Only the Blair government’s net average ratings were better
Governments are pretty much always unpopular. The anonymous grinding mills of policy and administration rarely inspire enthusiasm, much less devotion. Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver once joked that the US Congress was less popular than Satan, a claim that as far as I can find hasn’t been tested by any pollster (perhaps something for Lord Ashcroft to consider during his American travels).
In 2013 during a government shutdown the great American public earnestly declared to Public Policy Polling they preferred root canals, head lice, and venereal disease to their legislative representatives.
The UK government is not a direct comparison to Congress, and we don’t know how they would do in a direct popularity face-off with cockroaches and colonoscopies, but it has a long history of low ratings. The mean net rating of the results was -29.6, paired with a nicely matching median of -30 and a beautifully close to flat overall trend-line (that was very slightly positive).
The most recent government satisfaction net rating is a less than spectacular -45, which is a solid uptick from the -52 recorded in September which was the lowest it’s been under Theresa May’s premiership (having fallen from -4 when she started). It’s in what we could see as the third distinct section of the net rating (these divisions seem arbitrarily neat but by signal or noise I think they can be seen).
In her first year of office it bounced between -1 and -20. In her second year it bounced between -27 and -41. In the four results since we have scores of -47, -52, -48, and now -45. Here’s a chart to look at:
As bad as it looks this is not that unusual for government satisfaction ratings. The ratings show precisely one sustained period of net positive approval for the government, Tony Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of popular approval with a +37 net rating that slowly wore down into negative figures at the end of 1999 and remained almost completely (a brief post-9/11 period excepted) negative after that.
Here’s a second chart to enjoy:
As you can see the satisfaction ratings under May are pretty much par for the historical course. As much as the daily news sends headline writers looking for new ways to say omni-shambles (maybe Armando Ianucci has a spare moment between films to create a follow-up) the public has what we might call historically normal levels of contempt for their government.
The key to high net ratings is mainly avoiding too many people hating you. Blair’s +37 debut net rating came on a 46-9 split (his record-setting high of +38 on a 53-15). Thatcher, Callaghan, and May all managed 46 satisfied ratings, with net scores of 1, 0, and -1 respectively. Positive net ratings cluster around lower numbers of people expressing an opinion. Once you get to 90% response rates everything is very negative, with a few exceptions that can be mostly explained by exceptional circumstance (Thatcher and the Falklands, Blair after 9/11).
The highest response rates are dominated by the lowest scores, familiarity may breed contempt but contempt clearly breeds certainty. Which means plenty of representation for Brown and Major, the two lowest scoring PMs by far, neither of whom benefited from the clean slate start enjoyed by Cameron and Blair (but not, notably, by Thatcher). Measured against the other replacement leaders (is there a better phrase?) Theresa May’s government ratings are holding up well.
The worst scores can be found neatly in a single result. December of 1994, John Major registered an 8-86 split for the lowest satisfaction rating, the highest dissatisfaction rating, and the worst net rating (-78). He owns the lowest 39 ratings, with no-one else falling below -63.
Here’s a more colourful way of looking at it:
It’s government satisfaction ratings, short of printing it on a model’s underwear it’s never going to be eye-catching to anyone who doesn’t have an unhealthy relationship with spreadsheets and Joe Twyman’s twitter page.
In one of my many fun-filled evenings spent with my spreadsheets I had a brief peak of excitement when I noticed that May’s current ratings were approximately as a low than the final ratings of all the Prime Ministers rated apart from Thatcher. But after a celebratory cup of tea I dug a little deeper and found that was the result of repeated bumps in popularity for the government in the run-up to elections (mean gain of 7.4 in the four months prior to an election and only one negative score in ’01). I took a look at the government performance in the run up to the normal election months (May/June in the years before and after each election and found very little average change (mean gain of 1.1, and that’s largely driven by 1982 and the impact of the Falklands War). But take the election effect with its own caveats.
The intermittent polling and lack of early scores on Callaghan (his first one comes at 12 months into his premiership) makes his scores a little enigmatic.
Theresa May’s government is about averagely awful in the eyes of the public. Either the last 40 years of British governments have been almost entirely awful, or the British public loves to hate its governments. Or both. Thank goodness they have the money, power, and status, to help them cope with it.