This week, an MRP survey – that’s ‘multi-level regression and post-stratification’, to the uninitiated – by Savanta and Electoral Calculus suggested Labour would win a 314 seats majority at the next election. The Conservatives would lose 296 seats and be left on 69. Labour, meanwhile, would gain 260. Since this would a much bigger victory for Labour – and a much bigger Tory defeat – than the shellackings of both 1906 and 1997, it could be said that this news was sub-optimal for Rishi Sunak.
Now, this gloomy prognosis should be treated with a pinch of salt. The prediction was produced using a forecast that Labour were ahead by 20 points. MRP models differ from traditional predictions in not applying a uniform national swing. That means seats are predicted to go Labour that, according to the model, have at least a 40 per cent chance of staying Conservative. The situation is not totally helpless.
MRP polls also have something of a mixed record. A YouGov survey of this kind in 2017 was the first to predict that the Party would lose its majority. Equivalent surveys in 2019 predicted that the result would be much tighter than Boris Johnson’s eventual near-landslide. Anthony Browne was right to say earlier this week that such predictions must be taken cautiously – and as our proprietor reminds us, polls are a snapshot, not a prediction.
In recent years some polling errors have been sufficiently egregious that one wonders if we should have done away with the surveys and gone back to poking at chicken entrails. The opinion-gatherers got egg on their faces at the 2015 election, and have been nervous ever since. Their failure then cured me of my teenage opinion poll addictions, and I swapped continually refreshing Wikipedia and Electoral Calculus for more normal teenage pastimes.
Nonetheless, with the wisdom of experience now added to the enthusiasm of youth, one can argue that opinion polls still have their value. Not in the sense of Westminster parlour games where one continually enthuses or argues over the latest sample, but by looking at them in the round. For all their faults, they remain our best guide to where the voters are at. And if they are all saying something similar, it would be helpful to sit up and listen.
Last week, Matt Goodwin – the pollster, commentator, and academic – highlighted that, in the six weeks or so since Sunak became Prime Minister, the average Conservative vote has increased from 23 per cent to 27 per cent, Labour’s average lead is down from 30 to 20 points, and Starmer’s lead as “best Prime Minister” is down from 29 points under Truss to five under Sunak.
That’s no Tory triumph – but it’s a start. Under Truss, organisations like YouGov, PeoplePolling, and Redfield & Wilton all produced Labour leads of over 35 per cent. For their latest polls to show Starmer’s party ahead by “only” 24, 27, or 17 points respectively suggests the new Prime Minister is slowly but surely reversing the plummet under his predecessor.
At its worst – one poll had the Tories on only 14 per cent – the decline under Truss threatened not only to consign us to Opposition at the next election, but to permanently wipe us out as a political force. In Canada, Kim Campbell’s Progressive Conservatives were reduced from 156 seats to two at the 1993 federal election, based on a loss of 27 per cent of their vote.
I know too little about Canadian politics to know if that was a tragedy, but the second time over here would certainly have been a farce. John Hayes might have ended up as our only MP, with his 63 per cent majority in South Holland and the Deepings. Even as the only candidate and voter, I still imagine, with our party’s recent history in mind, we would generate a leadership election stuffed with controversy.
The ratings uptick under Sunak can thus be considered a small but welcome recovery. The fall in the Conservative vote share at the Chester by-election was 16 per cent. The average fall at by-elections in Labour held seats from 1992-1997 was 16.7 per cent. A similar fall nationally at the next election would clearly open the door to a substantial Labour majority. At least, however, the Tory party would survive. Glass half full, and all that.
The crucial reason for the shrinking lead, according to Chris Hopkins of Savanta, is that Labour’s lead was exacerbated by a “higher-than-usual” number of 2019 Conservative voters saying they were undecided, which is now shrinking. This suggests that voters who were loyal and long-standing Tories were driven away by the recent chaos and are now drifting back under Sunak’s joyously boring competence.
Although the travails over his wife’s tax affairs blotted his copybook earlier this year, Sunak, since he became Chancellor, has long been one of the most well-known and popular politicians in the country. Rishimania – and the attendant swooning of commentators of a certain nature – may have long since waned. But polling in the summer suggested he was the most recognisable and popular of potential successors to Johnson.
Today, he remains more popular than his party. 30 per cent of people think Starmer would be a better Prime Minister than Sunak, 42 per cent aren’t sure, and 25 per cent back Sunak. Hardly stellar numbers, but the last poll of Starmer vs Truss gave him a lead over her of 47 per cent. The margins are thus pointing in the right direction.
Sunak’s problem is that after this year of Tory Sturm und Drang voters are fed of his party. As Goodwin points out, more than half believe our society is broken. Only 21 per cent of the country think Brexit has gone “well”. Eight in ten believe the Government is handling their top priorities – the economy, inflation, the NHS, and immigration – badly. Only one in five think it is competent. That glass is looking much emptier now.
These figures are unlikely to improve rapidly as temperatures plummet, nurses threaten patient safety in the name of patient safety, and the Lynch steals Christmas. Yet the mood amongst those in the know at Christmas receptions is not so glum. ‘Senior Tories’ – what a glum phrase – have told me that Labour’s lead may be large, but it is soft. The Conservatives may have hacked off the electorate, but Starmer has not yet won them around.
To turn our current doldrums into a victory in 2024 requires a turnaround on a par with Ben Stokes’ magnificent revival of England’s Test team. Or, closer to home, the six-month transformation in our ratings that Johnson and Cummings spearheaded in 2019. From fifth on 8 per cent in the European Elections to 44 per cent and an 80 seat-majority in December, it showed that, pax Lawrence of Arabia, nothing is written. Sunak believes he has a narrow path to success. Don’t write him off just yet.