Does his latest session merely add to the confusion?
The other much-noted result was the extent to which these findings dashed the hopes of Alan Johnson. The results were not just definitive – they were damning.
So what are we to make of last night Luntz performance for Newsnight, when he took 27 Labour-leaning voters and asked them to assess six rivals to Brown for the Labour leadership? Purnell, Balls, and David Miliband were summarily dismissed. Harriet Harman and Jack Straw failed to enthuse.
The one candidate who received enthusiastic, even unanimous, support was the Health Secretary Alan Johnson. The only reversal greater than this sudden groundswell of support for the former-postman was that a clear majority did not want their favourite candidate to replace Gordon Brown as Prime Minister.
Luntz is clear that focus groups “are not definitive”, but this complete reversal of the findings of the September 2006 session cannot be ignored. Are Luntz’s methods fundamentally indefensible, or can we mould these erratic responses into a coherent account of how left-leaning voters feel about the leadership of the Labour Party?
Looking at the LabourHome poll, featured on the frontpage of the Independent and attracting vicious responses from bloggers such as Ministry of Truth, it is clear that Johnson is actually held in very high regard amongst those sympathetic to the Party. The same poll, though, shows that although Brown comes near the bottom of the ratings, almost half want him to stay in role. If he were to be replaced, more would put David Miliband as their first choice than Johnson.
So we have two, non-scientific polls, asking whether Brown should go, and if so, who should replace him. The consensus seems to be that no-one particularly wants him in the job (as predicted in 2006) but then a majority are concerned that replacing him would make things even worse. They like Johnson, but don’t see him being an improvement on Brown.
The only way I can make any of this hold together is to suggest that Labour voters are largely resigned to almost-certain defeat at the next election, and thus cannot see the benefit in overthrowing the PM in the middle of economic catastrophe. Brown may be an unpopular leader, but his career has seen him effectively ruin any opposition to his leadership.
His path to Number 10 has seen rivals beaten, and the Cabinet staffed with people who cannot pose a significant challenge to his premiership. It reinforces my suspicion that, if there is to be a successful challenger before the next election, it might be a candidate from outwith the Cabinet. My small wager on John Reid is currently looking better than the money I have on Jack Straw, though it is becoming clearer to see why Brown surviving until at least 2009 is still odds-on.
Things are scarcely clearer for the other left-of-centre party. The consecutive polls showing apparently contradictory findings about the Lib Dems on 12% and 20% can, however, be explained by timing. As Mike has advised the vast bulk of the fieldwork for MORI took place before the Lib Dem conference. Most of the YouGov survey took place afterwards.
He says: “The Lib Dems always get a good crack of the whip from the broadcasters at conference time and this was why YouGov was so good. You really cannot get a full sense of what is happening from the polls at this time of year until all the conferences are over and further time has passed by. Let’s wait until the end of of October”.
Indeed, other than that the Tories are substantially ahead in the polls there are few straightforward answers at the moment, and I wonder if that can only re-enforce the status quo. Changes of leader requires a boldness, and a preparedness to take significant political risks. I’m not sure that this climate of uncertainty lends itself to rebellion so easily, especially when a successor is so difficult to discern. Maybe, just maybe, Brown is safe. For the moment.
UPDATE: John Rentoul is teasing us with promises of ‘unexpected’ results in a ComRes poll for tomorrow’s Independent on Sunday. There will likely be a Telegraph/ICM poll out tomorrow as well. As always, we’ll try and bring you the results first.