Labour surge in polls

By Alex Bryan

© Archived Department of Energy and Climate Change

In many ways it was inevitable; in a week of an unpopular budget and a party funding scandal, it is hardly surprising that the new polling figures put Labour up to 10 points ahead of the Conservatives. There is a temptation to put this entirely down to the events of the past week, but there are some long-term points which can be drawn for these figures.The issue still dominating the headlines is the cash-for-access scandal which the Sunday Times exposed last week. This in itself need not have been a catastrophe for the Conservatives; it could have been put down to the personal impropriety of Peter Cruddas and quickly dealt with. However, the party made mistakes at every turn, by showing reluctance to release information, by not sending David Cameron to Parliament to answer questions of the matter and by using a strategy of attacking previous Labour governments rather than showing humility.

This strategy was exemplified by Francis Maude’s appearance (in place of the Prime Minister) at the House of Commons to be questioned. It was a performance of sheer arrogance and partisanship, and did little to dispel the notion that the Conservative Party was not taking this issue seriously. As memories of the ‘sleaze’ of previous Conservative governments were invoked, many commentators have begun to talk of how Cameron’s de-toxification of the Tory brand lies in ruins.

It seems indubitable that the Conservative Party are regaining their ‘nasty party’ reputation after recent policy debacles and scandals. It seems equally clear that they have probably been expecting this to happen ever since the election – it has been a minor miracle that the Government has stayed so popular whilst implementing such deep public spending cuts. The NHS bill, the Budget and the funding scandal combine to create a taste which is unpalatable to the majority of the public, and it is the combination of all three at once which makes it damaging.

Beyond those who already dislike the Conservative Party (whose opposition will simply increase in magnitude), this simply may not matter. Talk of the de-toxification of the Tory brand as if it were either successful or relevant is misguided. It was never the case that the party was given a make-over; it is simply the presence of David Cameron as leader which helped to inspire and maintain this notion of a slightly more cuddly Conservative Party. It wasn’t his trip to see husky dogs and talk about the environment that made him seem friendly, it was his ideological ambivalence and ‘Shire Tory’ roots.

It is equally misguided to talk of the re-emergence of this reputation as an electoral issue for the Conservatives. Firstly, had the de-toxification been entirely successful, they would have gained more than 36% of the votes in the last election. Secondly, unless the economy improves dramatically in the next 3 years, the 2015 general election will be fought on the one measure which still favours the Conservatives by a large margin; economic competency.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls still have a long way to go to catch up on – there is a 20 point margin between them and the Government on who the public would support with the economy.  Slowly, Miliband is beginning to show signs of leadership. His response to the budget was excellent; Blairite George Foulkes called it ‘the best budget response […] from opposition leaders in 33 years’.

It was a powerful riposte, exposing the most unfair aspects of the Chancellor’s plan, delivered with confidence and force, and replete with rhetorical flourish – most notably when he quizzed the front bench on whether they would be affected by the abolition of the 50 pence tax rate.

It could be said that the Government should not be disillusioned with these figures at all, for the one which matters most is not only in their favour, but is intensely difficult for the opposition to reverse.

A YouGov poll shows that the public overwhelmingly value ‘economic strength’ over ‘making Britain fairer’. As long as the Conservatives maintain this reputation, they should not be at all concerned by low polling figures, for whilst it may be the case that people do not approve of policies, come election day, the public will stick with them.


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