If a change of leadership can’t help Labour, as today’s poll suggests, there is little the party can do to regain public support
Whenever you ask someone what they would do in a hypothetical situation, you should not be surprised if the reality turns out differently when it comes to the crunch. The same is true about the things people tell pollsters.
In the run-up to the 1992 election polls regularly found that Labour’s narrow lead under Neil Kinnock became a larger lead when voters were asked how they would behave if John Smith were leader. Just after the election, a Gallup study found that, according to voters, replacing Kinnock with Smith would have been worth about five points to Labour’s share of the vote. In that relatively close election, it would have been enough to make Labour the largest single party in a hung parliament, perhaps not far short of an overall majority.
However, while voters (contrary to myth) rarely lie to pollsters, they quite often lie to themselves. Saying they would have supported a Smith-led Labour party in 1992 was a way of reducing cognitive dissonance for people who were not going to vote Labour at all, but felt as if they should. This in turn stored up a massive potential for buyer’s remorse during the 1992-97 parliament.
In early 2007 polls started to show that a hypothetical match-up between Gordon Brown and David Cameron would produce a worse result for Labour than under Tony Blair. These polls were tapping into a sense of public weariness with Brown, and uncertainty about the economy, and can be seen as a prelude to the government’s current trough. But perceptions changed, twice in fairly rapid succession in summer and autumn 2007 as Brown first built a good reputation for competence and then destroyed it.
Polls about hypothetical situations are not very good at predicting what actually happens when that situation comes to pass, but they can give an insight into how people are thinking about the current state of affairs.
The hypothetical question about a David Miliband leadership in this morning’s Guardian-ICM poll indicates it would make very little difference. This suggests that there are not that many people who are put off Labour specifically by Brown’s leadership, and that the problems lie deeper – with the state of the economy and the spread of a “time for a change” feeling. It suggests that there is relatively little that Labour can do or say in the present circumstances to recapture public support.
If Miliband did seem to make a difference, then that would indicate not so much that there was decisive public support for him to replace Brown, but a sign that there was still something Labour could do to retrieve the situation, rather than sit tight and hope for better economic news. Public feelings about Miliband are, for the most part, only weakly formed and there are a lot of “don’t know” responses – but in most questions measuring Brown against Miliband more people thought “neither” was particularly good. This is frightening indeed for Labour – a lot of people seem to have given up on the party. To repair the damage done by the botched Brown honeymoon of 2007 would require a formidable display of political skills on the part of the prime minister – whoever that may be.