Monday, April 14, 2008

Brown isn’t the problem. It’s older than that

Gordon Brown’s poll ratings fall; so do Labour’s. Defeat seems to beckon, and the man at the top is blamed.

But I don’t think it’s quite his fault – at least, not in the sense that many of his enemies suggest. Of course, the various mistakes made since last autumn are his responsibility, but the mere fact of his identity is not, I think such a drag on the party as many people make out.

Consider how things were back when he seemed such a party asset as the new PM.

Brown’s newness in the job had two main effects on public (and media) opinion: first, to make him look good; second, to make him as an individual seem the defining feature of the government. These two in combination lifted Labour’s poll ratings.

Despite many previous polls suggesting that people would be less likely to vote Labour if Brown replaced Tony Blair, the opposite happened: the (pleasant) shock of the new. However, while his ratings and Labour voting intentions rose significantly, overall satisfaction with the government did not change much.

Look at the following graph, based on YouGov polls (figures via UK Polling Report). The blue shows where Blair’s net approval rating as PM (satisfied minus dissatisfied) was last March; the brown line shows the equivalent ratings for Brown, and the solid red line net is net approval of the government. The dotted red line is Labour’s poll lead/deficit against the Tories.

The novelty of Brown as PM from June gave Labour a poll lead, and also improved the government’s satisfaction ratings a little. As Brown’s ratings later collapsed, so Labour’s lead reversed itself and government approval fell back to what it had been. But Labour’s lead/deficit is clearly linked more closely to overall government approval than to approval of the PM.

Labour’s poll rise last summer was built primarily on a short-term illusion. To show how fragile and shallow this lead was, consider how it was lost. It fell apart in the space of a week, as a result of four events.

In the aftermath of the Labour conference, the party had had an extra boost, with four polls showing double-digit leads. Talk of an autumn election was deafening.

The following Monday, 1 October, George Osborne told the Tory conference that he would raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million. The activists, and the right-wing press, loved it. On Tuesday, Brown made a surprise visit to Iraq, where he talked about forthcoming troop reductions; for the Tories, Liam Fox tore into him with a fury that was only partly theatrical. On Wednesday, David Cameron made his ‘unscripted’ speech, which was well received, even if the content wasn’t earth-shattering.

By the end of the week, polls showed Labour’s lead dissolving quickly (as it was always likely to do at least in part, as it was in part a conference bounce). On Saturday, Brown gave an interview to Andrew Marr in which he ruled out an early election, notably not giving the turn in the polls as a reason. The interview wasn’t fully broadcast until Sunday, giving the Tories a chance to flood the media with their own spin on the story.

Subsequent polls showed Labour falling farther behind: momentum was with the Tories.

And that was that. After about six months of swinging, the polls were more or less back to where they were in Blair’s last months.

The four events, I suggest, were not in themselves particularly significant. Opposition tax cut promises are typically received with scepticism (will they really do it? Will I really benefit? How will they really pay for it?). A misjudged photo-op is nothing new. The Cameron speech showed people that he was a talented communicator, but that was already well known. From these three things the polls had already significantly turned, and the embarrassment of the non-election wasn’t an issue that affected anyone’s life; it merely confirmed that Brown was a politician and not some sort of demigod.

(Recall that there was stern talk about whether Blair was playing politics with the 2001 election date. His widely leaked plans for a May poll were put back a month due to foot-and-mouth – but there was no need for a general election until 2002. As Shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo said: “He has dithered about handling the foot-and-mouth crisis because he has been thinking about the election. Now he has dithered about the election because of the foot-and-mouth crisis.” It did Blair no harm at all.)

That an apparently comfortable poll lead could be destroyed by such small potatoes suggests that the poll lead had been artificial all along. Brown’s newness had temporarily created a lull in the anti-Labour storm, which by contrast with the previous couple of years made it feel as though the party had the wind in its sails.

But the general discontent with the decade-old government had not really abated. As soon as the electorate (not to mention the media) found itself presented with a few pretexts to revert to form, that’s exactly what happened. Familiarity had bred contempt, and novelty briefly concealed this. Neither was he the demigod nor had the old (non-Blair-specific) complaints about the government vanished.

Setting aside his strengths and weaknesses as PM, and just looking at public perceptions, it seems to me that Brown the man isn’t really the problem for Labour. But the problem for Brown is that he was never, in himself, really the solution, either. The government as a whole has been around a long time now, and has accumulated a lot of public resentments: more and more people are fed up with it.

Whether Labour can now recover a poll lead, with or without the change of leader that some of the pundits are now touting (another? Who? To do what?), is the problem. I don’t know the solution.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Two things I'd add though;

1. the main reasons for the goverment's unpopularity are, more or less, the usual reasons that a long serving centralising and managerialist social democratic government gets unpopular. Which is why it has been (and will be) so difficult to turn things around.

2. most of Labour's sister parties are having similar difficulties. How significant that is I'm not sure, but it might hint at a wider problem with current social democratic ideology; if that's the case then I guess we're due another wave of revisionism, in some form or other, over the next decade or so.

Though, despite all that, it's worth remembering that the government isn't hated or even viewed with contempt; the most notable thing to come out of recent polls is that if a general election was held today we'd see the lowest turnout since the introduction of universal suffrage. There appears to be a widespread *passive* discontent with the government (or perhaps merely with "government") these days, unlike anything we've seen before.

anticant said...

Ten years is long enough for any party to be in office.

'NuLabour' is suffering from near-terminal exhaustion and an endemic foot-in-mouth crisis.

Trouble is, there's nothing which looks much better on the political horizon as yet.

Anonymous said...

“Whether Labour can now recover a poll lead, with or without the change of leader that some of the pundits are now touting (another? Who? To do what?), is the problem. I don’t know the solution.”

It would appear to be David Miliband? Both from inside the party and what a bit of time could provide, he seems to be a decent/good candidate. I’d prefer Ed but he has a couple obvious drawbacks for an election. I think they’d do better than Ed Balls and I suspect being brothers does give them an advantage with the inner divide.

On a personal level, I feel quite bad for Gordon Brown. But then I snap out of it and realize politics really shouldn’t be a playground, regardless of what they do or how they stumble. I’ve started feeling bad for Clinton too-- I should go work for a primary school.