Tuesday, 2 October 2012

From the Fringe: The Times, polling, and Labour’s challenge

We have swing voters. We also have swing newspapers, of which The Times is one example. Whether they’re an accurate barometer of public opinion – do they move with the mood of voters or the other way round – is disputed. Either way, The Times is moderate enough, and less tribal, to be taken seriously.

At a fringe event on “Labour and the voters,” chaired by the paper’s editor, James Harding, a panel including Times writer Philip Collins, director of the polling firm Populus, Rick Nye, and Liam Byrne, cabinet member during Labour’s time in office, weighed in to that overcrowded debate: what does Labour have to do to get back into power?
Summed up thus: the party must show it is serious about cutting, that it won’t overspend again, has a plausible plan for job creation, and a leader who the public can see as their PM. Tick all these boxes and prepare for government.

As far as Collins is concerned, there are grounds for optimism. The Labour brand is in decent shape and the party hasn’t descended into factional fighting. The public are starting to listen to the opposition. The key question is what is the function and purpose of a Labour party without funds? Collins also pointed out that despite a double dip recession and missed deficit reduction targets, the approval ratings of the two Eds have remained relatively static in over a year and a half, locked around 32%.
According to Populus’s latest figures, the parties have reverted to type. The Tories trusted most to deal with immigration, crime, and welfare abuse, the so-called ‘hard’ subjects. Labour dominant on the softies of looking after the NHS - by a whopping 32 points – and improving standards in schools.

It also seems to be accepted wisdom that Labour’s lead, be it 10 or 15 points, is fragile. And this will remain so until a significant number are able to view Ed Miliband as a future PM. Certainly a majority.
For Liam Byrne, Labour has to ‘win on welfare’, with three challenges it must address: first, youth unemployment, with 40% under 25s without work. Second, a fierce and uncompromising attack on Conservative cuts which have targeted the most vulnerable. The party has ‘crossed the line on compassion,’ according to Byrne. Third, dragging social security into the 21st century and getting an extra one million women into work which would in turn bring in an additional £4.5bn in tax receipts.

When drawn on an outcome for the next general election, and despite Labour’s poll lead, Rick Nye came down on the side of there being another hung parliament with Labour as the biggest party. Findings from Populus see evidence of a ‘spiral of silence’ of support for the Tories. Part of Cameron’s success lay in making it okay to admit to being a Tory voter again. Some of these voters have gone back underground. Nye also believes there is a substantial minority still in favour of Plan A, and yet to forgive Labour’s profligacy.
As this was an event co-hosted by The Times it seems only right to end with a look at its Monday editorial. It is this fundamental point that Labour must grapple with over the next 12 months:

“Mr Miliband would make a foolish mistake if he were to rest on the laurels of opinion poll leads that have been consistently more than 10 percentage points. The feeling persists, in the absence of a clear prospectus from Labour, that this lead is a soft indication of the failings of the coalition rather than a hard index of Labour popularity.” 

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Tuesday 2nd October 2012 

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