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The Political Pulse

Latest opinion research and analysis

Labour's strengths may trump Ed's weakness

Ed Miliband’s opinion poll ratings so far this year have been dismal. It’s not so much his low approval ratings among voters as a whole, but how supporters of his own party see him. In YouGov’s tracker last weekend, 41% of those intending to vote Labour approved of the job he was doing, 50% disapproved. By way of comparison, YouGov figures from the weekend before the 2010 general election showed 86% of Labour voters approved of Gordon Brown, 13% disapproved. Just 26% of Labour voters want Ed to lead them into the next election. This contrasts with 31% of Conservatives, who are rather keen to see Mr Miliband in place.

But what if that doesn’t matter? Lord Ashcroft mentioned in his Project Blueprint document on ‘building a Conservative majority’ that “Ed Miliband was a very much less important factor for Labour voters than David Cameron was for Conservative voters... 87% of this group would do so (vote Labour) even if they also thought Labour was not competent and capable”. Comparing attitudes of current Liberal Democrats towards Nick Clegg, which are positive, with those of Labour voters and Ed Miliband has one big difference: anti-Clegg Lib Dems no longer appear in polls as Liberal Democrats, they have stopped supporting the party, while the Ed-disillusioned are still firmly in the Labour column. Ashcroft found 71% of those who voted Labour in 2010 ‘identified’ with the party, compared to just 62% of Conservatives. The Labour vote, by such measures, can be seen as robust, resilient and partisan.

Let me present a different hypothesis.

Under first-past-the-post, ideologies that are split across parties weaken those parties and causes. The extraordinary failure of the Labour Party in 1983 was not simply due to the electoral deficiencies of Michael Foot, though these undoubtedly contributed to their landslide defeat, but to the fact the surging Liberal-SDP Alliance split the left-of-centre vote. Roughly 13 million people voted Conservative, 8.5 million for Labour and 7.8 million for the Alliance. Similarly, in Canada, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s sensational election win was not so much down to his own success (his vote share increased 2%), but the migration of Liberal Party voters to the left-wing New Democratic Party (down 7% and up 12% respectively). This is in large part why the idea of AV, which allows voters to coalesce around candidates of a similar ideology, brought terror to Conservative strategists.

But what if that, since the formation of the Coalition, was now all turned on its head? The Liberal Democrat vote has declined from 23% to less than 10%, depending on which pollster you look at. Of course, not all of those who have moved away have gone to Labour – roughly half done so, with the rest being undecided or shifting to smaller parties. But what is clear is that those who are sticking with Clegg are supporters, almost by definition, who are more comfortable with the Conservatives.

In such a situation, as Danny Finkelstein has argued, is it now the left and not the right who are united? Labour’s landslide win in the Feltham & Heston by-election, which some regarded as having Conservative potential, was in large part due to an 8 point fall in the Lib Dem vote – Labour went up by 10 points. Similarly, the disastrous Labour defeat in Scotland might be seen to foretell this phenomenon. Alex Salmond is, of course, an exceptionally popular leader, but his landslide must also be put down to the almost total collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote (down 8 points) and their rallying behind the SNP (up 12 points). It’s possible to see a Liberal Democrat vote at Holyrood as an anti-Labour vote. The post-Coalition collapse finally united this movement.

Whilst the phenomenon will undoubtedly favour the Conservatives in blue-yellow marginals, especially where Labour voters have long tactically voted Liberal Democrat, there are almost certainly more seats where the shift of Liberal Democrat votes towards the Labour column will be enough to overhaul the Conservative.

This anti-Conservative unity may, if he can continue to hold onto the Labour vote, provide Ed Miliband with a quiet and under-reported route to Number 10.

This article appears on pages 6 and 7 of The House magazine.