Why has Labour’s lead over the Tories fallen this month?

Two weeks ago, Labour’s lead over the Tories fell several points over a weekend. It’s still big enough to give Labour a decent majority, but it’s the first sustained shift of this size since the Tories’ omnishambles last spring.

There’s been some speculation about why the polls changed. Was it because Thatcher’s death reminded a bunch of people that they loved the Tories after all; because the welfare debate hurt Labour; because Tony Blair was nasty about Ed Miliband in the New Statesman; or was it the belated unwinding of the gains that Labour made in 2012?

The reason the question of why it happened is important* is that some changes are only temporary – usually when there’s been an external news story or a well-received political setpiece. But politics news that says something new and fundamental about one party can produce a more lasting realignment. This is what happened after the omnishambles budget – and it’s what some are saying is happening to Labour with the welfare debate (in a bad way).

Firstly, on the headline numbers, there was a drop in Labour’s lead between the 12th and 15th April. Excluding a couple of outliers**, Labour went from 11.4 ahead in the YouGov*** polls before that weekend to 7.5 in the polls since then.  While Lib Dem and UKIP scores haven’t changed much, the Tories have gone up a couple of points and Labour have fallen about the same amount:

The detail of who has switched might give us a clue about why things have changed.

For the Tories, the main change has been a regain of people who voted Tory in 2010 but had previously planned not to do so again: up nearly 3pts on two weeks ago. If those are Tory loyalists coming home, perhaps memories of Thatcher got their blood pumping – or maybe (and this seems more believable to me) the tougher stance on welfare has reminded them why they voted Tory in the first place:

But Labour’s numbers suggest something different.  As you’d expect from the table above, 2010 Tory voters have moved away from Labour a bit, but the bigger fall has been from 2010 Lib Dem voters.  They’ve fallen 2.4 points – more than half of whom have gone to UKIP:

So the Tories have regained some of their old supporters and Labour have lost some of the 2010 Lib Dems they gained in late 2010 and early 2012.

The timing of the change fits in better with Thatcher’s death (8th April) than with the welfare debate (start of April). It also fits in perfectly with Blair’s article (11th April), but much though I love the Staggers, I don’t think the interest even that article attracted went much beyond political enthusiasts.

Certainly the Thatcher coverage and Cameron’s response to it could have shored up Tory support among their loyalists, so that explanation fits. But it’s hard to see how it could have sent Labour-supporting former Lib Dem voters over to UKIP.

They seem more like people looking for opposition to the status quo, but who now feel like Labour isn’t able to deliver that.  Perhaps it was the recent extra coverage UKIP are getting for the local election campaign, which reminded protest voters of another outlet and which led them to switch****.

If those two explanations are right (Tory regains because of Thatcher and Labour losses to UKIP because of coverage for the local elections) we’re looking at temporary factors, not the basis of fundamental changes in how the parties are seen. It suggests that once Thatcher’s funeral fades as a memory and UKIP fall out of the news (as they will) the numbers will drift back to where they were.

But that may not be right. The welfare debate could be behind the changes after all. Timing isn’t always so neat: it wasn’t until nearly a month after the omnishambles budget that Labour’s lead over the Tories was regularly in double figures. Even though the peak of the welfare debate was a few weeks ago, we may only be seeing its impact on the polls now – and if it is hurting Labour’s vote that would be an impact that won’t fade so quickly.

How could you tell? If the numbers revert quickly, it’s probably more to do with Thatcher and the local elections than the welfare debate. If you wanted to know right now though, you might like to ask the voters what they think: find a bunch of people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 and are now undecided between Labour and UKIP (probably other parties too) and ask them what political news they care about. You could do the same with some people who voted Tory in 2010 and are now wavering.

Either way, what this has shown is that the parties’ scores aren’t set in stone. Labour’s lead had been unusually consistent since last spring, but the last couple of weeks have shown that it can fall, even if the reasons aren’t always obvious.


* If you’re sad enough to care about political polling.

** Yes, this is cherrypicking the data. But there were only a couple of outliers and while it’s a bit dubious for the headline figures it makes sense for the next part of the calculation and means I’m using the same polls throughout.

*** Others are also showing a drop but there haven’t really been enough polls with anyone else to do the same comparison. Opinium shows a drop of about the same size, but don’t provide figures for 2010 vote.

**** UKIP’s overall score has stayed level, but within that, there’s been a drop of 2010 Tory voters (who’ve gone back to the Tories) and an increase in 2010 Labour and 2010 Lib Dem voters.


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