Analysis: Labour’s long and winding road to power

By Gideon Skinner and James Stannard

Ipsos Mori's May Political Monitor shows approval ratings for the government, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have fallen to their lowest levels ever.

This reflects a tough few months for the government, with the Office for National Statistics announcing the UK had slumped back into recession while the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives suffered heavily at the May 3rd local elections.

The proportion satisfied with the government (26%) is now at similar levels to the Labour government at the time of the 2010 general election, ratings that they had endured from the start of 2008. It took Tony Blair's government to mid-way through its second term before it consistently hit similar levels. Public satisfaction with John Major's government dropped to 25% in August 1992 – and they never reached this point again before Tony Blair's landslide election victory five years later.

David Cameron's net approval among the general public sits at an unprecedented (for him) -28 and has dropped eight points since April's Monitor, again similar to Gordon Brown in 2009 and Tony Blair in mid-2003. Nick Clegg's ratings have fallen by the same margin and are also at his lowest level, -39. With Labour opening up their biggest lead in voting intentions since February 2011 (and before then September 2007), this has put the focus on the coalition. But is it just mid-term blues, or can Labour take advantage?

Looking at Ed Miliband's personal ratings, these have recovered from the start of the year, and after the local elections the media seems to be giving him more positive coverage. But while compared to then they are moving in the right direction (although they have been static in the last three months), there is still room for improvement.

As we noted last month, local and mayoral elections carried the potential to impact negatively on Conservative party morale. But despite what was (Boris Johnson aside) a bad night for the Tories, satisfaction with David Cameron among party supporters remains high compared to Ed Miliband. Seventy-three per cent of Conservatives are satisfied with David Cameron, compared with 49% of Labour voters with Ed Miliband.

Looking at the most important issue – the economy – Labour and the Conservatives are now neck and neck as being seen as having the best policies to manage the economy (30% and 31% respectively). The Tories' ten-point advantage they held in September 2011 has disappeared and the realisation of the first double-dip recession since the 1970s could be a driving factor here. Significantly, though, Labour has not had a lead on the economy since 2007, during which time our Issues Index shows the economy to have become unchallenged as the most important issue facing Britain.

After two years of the coalition government, Labour are now hitting back against the '13 years of Labour' with the 'recession made in Downing Street' line. A poorly received Budget and the PR mistakes since appear to have taken their toll on the Conservatives' perceived economic credibility.

But despite Labour headway, a successful result in local elections and a ten-point lead on headline voting intention, Labour still has some way to go to feel confident that they have completely regained the public's trust. While they have a healthy lead in voting intentions, this seems to be at least partly due to the process of coalition government and the poor economy taking the shine off their rivals. They now need to use the initiative they have gained to give an answer to the six in ten who say they don't know what the Labour party stands for.

Gideon Skinner is head of politics and James Stannard is a researcher at Ipsos Mori

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