Alex Massie

Don’t Worry About the Opinion Polls

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I've suggested that the current crop of opinion polls are meaningless. That's not true. As a friend pointed out, they measure public opinion and that can't be considered wholly meaningless. So let me put it another way: the "meaning" of the opinion polls is, at present, greatly over-valued by the Westminster Village. Happily, uber-expert Philip Cowley is on hand to act as an expert witness in this case:

Several of my Labour-supporting friends have a spring in their step – level in the polls at last, as revealed by yesterday’s Reuters/Ipsos-MORI poll. How rubbish this new coalition government must be. It took New Labour years to lose its poll lead after 1997.

At the risk of being a party pooper, the trouble is that the experience after 1997 is atypical. After losing in October 1951, Labour had pulled ahead by January 1952, but it didn’t stop the Conservatives enjoying 13 years in government. In 1970, after a June election, Labour were level by October; that didn’t stop Ted Heath polling more votes four years later, even if he didn’t secure enough seats to cling on.

And in 1979, following a May election, Labour had pulled ahead in the polls by the following month. No one needs reminding what that means: Labour led Mrs T’s cutting government within a month of the election and were out of power for the next 18 years.

Emphasis added. Clearly, none of this suggests that the coalition will romp to re-election but nor do these polls mean the government is in trouble. Then again, we should not be surprised if the coalition's numbers fall to a combined 40%.

Another thought: Labour may be benefitting from the fact that they don't actually have a leader. This could distort opinion polls since the choice presented to respondents is between the government they have and a generic, or even hypothetical, Labour party. That is, voters can imagine the Labour party of their dreams, not one led by a Miliband.

The new Labour leader may of course enjoy a polling honeymoon but at some point that will end and then, as voters are asked to contemplate a Miliband-led alternative to the Camerlegg ministry it may be that the voters will look more fondly upon the present government when push comes to shove and it's actually time to cast some ballots.

At the very least a choice between a Labour party with an actual leader (for better or worse) and the government is a real choice, not the phoney one offered at present.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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