Election 2010: The polls

The pattern we have seen since at least the start of the year continued this week, with Tory support disintegrating incredibly quickly.

By Ian Dunt

When we last looked at the polls a month ago, we saw the beginning of the process by which the Conservative lead slipped to single digits. By the last day of February, one poll gave the party just a two-point lead.

The average advantage stands at seven points, with the Tories on 38% and Labour on 31%. But there is repeated evidence of a gradual deterioration in the opposition’s support. The daily YouGov polls for the Sun allows us a sustained look at how polling if doing. On February 17th the Tories had a nine-point lead, standing on 40% to Labour’s 31%. It dropped to seven points the next day, and by February 22nd was on six points. It pretty much stayed there, despite creeping up or down by a point every so often. The latest polls from YouGov conducted early this month stick with the six-point lead.

That is corroborated by other polls. An ICM poll for the Guardian on February 21st put the Tories seven per cent ahead, on 37% to Labour’s 30%. A Harris poll for the Metro the next day gave the Tories a nine-point advantage, but an Ipsos MORI poll for the Telegraph on the same day gave them a mere five-point lead. That’s about the point that Labour can win more seats than the opposition, due to the British electoral system’s inbuilt bias.

Then came the big one. The YouGov poll for the Sunday Times on February 26th put the Tories just two points ahead. It stunned observers and even prompted a new approach from Tory strategists, who hoped the thought of Gordon Brown remaining in No 10 for another five years would startle voters enough for them to get down to the polling station.

What’s really worrying the Tories is that the level of Labour support appears impervious to scandal. The Brown bullying row didn’t dent to Labour’s support, for instance. But when economic growth returned, it did have a positive impact.

But there is a further complication which paints a rosier picture for the opposition: uniform extrapolation. Pollsters usually expand out from their data sample on the assumption of a uniform swing across constituencies. That is not actually how things work, meaning Tory concentration on the marginal constituencies could make all the difference. The party has been pouring funds (some of them, ironically, from Michael Ashcroft), resources and activists into the marginals for years, and the polls are not currently reflecting this.

But there is a caveat. The caveat is called the YouGov poll of the marginals for Channel 4, which was published on March 4th. This found voting intent, on average, saw the Tories on 39% and Labour on 37%. That’s bad news for the Tories. These seats – Labour-held constituencies the Tories need to take if they want a workable majority – need a swing of at least three to seven per cent for them to go blue.

What’s been going on with the Liberal Democrats? Not much. The party are constantly around the 18% mark, sometimes slipping to 16% but rarely getting above 20%. Only ICM and Harris have given that level of support – on 20 and 22 respectively, towards the tail-end of February. They have had relatively little attention so far in the campaign – a fact which will change once it kicks off properly and the media give them their fair share. When that happens we can expect them to pick up points, from both of the other two parties, depending on the constituency.

They are not to be taken lightly. If the polls keep pointing the way they are now, Nick Clegg could be king-maker in two months’ time.