Analysis: The coalition's balancing act

Helen Cleary (l) and Sarah Pope of the Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute
Helen Cleary (l) and Sarah Pope of the Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute

By Sarah Pope and Helen Cleary, Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute

In light of the losses for the Liberal Democrats in this month's local elections, and the contrasting stability of the Conservative vote, what can public opinion polling tell us about the strength of the coalition and where it should go from here?

Following a 'honeymoon' bounce, satisfaction with the government has declined in recent months. Over half of the public are now dissatisfied with its performance. But given the difficult decisions that have been taken and the scale of the cuts ahead, public opinion has not turned against the government as much as it could have. Compared with previous governments one year in, satisfaction is actually shoring up relatively respectably.

However, the imbalance in public attitudes towards the two parties is more concerning for the coalition. Ipsos Mori's April Political Monitor for Reuters found the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck on 40%, with the Lib Dems trailing on nine per cent. This represents stability in the Conservative vote since the election, but a remarkable increase in the Labour share, almost entirely at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. Dissatisfaction with the coalition is hurting only one party.

This is clearly putting a large amount of pressure on the Lib Dems, who need to prove that they are getting something - anything - out of being in government. But it is also an issue for the government as a whole as such divided fortunes create indecision and tension.

Perceived divisions have far-reaching implications on public opinion. Far fewer people (43%) now think that the coalition is working as a united team than in June last year (63%). For the Lib Dems, more worrying is that almost two-thirds think that the Conservatives are making most of the decisions, which again has increased since last June when closer to half agreed. The current battle over the NHS could be crucial here; a partial retreat on the proposed reforms may help Nick Clegg prove that his party can influence government policy. Fighting 'to save' the NHS will be politically popular; our data indicates that satisfaction is at a ten-year high, while seven in ten think that it is one of the best health services in the world.

Their specific differences aside, the two parties also face the challenge that the public are neither used to nor particularly comfortable with the idea of coalition government. There was initial optimism, with the majority thinking that both Cameron and Clegg had made the right decision to work together. However, scepticism about how far hung parliaments are good for Britain was already high just after the general election (52% thought they were a 'bad thing') and has increased since, with three in five (58%) now thinking they are bad for the country. Throughout the referendum campaign a central 'No to AV' argument was based on the need to avoid coalitions in future.

A key focus for the government is the economy, and presenting a united front on this issue will be critical. Much rides on the gamble that the government has taken in cutting the deficit rapidly. A year ago, it looked like the coalition had won the cuts argument, but agreement about their necessity has started to falter amid growing concern about the impact of cuts on people's personal financial circumstances. If the economic gamble fails (and current growth data is not positive) then the government will be punished by the electorate no matter how successful their other policies may be. Current trends indicate that Lib Dems will probably take the brunt of the blame, but the Conservatives will not be immune.

Currently, Labour has staged a recovery by default; people who are dissatisfied with the coalition generally (and the Lib Dems in particular) have flocked to them. If Ed Miliband could do more to highlight coalition disunity his party could probably be doing even better in the polls. The coalition parties need to find a better balance between themselves otherwise perceptions that it is divided will grow. In particular, the government needs to convince the public that it can be trusted to manage the economy effectively, and share the credit for recovery - or blame for further downturn - more equally.

Sarah Pope and Helen Cleary work for the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute

The opinions in's Speakers Corner are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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