Today’s latest YouGov poll for The Telegraph shows support for Gordon Brown hitting a new low of 23% – lower than John Major or even Michael Foot ever managed to achieve at their respective nadirs. David Cameron’s Tories, meanwhile, are sitting pretty on 47%, giving them a massive 24% lead.
This obviously points a deepening crisis for Labour’s leadership. Calls for the PM’s head will intensify up to and beyond this autumn’s party conference, assuming no new setback makes his position untenable before then. Yet a more careful parsing of the poll numbers may give them a small crumb of comfort.
Compare today’s numbers 47-23 with YouGov’s findings just 9 months ago in September 2007 (just prior to the â€˜non election’), which saw Labour on 43% and the Conservatives on 32%. What this shows is not just the cataclysmic reversal of fortunes suffered by an increasingly unpopular Prime Minister, but also the hugely febrile mood of the British electorate.
This is where Gordon can find his crumb these numbers are incredibly soft. Andrew Cooper, Director of Populus, recently told a team of Mandate consultants that, in his view, the ‘hard’ support for both parties was lower than 40%, meaning that a large proportion of the electorate remains ‘in play’. Furthermore, given the small sample sizes used by UK pollsters (YouGov spoke to just over 2000 people) there is quite a large margin of error involved. Number 10 will be hoping that, if Labour can chalk up a few wins’ over the next few months, and if the cracks start appearing in Cameron’s image (two very big ifs), there is still room for a large shift back to Labour.
However, this should be caveated by stating the obvious: that Gordon Brown and Labour remain in real trouble and at this stage it is very difficult to see how they escape from a hammering at the next general election. The major parties’ own internal polling which tends to be much more comprehensive and accurate than the short and sweet polls put together for the headline-hungry newspapers bear out the findings of the media polls. Taken together, they make very grim reading for the PM.
Perhaps he can console himself by looking at the polls on the other side of the Atlantic, which enable US news outlets to make very confident-sounding announcements off the back of even tinier poll samples. A recent New York Times poll which gave Barack Obama a 12% lead over Hillary Clinton was based on interviews with just 283 voters, a process described in an excellent analysis of the US primaries by the insightful commentator David Runciman as akin to ‘throwing darts at a board’.
These American polls are so feeble that their findings are entirely useless as a mirror of public opinion. At least Britain’s polls leave Gordon Brown in little doubt as to the position that he finds himself in, although it’s unlikely that he will see that as a good thing today.