Are the Tories running out of time to turn things around?

Opinion polls on their own do not tell us a great deal. Yes, they can throw up interesting figures, and also can give us a rough idea on issues of the day. But for an overall voting intention picture, you need to look at the trend of several polls, not just the results from one.

The conventional wisdom at the moment, when discussing opinion polls, is that Labour have a lead of roughly 10 points over the Tories. Is this actually true? Well, looking at the most recent 20 polls, the answer is actually ‘yes’.

Pollster Date Lab Lead
YouGov/Sun 28/03/13 13
YouGov/Sun 27/03/13 10
YouGov/Sun 26/03/13 9
YouGov/Sun 25/03/13 11
TNS BMRB/ 25/03/13 10
ComRes/Independent 24/03/13 10
YouGov/Sunday Times 22/03/13 11
Opinium/Observer 21/03/13 10
YouGov/Sun 21/03/13 9
YouGov/Sun 20/03/13 11
YouGov/Sun 19/03/13 10
YouGov/Sun 18/03/13 8
TNS BMRB/ 18/03/13 13
YouGov/Sunday Times 15/03/13 12
ComRes/Independent on Sunday (O) 14/03/13 9
YouGov/Sun 14/03/13 12
YouGov/Sun 13/03/13 9
YouGov/Sun 12/03/13 14
YouGov/Sun 11/03/13 8
TNS BMRB/ 11/03/13 13

(Chart created using figures from UKPollingReport and my own spreadsheet)

These figures show an average Labour lead of around 10.6 – yes, there are a lot of YouGov polls in there, as they poll so regularly – but the smattering of other pollsters seems to bear this figure out.

So the last 20 polls show this – but when was the last time that there was a real shift?

I’ve split every poll since June 2010 into groups of 20, so that we can see where the changes happened. The cells in green show the clusters of 20 that showed the Labour lead changing either positively or negatively by 1 or more percentage points:-

First Poll Date Last Poll Date Average Lab Lead/20 Difference from previous 20
11/03/13 28/03/13 10.6 -0.6
19/02/13 11/03/13 11.2 0.9
31/01/13 18/02/13 10.3 1.25
14/01/13 30/01/13 9.05 -1.55
18/12/12 14/01/13 10.6 -0.5
03/12/12 17/12/12 11.1 1
15/11/12 01/12/12 10.1 0.25
26/10/12 14/11/12 9.85 0
11/10/12 25/10/12 9.85 -0.65
21/09/12 10/10/12 10.5 0.25
06/09/12 21/09/12 10.25 0.75
17/08/12 05/09/12 9.5 -0.3
27/07/12 16/08/12 9.8 0.55
09/07/12 26/07/12 9.25 -0.25
18/06/12 06/07/12 9.5 -1.3
28/05/12 17/06/12 10.8 -0.1
08/05/12 25/05/12 10.9 1.8
19/04/12 07/05/12 9.1 0.7
27/03/12 18/04/12 8.4 3.9
12/03/12 26/03/12 4.5 1.8
20/02/12 09/03/12 2.7 1.8
30/01/12 19/02/12 0.9 1
12/01/12 29/01/12 -0.1 -0.8
13/12/11 11/01/12 0.7 -2.25
25/11/11 12/12/11 2.95 -1.95
08/11/11 25/11/11 4.9 0.5
19/10/11 07/11/11 4.4 -0.05
27/09/11 18/10/11 4.45 0.5
07/09/11 26/09/11 3.95 -0.05
18/08/11 06/09/11 4 -3.2
24/07/11 17/08/11 7.2 0.75
04/07/11 22/07/11 6.45 1.85
12/06/11 01/07/11 4.6 -0.1
17/05/11 10/06/11 4.7 1.15
26/04/11 16/05/11 3.55 -2.2
01/04/11 21/04/11 5.75 0.3
15/03/11 31/03/11 5.45 -0.95
24/02/11 14/03/11 6.4 0.25
06/02/11 23/02/11 6.15 0.25
19/01/11 04/02/11 5.9 2.4
20/12/10 18/01/11 3.5 3.55
02/12/10 20/12/10 -0.05 -0.2
14/11/10 01/12/10 0.15 1.5
24/10/10 12/11/10 -1.35 1.8
04/10/10 24/10/10 -3.15 -1.5
14/09/10 01/10/10 -1.65 2.3
19/08/10 13/09/10 -3.95 -9.1
29/07/10 18/08/10 5.15 11.25
06/07/10 28/07/10 -6.1 0.5
17/06/10 05/07/10 -6.6 -6.6

Let’s start with some basic observations. Firstly, the last time that the Conservatives managed to have a consistent lead over one of our groups of 20 polls was back in January 2012 – over a year ago. Even then, the average Conservative lead was just 0.1.

Secondly – and it’s an observation made on this blog previously – look at where Labour started to really pull ahead. Between mid-February and mid-April, there were three lots of 20 polls – the Labour lead improved by averages of 1.8, 1.8 again and then 3.9. Which event happened bang in the middle of these polls? George Osborne’s 2012 Budget.

Thirdly though, look at what happened before that Budget. The Conservatives were clawing back the Labour lead. On August 17th 2011, the average Labour lead was 7.2 – but between then and the aforementioned January lead, the Tories were chipping away at Labour’s position. This can probably be linked back to the economy – the first three quarters of 2011 actually all showed the economy growing – not by huge amounts at all, but the government could at least point to the economy not being in recession.

Fourthly, and going back to our initial point – it is striking how consistent Labour’s lead has remained over the past year. From April 2012 onwards, the average Labour lead over 20 polls has stayed between 9.1 and 11.2 – the era of the 10 point Labour lead has actually been with us for a long time.

The question is, will we see a repeat of 2011? If there is good economic news, could the Conservatives start chipping away at that Labour lead again? On the face of it, it would seem perfectly plausible. However, there are now other factors that impact this – most notably, the rise of UKIP.

Here are the last five polls in which the Tories had a lead:-

ICM/Guardian 18/03/12 39 36 15 1
Opinium/ 12/03/12 38 36 10 7
YouGov/Sunday Times 02/03/12 40 39 9 5
YouGov/Sun 28/02/12 40 39 9 5
YouGov/Sun 23/02/12 39 38 10 4

The problem for Cameron is obvious. It is nigh-on impossible for him to have a poll lead unless he can force the UKIP figure back into low single-figures.

So, to answer the original question: no, the Tories are not necessarily running out of time. They have proved in this Parliament alone that they can erode a Labour lead from high single-figures in the space of a few months – there is no reason why they could not turn a double-digit lead around in two years. But, these are the three things that will worry them:-

1) Will the economy start growing – and meaningfully?

2) Can they win back disaffected Tory voters who have gone to UKIP?

3) Labour’s lead has been solid for so long now – have voters made up their minds on this government?

The next two years will be fascinating.

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