Analysis: The voters love me, the voters love me not

Gideon Skinner is head of politics at Ipsos Mori
Gideon Skinner is head of politics at Ipsos Mori

Ipsos Mori's latest Political Monitor shows Labour regaining the lead over the Conservatives, but none of the party leaders will be completely happy with their situation.

By Gideon Skinner

Our February Political Monitor shows Labour six ahead of the Conservatives at 41% to 35%, and the Liberal Democrats on 12%; a three-point swing to Labour from the Tories since January, and a return to the situation in November before the Conservative veto bounce.

This reflects a tough week for the coalition after continued debate on their NHS reforms, and news of major companies having doubts over plans to give young jobseekers work experience. Dissatisfaction with the government rose to its highest-ever level, and ratings of the prime minister and deputy prime minister fell sharply. Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg particularly suffered among women, 35- to 54-year-olds, and the middle classes – which will cause concerns.

Meanwhile, although his party is back in front, it's not all roses for Ed Miliband. As Labour's vote share increased, his ratings as leader hardly changed from last month's worst ever figures. This puts him in line with William Hague at this time in his leadership, and points to the difficulty he is having in breaking through to the public even when the individual issues he is raising (for example on responsible capitalism) seem the right ones. In fact, since he's been elected the gap between his personal ratings and Labour's support in the polls appears to be growing.

The first place to look is among his own support, especially as this month his ratings among Labour voters fell into negative territory for the first time (Nick Clegg suffered the same fate). Now that's not unusual for opposition leaders; David Cameron himself saw a pretty steady fall from the time of his election to finally hitting negative ratings in September 2007, before bringing the party faithful back on side one month later with an impressive speech at conference. He hasn't looked back since. Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague spent much longer below the line, even if Conservatives did begin to swing back to Hague as the election approached. But simply waiting for the electoral cycle seems a risky strategy, especially when up against a strong prime minister – it wasn't, after all, enough for William Hague.

The relationship between leader ratings and party support is a complex one. Some leaders are more popular than their parties, others less so, and while British politics is becoming ever more 'presidential' there's no automatic relationship between the two.

David Cameron though is one of the Conservative party's greatest strengths, and they will be worried if his image gets tarnished among key groups. It took the Conservatives a long time in opposition to establish a consistent lead over Labour, and when they finally did towards the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008 it coincided with Cameron getting ahead of Gordon Brown in the battle of their personal ratings. This isn't the case for Labour now - the party is ahead in the polls (more quickly than the Conservatives managed), but their leader isn't.

The question is for how long: will Ed Miliband find his 2007 conference moment, or will this disconnect bring Labour's lead back down to earth?

Gideon Skinner is head of politics at Ipsos Mori

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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