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Leadership ratings: a good guide but not a magic measure

June 29th, 2013

And in any case, it’s too close to call right now

It’s sometimes said that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them but that’s only true to a degree.  A popular and effective government will always win re-election because in such circumstances, the swing voters in the electorate will have little reason to listen to the opposition, little to gain and potentially much to lose by voting the government out no matter how good the opposition, and in all probability the opposition won’t be that good because oppositions facing popular governments tend to suffer from internal divisions and criticism of the leadership.

On the other hand, while an unpopular or ineffective government gives an opposition a chance to be heard, that party still has to make its case.  Even when a government drops the ball, the opposition has to pick it up cleanly.

In an increasingly presidential age, is this equally true of party leaders?  In Lord Ashcroft’s recent poll, there was a substantial amount of opinion data on how the public see David Cameron and Ed Miliband, and on various other cabinet ministers too.  As Mike noted yesterday, just because Boris Johnson’s figures are through the roof, it doesn’t mean that the Conservatives would necessarily benefit from his leadership.

That’s where the skill of the analyst comes in.  How much of what people are saying is a proxy for something else, how much is because they’re bored and tired (the poll asks a great many questions and respondents could be forgiven for paying less attention as it goes on), how much represents true but non-transferable information i.e. just because someone says Boris is up to the job of mayor, it doesn’t mean they’d think the same were he an option for PM, how much is distorted due to respondents not understanding the question or being insufficiently informed to answer, and how much is their genuine belief but one which is likely to change between now and when it matters?  Also, which measures matter most and which are relatively trivial?

Of the nineteen attributes questioned upon, Miliband edges Cameron by ten to nine, with the Labour leader consistently seen as a nicer person – one who listens, is fair and ‘on my side’ – as well as more understanding of Britain’s problems and in touch.  By contrast, he is seen as weak, indecisive and out of his depth compared to Cameron.

Another old saying is that it’s better to be respected than to be liked.  Indeed, at times the Conservative Party behaves as if the two are mutually exclusive, which they’re not.  Even so, for individuals as much as parties in opposition, in order to simply get a hearing, not only do they have to be up against a government with some weaknesses, they also have to be seen as a credible alternative.  Much has been made of the fact that in 1979, Callaghan outpolled Thatcher on leadership head-to-heads but the Tories still won.  True, but when both are seen as PM material, that matters less.

To state the obvious, it’s also significant how big the gap is in the ratings, much more so than whether one or the other is marginally ahead.  For the moment, it’s even-stevens: Miliband is seen by a substantial margin as more likeable while Cameron has a smaller, but still clear, lead on the strength and competency questions.  It’s also only one part of the equation: Hague out-scores Cameron on every question (and beats Miliband on two-thirds of them) but would the Tories’ fortunes improve if Hague were to return for a second spell as leader?  I have my doubts.

It also crucially matters who sees each person in a positive or negative light.  Boris’ sky-high ratings even with opposition voters only just saw him scrape in last year, albeit with way more votes than his party.  Likewise, being adored by the party faithful or hated by the opposition’s won’t shift many votes, though it may affect internal party politics.  On the other hand, if nominal party identifiers are only giving weak support to the leader, it’is a good indication that the party’s vote is soft.

With less than two years to go, both Cameron and Miliband have significant work to do.  For what it’s worth, I think that Cameron’s weaknesses with the public are both more readily fixable and less significant than Miliband’s.  That, however, is a personal view.  What’s clear is that unlike at this stage in most recent parliaments, neither leader is remotely close to sealing the deal yet.

David Herdson