Conservatives and the media are being left behind on public opinion


9:05 am - January 11th 2011

by Sunder Katwala    


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An 8 point lead for the Labour Party in one opinion poll is just one poll, though the party has good reasons to be confident about its prospects not only in Oldham East and Saddleworth on Thursday, but also in national elections in Scotland and Wales as well major local elections in four months time.

But this may tell us something about how the government is turning voters off – and about how most media commentary has missed how they have done so for most of the last six months.

“There is no alternative” isn’t working – and it will now have diminishing returns with people who aren’t core supporters of the government.

A common argument among Coalition MPs, newspaper columnists who support the government, and right-of-centre bloggers is that all reasonable people know that the government’s spending cuts are necessary and unavoidable. So it is claimed that only small groups of refuseniks deny this obvious reality, which risks leaving Labour, the unions and other coalition-sceptics out of touch.

There isn’t a shred of public attitudes evidence for this.

Quite the opposite.

The government has spent six months always and only preaching to the converted. Its opponents have been much more persuasive with both don’t knows, and with a large number of those who were ready to give the government a hearing and a chance in May.

So opinion has moved steadily against the government, though the cuts have yet to bite in most cases, and the Labour leadership is still in the early stages of setting out an alternative argument.

Government approval tonight is -20 with 33% approval and 53% disapproval, having fallen pretty sharply in the last few weeks of last year. So it is somewhere short of the (inadequate) Tory share in May 2010, still less even the reduced vote of the Coalition parties.

They are now miles behind on whether the cuts are fair. Having been miles ahead on whether cuts to reduce the deficit was good for the economy last June, they are now trying and perhaps struggling to hand on to parity.

“Blame it all on the mess we inherited from Labour” got the Coalition a pretty good run for most of a year. Its increasingly a turn-off. As we get into 2011, expect to hear more heckling and booing when it is used on Question Time, as happened late last year to Liam Fox.

Listen to Osborne, Cameron or Clegg on the TV or radio. You are going to believe it if you already believe it. If you’re not sure, the absolutist certainty seems ever more likely to put voters off.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments


Headline voting figures in polls four years out from an election are interesting, but not much more than that, especially when they are so out of line with other findings from the same poll. For example, from that Comres poll:

Labour would manage the economy better than the Coalition:
Agree: 36
Disagree: 54

Ed Miliband is doing a good job as Labour leader
Agree: 36
Disagree: 42

There is usually something for everybody in these polls.

http://www.comres.co.uk/page1902124918.aspx

I sometimes wish Labour had won the last election…just to watch them have to make similarly large cuts or watch the fiscal situation implode.

Leftie bloggers would have been tying themselves in knots trying to spin a good story out of that.

It’s not often I agree with Tim J, but… The poor personal ratings of Ed M and AJ are of significant concern, as is the fact that lefties seem so determined to avoid acknowledging them, caught up, as they are, in the surge of optimism that comes from seeing Labour ahead in the topline figures.

The fact is : there is plenty of evidence that there is a less ferocious way of reducing the deficit and therefor this so called Coalition does not have to make people suffer as much. People are now starting to see through all the lie’s from David Cameron and this so called Coalition, for example David Cameron said “we have no intention of raising VAT if elected” and Nick Clegg opposed a raise in VAT and accused the Conservatives of having secret plans to do so, and what did David Cameron and Nick Clegg do as soon as the Coalition was formed : said that they will raise VAT and have done so. There are numerous lie’s, and deceitful spin that is starting to be exposed along with their clever deceitful psychological mind games and their half baked policies that have not been thought out. This so called Coalition is The Evil Party plain and simple and luckily people have began to see them for what they are. I prey that we can be delivered from this Evil and soon. People need to stand upto this so called Coalition of Evil and make their voices heard and soon.

What bloody lefties for god sake, I know nobody who are so called labour MP’s who can be classed as lefties OK maybe John Mc Donnell but thats it, Cruddas is so far gone down the road of Blair ism he has become lost up the rectum of Blair.

Will labour win the next election I doubt it very much, because the people do blame labour for this mess and rightly as well

I notice the pressure is now on Ed to “admit” that Labour spent too much as the last government and to join the dominant narrative about the “necessity” of the cuts. The powers clamoring for this evidently know that no such admission need be made, while the cuts are not only unnecessary but counter-productive. Yet the continued dominance of the neoliberals rests on acceptance of this pro-cuts narrative. Have we any hope Ed Miliband will set a genuinely new agenda by rejecting the pressure? Perhaps his approval ratings would go up if he did so, though the same establishment pundits who have been hard at work undermining him since his election are not likely to give up. The neoliberal consensus has dug itself in deep over the past three decades – it won’t go anywhere without a fight.

6 – Labour are currently ‘committed’ (in that nebulous way oppositions are) to eliminating the structural deficit by 2016. That is, one year later than the Tories. If that is the great strategic alternative, then it’s understandable that the public aren’t warming to it.

When you have a party simultaneously opposing every specific cut made (though saying they support the idea of cuts in theory) and every tax raised, you will end up with something of a credibility gap. When the man supposed to be in charge of economic policy doesn’t know fairly basic information about the tax system, that gap is going to widen. Labour will do well in opinion polls, but it will be largely by default. Until they have a credible narrative on what they plan to do with the economy Labour are not a credible alternative Government.

Michael Foot had a 20 point polling lead over Margaret Thatcher at one point.

7 – I should point out that I got my information on Labour’s economic policy from an interview with the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer (albeit an amended version – he originally stated that the policy was to eliminate the structural deficit by 2015) and it’s quite possible therefore that either it’s nonsense to begin with or has subsequently been changed.

9. Sunder Katwala

Agree Labour will have much larger polling leads than this without it meaning they will win.

Attitudes towards the government have become firmer – because people have had several big moments to think about what they think of them. Note that the budget gave them quite a bounce in that short honeymoon, the CSR just confirmed what everybody already thought.

The government should worry that
– it is defined by cuts, and pretty much cuts alone
– people don’t think the cuts are fair, and are worrying about whether they are needed
– and this hasn’t come to where you live yet
– its policies are popular with about 75% of Conservatves and unpopular with about 75% of everyone else (including LibDems in 2010, and even half of the still loyal LibDems who remain).

They might want to change any or all of these things. My point is that as long as it says “we are right on everything, we have a communication problem, we must explain it is all Labour’s fault and there is no alternative” that they are unlikely to do anything other than preach to their committed supporters. They don’t have a problem with their cheerleaders.

They will stick with the cuts/deficit argument and make a lot of “this government isn’t all about cuts” noises …. let’s see. Its very important to the LibDems, because they conceded entirely the content of deficit/cuts on the grounds that their contribution would be about other policy gains. But its a killer for Cameron too.

Labour’s ratings on the economy aren’t good. But I am not suprised. People aren’t going to be very favourable to a party which lost less than nine months ago, in a recession.

But I think we might all agree that attitudes towards Ed Miliband and Alan Johnson are pretty malleable. Very few people have heard much from them yet. If they prove useless, their ratings will stall and dive, If they prove average, good or excellent across the Parliament, attitudes will reflect that.

Of course they need to show they have a credible alternative. The AJ gotcha “gaffe” is embarassing and will be picked over on the blogs and mentioned by politicians.

I rather think that the argument “is it time for the bankers to pay less tax” may resonate more broadly, for example with readers of the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, and will I think improve the standings of Ed Miliband and AJ. The responses to that (“we think its terrible but we can’t do anything, despite saying we could” or “haven’t the bankers suffered enough; stop the banker-bashing” are – whatever their other merits – a difficult sell).

And Labour is wise to avoid the bark and no bite option by makng specific proposals
– eg extend the bonus tax for one year
– triple the bank levy so it is similar to that in the USA
and avoiding vague ranting which means nothing of the type which Mr Osborne indulged himself in, before fighting the bankers’ corner in government.

10. Sunder Katwala

The polls which are worth most attention in 2011 are the Scottish and Welsh ones, where we are in the decisive phase of the national election cycle, though I imagine English Conservative and LibDem Councillors as well as their Labour peers will be paying close attention to national polls too, for reasons other than the general election.

I’d be especially nervous, if I was a Welsh LibDem, about being on 5-6% so marching towards the sound of gunfire with one-third of the votes of last time out, and only one-quarter of their May 2010 general election support.

http://www.nextleft.org/2010/12/can-libdems-avoid-welsh-wipeout.html

Government approval tonight is -20 with 33% approval and 53% disapproval, having fallen pretty sharply in the last few weeks of last year. So it is somewhere short of the (inadequate) Tory share in May 2010, still less even the reduced vote of the Coalition parties.

Be very careful with this sort of statement! Voting intention is re-percentaged to exclude “don’t know” and “wouldn’t vote” (with some of the “don’t know”s being reallocated to the party they voted for last time), while approval is not. Once you adjust for that by going back to the raw figures there are still more people approving of the government than likely to vote for either of the parties in it.

My point is that as long as it says “we are right on everything, we have a communication problem, we must explain it is all Labour’s fault and there is no alternative” that they are unlikely to do anything other than preach to their committed supporters. They don’t have a problem with their cheerleaders.

That’s almost precisely not what they’re saying. What the Coalition has been saying is that the cuts in spending are going to be unpopular, are always unpopular, but that if they are successful (by which they mean if the economy recovers over the next four years) it will have been worth it. And pinning the blame for the cuts on Labour does, for the moment at least seem to be working. In the last Yougov on this in December, 23% blamed the Coalition for the cuts, and 41% blamed Labour.

But I think we might all agree that attitudes towards Ed Miliband and Alan Johnson are pretty malleable. Very few people have heard much from them yet.

Alan Johnson was in cabinet for how long? 3 years? Even so, the views of Ed Miliband in particular are hardening from don’t knows to disapproves.

I rather think that the argument “is it time for the bankers to pay less tax” may resonate more broadly, for example with readers of the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, and will I think improve the standings of Ed Miliband and AJ.

Maybe, but there’s a good counter to Ed’s call to re-instate the one-off bonus tax. Alastair Darling, who’s usually considered the one minister to improve his reputation in the dog days of the Brown Government, has described it as a failure. “When even the man who introduced this one-off tax has described it as a failure…”

@Tim J: Darling didn’t say the tax was a failure, he said it had not altered the practice of awarding bonuses. Yet, the awards might appear no longer to be a problem if the bonuses are taxed, to progressive ends. The leftwing view of the tax claims that it tends towards one of two virtues: either it discourages large awards, or it fails to do so, but achieves greater fairness, by increasing the contributions of bankers to the recovery.

Let’s also see who’s behind public opinion….two Labour MPs found guilty of fraud…and not one mention of it on LC.

I’m more and more convinced that this site is just a direct propaganda mouthpiece for Labour.

Meanwhile, more on-topic, the reason not to get excited about any of this is that the Tories just don’t lose elections on grounds of being thought to be heartless/uninterested in fairness. Instead, they lose when they are held to be incompetent, and *that* is the angle Labour should be working on fostering. The key danger at present is that we are settling back into the narratives about the two main parties coined in the 80s, i.e. Tories: tough but decisive, and Labour: heart’s in the right place, but doesn’t know what it’s doing. Simon Hoggart is presenting the latter view of EdM today in his sketch, and we should live in fear of it catching on.

16. alienfromzog

Let’s also see who’s behind public opinion….two Labour MPs found guilty of fraud…and not one mention of it on LC.

I’m more and more convinced that this site is just a direct propaganda mouthpiece for Labour.

Yes, in the same way, LibCon never mentioned the Phil Woolas case at all…

…no wait…

“The polls which are worth most attention in 2011 are the Scottish and Welsh ones”

I don’t think so. Conservative central office have long regarded these areas as write offs for general elections -they think it is nice to get a result but they don’t bank on it. Plus the welsh conservatives may do well despite rather than because of central government as Nick Bourne is a talented politician speaking to a growing welsh business class with a distinctive brand of welsh conservativism – I suspect they’ll hold on to what they have and this will be portrayed as a success.

Also the unpopularity is factored in to their strategy – lose seats in devolved, local and european elections (where the tories don’t care) before beginning a recovery by 2013 with public finances in the condition where tax cuts to middle england can be made.

“Instead, they lose when they are held to be incompetent, and *that* is the angle Labour should be working on fostering”

Spot on.

Yet, the awards might appear no longer to be a problem if the bonuses are taxed, to progressive ends

Which they are of course, at 50%

20. Dick the Prick

@9 – Sunder. Completely agree with:

The government should worry that
– it is defined by cuts, and pretty much cuts alone
– people don’t think the cuts are fair, and are worrying about whether they are needed

I think that’s its strength, though. I’ve been trying to get my head around the GP commissioning thingy. At the same time Local Government is obtaining greater responsibility in ‘Social Care’ – merging adult, mental, elderly and SLDD kids into the same bucket with ‘personalized care budgets’ which have been quite well developed through the Local Gov commissioning system for about 7 years seriously. If GPs are just gonna be handed £80 billion (which, frankly, is bullshit initially) then this cash can be used as a wheeze to get the geriatrics on board.

GPs are lauging their tits off and they’ll be loads of hangers on. If the Co-alition keep the oldies sweet then 60% of job done. No one gives a shit about welfare reform unless they’re on welfare.

Old people have been completely untouched specifically by any budgetary movements – true, they were being shafted before but they’ve been left alone.

If the Co-alition keeps its nerve for the next 3 years then much hay can be made.

Tim J / SohoPolitico:

You’re right the polls don’t look good, but it’s also worth asking what point of view that is from. Tories will broadly distrust Labour regardless. Now, many Libdems will too, since we’re all in opposition mode.

But there might also be a significant numbers of Labour people who don’t have a high opinion of Ed Miliband, and think the Lab party won’t do any better from the left. I.e. – people who think Ed Miliband won’t steer Labour away from the neo-liberal economic consensus.

21 – wouldn’t that be even worse for Ed?

14 tyler

I’m more and more convinced you’re a right wing wing-nut trolling; on the basis of your posts, that’s a hell of a lot more likely to be true than this site being a mouthpiece for Labour which gets regular and well deserved kickings from many on this site who didn’t share Sunny’s damascene conversion post the GE.

@1 Tim J

Headline voting figures in polls four years out from an election are interesting, but not much more than that, especially when they are so out of line with other findings from the same poll. For example, from that Comres poll:

Labour would manage the economy better than the Coalition:
Agree: 36
Disagree: 54

Ed Miliband is doing a good job as Labour leader
Agree: 36
Disagree: 42

There is usually something for everybody in these polls.

http://www.comres.co.uk/page1902124918.aspx

To use your own argument you can’t make anything of these polls so early in the game?

@12 Tim J

“That’s almost precisely not what they’re saying. What the Coalition has been saying is that the cuts in spending are going to be unpopular, are always unpopular, but that if they are successful (by which they mean if the economy recovers over the next four years) it will have been worth it. And pinning the blame for the cuts on Labour does, for the moment at least seem to be working. In the last Yougov on this in December, 23% blamed the Coalition for the cuts, and 41% blamed Labour.”

I’m not so sure about this Tim I think the message coming across which contradicts Thst point is that VAT at 20% is here to stay? Nothing will be reversed i.e child benefit, public services, NHS, public transport costs etc etc. The only insentive will be tax cuts when, if, the economy recovers so inthink voters are now beginning to think all this pain is going to be fir vet little reward?

For very little reward. Just took the boxing glove off!

It’s open to question whether paying so much attention to opinion polls this far out from a general election is a sensible basis on which to base a winning strategy.

People want policies too.

If you wish to frame the political choice as between unfair and nothing, I’ll offer 100-1 against that the public won’t choose unfair every time.

So attempting to sway a media narrative is a big waste of time and energy unless you can also present a viable alternative on policy too.


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