David Cameron is often described as the Conservative Tony Blair: a young, charismatic leader of the opposition; very media-friendly but thin on policy detail; moving his party towards the centre to attract new voters; disgruntling some of the party’s traditional supporters in the process; but succeeding in getting better opinion poll ratings than his predecessors. Blair swept his party to unstoppable victory.
The analogy works to an extent. But all such analogies break down when you look closely enough.
Let’s start with popularity. It’s hard to compare Cameron’s first year as leader with Blair’s first year, because the pollsters have changed their methodologies since then to reduce their pro-Labour bias. What we can, tentatively, do is look at the changes in the parties’ poll ratings that occurred during each leader’s first year.
Blair became Labour leader in July 1994; Cameron became Tory leader in December 2005. Using voting intention data available at UK Polling Report, I’ve calculated baseline figures for each party’s vote in the three months before the new leader took charge (Mar-Jun 94 and Sep-Nov 05). I then worked out average poll ratings over the following three months and then each succeeding quarter (Aug-Oct 94, Nov 94-Jan 95, Feb-Apr 05, May-Jul 95; and Jan-Mar 06, Apr-Jun 06, Jul-Sep 06, Oct-Dec 06).
I’m averaging over quarterly periods to smooth down the meaningless month-to-month changes that come as a result of sampling error. As I said, pollsters in the mid-1990s all exaggerated Labour’s support, most to ludicrous levels. But ICM distinguished itself by adjusting its figures to take account of ‘shy Tories’. Its Labour leads were consistently the smallest and, come the 1997 election, the most accurate. So, for 1994-95, I’ll only look at the ICM figures.
Nowadays, there is adjustment aplenty. As Mike Smithson* of PoliticalBetting.com notes, ICM, YouGov and Populus all weight their results to deal with sample bias. So for contemporary figures, I’ve used these three pollsters.
Here are the quarter-to-quarter percentage point changes in voting intention share, as well as the overall change from the baseline to the fourth quarter:
Base-Q1 +3.2, Q1-Q2 +1.0, Q2-Q3 +2.0, Q3-Q4 +0.8
Base-Q1 +3.5, Q1-Q2 0, Q2-Q3 +1.6, Q3-Q4 +1.0
Base-Q1 +4.9, Q1-Q2 -0.8, Q2-Q3 +1.0, Q3-Q4 -0.4
Base-Q1 +3.7, Q1-Q2 +0.3, Q2-Q3 -0.3, Q3-Q4 -0.7
Average across pollsters
Base-Q1 +4.0, Q1-Q2 -0.2, Q2-Q3 +0.8, Q3-Q4 0
Two things stand out: first, each leader started strongly but then lost momentum as the year went on; second, while Cameron made more of an initial leap than Blair, his loss of momentum has also been greater – he ended his first year with less overall progress than Blair made.
As I said, Cameron is often seen as the new Blair. But these days, people are pretty sick of Blair: they may think back to how persuasive he seemed in the early days, and reflect that the flipside of presentational brilliance may be untrustworthiness (as they see it). They may be keen to not be fooled again, and may fear that Cameron could turn out much the same. This may be why he has lost momentum sooner than Blair did. Two of the three pollsters above show the Tories actually losing ground in recent months. (For the record, the Blair Q5 figures show a drop back.)
But there are other dissimilarities.
When Blair became leader, Labour was already well ahead. When Cameron became leader, the Tories were moderately behind. As I’ve said, the historical and contemporary ratings can’t be directly compared, but the huge difference is at least indicative: the pre-Blair baseline was a Labour lead of 15.8% (ICM); the pre-Cameron baseline had the Conservatives trailing by between 5.5% (ICM) and 6.7% (Populus).
This means that the Tories have not only made less progress than Labour did under their new leader, but also that they need, given their poorer starting position, to make much more progress. If Cameron is indeed at or near his peak, he’s in trouble.
And there may be more trouble afoot.
Blair did things that often disconcerted and worried the Labour core vote. But the fact that he was pulling in such huge poll leads and council election landslides provided reassurance, and so he was able to make his modernising centrist pitch without losing the left. Cameron is trying to pull a similar trick from the right. But his party’s poll leads are only slim to moderate, and the Tory grass roots are increasingly rumbling with discontent; these two facts are related.
Blair’s strong starting position – and his extremely strong early results – gave him permission to do things that sometimes offended the party loyalists. He gave every impression of becoming a big electoral winner, and so the Labour grass roots forgave him a lot.
The ‘Cameron effect’ – in light of his poor baseline and limited momentum – has so far amounted to only modest leads. He has not created anything like the sort of popular approval comfort zone that Blair had. Because of this, the Tory core vote is far less forgiving of his modernising pitch towards the centre. This means that the coalition Cameron needs to forge is going to be harder to hold together.
Readers should be careful to avoid falling off their chairs laughing, as I am about to use the words ‘UKIP’ and ‘credibility’ in the same sentence.
Blair did face an electoral challenge from the left: Arthur Scargill splintered off to form the Socialist Labour Party. It bombed. Cameron’s right flank is far more exposed, notably to UKIP. This party has been established for over a decade; it has a troop of MEPs, small but noticeable poll ratings, and general election votes high enough to frustrate the Tories in marginals. UKIP has more credibility with its target voters than the SLP ever did with its. So Cameron has much less scope to take the Tory right for granted.
One final difference between the Tories’ situation today and Labour’s in the mid-1990s has to do with different policy areas.
The areas where Labour most needed to improve its standing – crime and the economy – also happened to be the issues of most general importance to the electorate. If people think you can’t handle these, then popular health and education policies won’t get you very far. As a result, Blair and Brown’s efforts to talk up toughness on crime and economic stability were useful for two reasons: strengthening weak spots and boosting Labour’s perceived relevance.
This dynamic was greatly aided by the fact that the Major Government’s record on traditional Labour issues such as health and education was widely held in contempt. The Tories posed no threat in these areas, and so Labour’s relative downplaying of these themes didn’t really matter. The Tories had also helped Labour’s strategy enormously by shredding their own reputation for economic competence. All of these factors came together to enable and reward Labour’s repositioning.
Cameron doesn’t have this advantageous dovetailing; for him, the rebranding priority is to shed the ‘nasty party’ image. To do this, he has been focusing on ‘caring’ issues such as poverty and the environment to the relative neglect of crime and the economy. As a result, he risks making the Tories seem more peripheral on the big issues – on which Labour has a more convincing grip today than did the Tories around 1994-95.
To recap: Cameron started out needing to make more progress than Blair did; he has so far made less progress than Blair did, and is showing signs of stalling sooner; he has less electoral room for manoeuvre between his right and the centre; and his repositioning strategy focuses on areas likely to have less payoff.
2006 was the year of the Cameron. But despite his accomplished showmanship and amiable manner, there are good grounds for doubting that 2007, 2008 and 2009 will also be.
The Labour defeatists who are already half-wishfully writing off the next election are not just self-indulgent: they’re mistaken. Headline-wise, 2006 has been a horrendous year for Labour – but if people were truly sick of this Government, then the polls would be horrendous too.
* Mike also carried out a similar Blair vs Cameron exercise recently. His differs from mine in: (a) beating me to it; (b) missing out – as a result of (a) – on the latest polls; (c) looking at MORI and ICM polls from both periods; (d) looking at monthly rather than quarterly variations; and (e) knowing how to do nice graphs.