovery. It may be simplistic to say that it’s solely down to the economy but the coincidence is striking if not. With the gap having dropped from a peak of 10.9% in February 2013 to just 3.9% last month, continued swingback at much the same rate wouldproduce a crossover in the autumn. Clearly, projection and prediction are two different things but if the narrowing is down largely to the economy, we might expect the trend to continue a little while yet as the recovery continues to gather pace.

What about ‘events’? Surely underlying factors can be greatly overridden by scandals, intra-government disagreements and the like? Yes, but events don’t have a lasting impact unless they seriously damage (or strengthen) the settled perception of one party or another. The flow ofthe trend is driven by what are usually stronger factors, even they move more slowly – like the difference between the tide and waves.

Is the tide flowing quickly enough for Dave or will Ed hold on even if the decline makes things a bit nervy for him? At the moment, projecting the trend would produce a small Con lead by May 2015: Mike’s bet of Labour most seats, Con most votes is looking good.

That said, British politics is now far more than a two-way game. The gap may have halved since2012 but the Conservatives are polling almost exactly the same now as then: it’s the decline in the Labour vote that’s entirely responsible for the difference. Given that the UKIP share has risen 5%in the same time, the dynamics of that change would themselves be interesting to analyse andperhaps gives something of a clue as to who the new UKIP voters are. While it’s true that far moreof them voted Con in 2010 than anything else, it’s never been clear as to what the mix is between ex-‘core’ Con voters (i.e. who voted Blue in 2001 and 2005 as well), and the 2m extra ‘swing’ voters that Cameron attracted in 2010. The churn between Con, Lab and UKIP perhaps suggests that a large number are more freely floating swing voters than core Tories on holiday. If so, the way for Cameron (or Miliband or Clegg), to win them back is the same as it always has been for swing voters: competence in office and pragmatism over ideology.

David Herdson