John Curtice shines a light on Labour's slowly dwindling lead in the polls and concludes that there is real cause for concern for an opposition with designs on victory in 2015.

A case of too much sun perhaps? Certainly Labour seems to have spent the summer having a bit of a collective nervous breakdown, fuelled by concerns that the party's poll lead is too narrow for it to be confident of victory in May 2015 and doubts about the ability of the party's leader, Ed Miliband, to provide the vision and direction required to consolidate that lead.

But are they right to panic? Is Labour's position in the polls a genuine cause for concern? How does it stack up against the position of previous oppositions at this stage in the parliamentary cycle? And how serious are the underlying risks and fragilities in its political position?

Given how badly Labour did in 2010 - its second-worst general election defeat ever, and in terms of votes at least an even worse drubbing than that suffered by the Tories in 1997 - the picture painted by the polls during the last three years might be regarded as surprisingly rosy. The party bounced back into the lead within six months of its unceremonious ejection from office, and apart from a brief blip following David Cameron's decision to wield his European veto in December 2011 it has remained ahead ever since. William Hague would have died to have enjoyed so swift a recovery after he took over the Conservative party leadership in 1997.

But emerging from disaster is one thing, being in a sufficiently strong position to win an election quite another. And when we look at the size of Labour's lead and how it compares with the position of previous oppositions at this point in the cycle, doubts about whether its progress has been adequate start to show.

Oppositions usually lead at the mid-term mark, as voters express their discontent with the performance of the present regime. In itself, being in the lead is far from sufficient for an opposition to be confident of victory. The oppositions that do succeed in winning power are those that have established such a large lead in public affections through the mid-term period that the government's efforts at quelling discontent as polling day approaches prove insufficient. Labour does not have a lead of that size.

Since April 2013, the party has enjoyed an average poll rating of some 37 per cent, enough to give it a lead over the Conservatives of five to six points. One immediate trigger for the party's summer panic is that its position has clearly weakened. In the 12 months prior to April, the party was consistently above 40 per cent in the polls, and enjoyed an average lead of some nine points. So, with over 18 months still to go to polling day, the party has already suffered some slippage in its position in the polls.

But, more importantly, if we look at Labour's current position through a longer lens then it becomes clear that it compares unfavourably with that enjoyed at the same stage in the electoral cycle by all but one of the post-war oppositions that eventually went on to form a government. In mid-2008, David Cameron's Conservatives stood at 44 per cent, some 17 points ahead. At the equivalent stage in the 1992-97 parliament, Labour's poll rating was over 50 per cent and the party was 26 points ahead. Equally, Margaret Thatcher had around a 50 per cent share and a 16-point lead in mid-1977; Edward Heath was at or close to 50 per cent and 16 points ahead in the summer of 1968; while Labour were on 46 per cent and nine points ahead at the end of 1962 (with its position evidently strengthening rather than weakening).

True, Labour was only six points or so ahead in the spring of 1972 yet still managed to oust Edward Heath in February 1974. But it should be remembered that in so doing it failed to secure an overall majority, or indeed the largest share of the popular vote. All it managed was to form a minority government, and one which failed to obtain a secure overall majority when it went to the polls again eight months later. Moreover, Labour's own 1972 poll numbers were at least above rather than below 40 per cent.

1972 aside, all oppositions that have had a lead of six points or less at this stage in the cycle have gone on to be defeated. This was Labour's position in 1953, 1957 and 1985 and that of the Conservatives in 1999 and 2003. Even some oppositions with larger poll leads have eventually lost, most notably Labour in 1992, but that is hardly any comfort to the party in its current apparent predicament. If Labour is now to go on to enjoy unalloyed victory in 2015 then it is going to have to defy the record books. Of course, records are there to be broken, as Tony Blair demonstrated in securing a record swing in 1997. But given past precedent it is clear that no opposition would want to be in as weak a position as Labour now finds itself.

Of course, there might be less reason for concern if we could detect signs in some of the underlying polling numbers to suggest that the party might be well placed to break records (as undoubtedly was the case for pre-1997 Labour). But, in truth, undertaking such an exercise only gives further cause for concern.1

The first and most obvious potential source of weakness for Labour is the continuing unpopularity of its leader. After nearly three years in the role, Ed Miliband is yet to command the respect, let alone the affection, of the British public. According to Ipsos MORI, during the summer his net satisfaction rating was averaging -25 - that is, 25 per cent more people say they are dissatisfied with the way he is doing his job than are satisfied. Moreover, just like his party, Miliband's ratings have been going backwards: during the same period last year his average net satisfaction rating was a relatively healthy -11.

The precedents for opposition leaders with such poor personal ratings do not make happy reading for the current Labour leader. His -25 net satisfaction score is on a par with that of a trio of men who faced the country but never made it: Michael Foot (-26 at the same stage in the 1979-83 parliament), Neil Kinnock (-20 in the summer of 1985, and only somewhat better four years later), and William Hague (-27 in the summer of 2001).2 Meanwhile, Miliband's unpopularity stands in stark contrast to the ratings enjoyed at the same stage in the electoral cycle by the last two opposition leaders who did win the keys to Number 10: Tony Blair (+24) and David Cameron (+21).

True, not all opposition leaders who went on to become prime minister were as popular as either Blair or Cameron. Margaret Thatcher, for one, managed no better than to ensure that as many people were happy with the way she was doing her job as opposition leader as were unhappy. But in truth the only example that provides any real comfort to Miliband is that of Heath. The Conservative leader was clearly unpopular in the summer of 1968 and remained largely unpopular as Britain went to the polls in 1970. However, his passage into office was eased by the fact that Harold Wilson (who in 1968 was even less popular than Heath) decided to make a premature dash to the country on the basis of a sudden and eventually all too short-lived improvement in Labour's poll position - a mistake that Cameron does not have the luxury of making.

Of course, British elections are not simply presidential contests. But popular leaders have a clear advantage over unpopular ones when it comes to trying to persuade the country that they and their party have a vision for the future and the competence to pursue it. Given its modest poll position, Labour cannot afford to be handicapped in persuading voters that it does in fact have those qualities.

Meanwhile, if we look at how voters have switched between the parties since 2010, one crucial fact becomes clear - Labour's lead rests heavily on the disenchantment of those who voted for the Liberal Democrats in 2010. As noted, Labour first began to register a poll lead in the autumn of 2010 - that is, just as Lib-Dem support plummeted in the wake of the decision to allow university tuition fees of up to £9,000. As that coincidence of timing implies, those disenchanted Lib-Dem souls looked mostly to Labour for comfort, and the most recent polls all still show that around a third or so of those who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 are now in the Labour fold.

Between them these voters constitute some 6 per cent of the total electorate - in other words, they wholly account for Labour's current lead, and without them the party's electoral prospects would look poor indeed. In their absence, Labour would be no more than neck-and-neck with the Conservatives. In truth, Labour's recovery from its 2010 nadir would appear to be more of a reflection of the reaction of a specific group of voters to the disastrous mistakes made by the Liberal Democrats early in this parliament than of a restoration of confidence in Labour's abilities among voters as a whole. What is certainly clear is that if those former Lib-Dem voters were eventually to forgive Nick Clegg and return to the Liberal Democrat fold then Labour's lead would look all too vulnerable.

At the same time, when it comes to landing blows on the Conservatives, Labour has failed to make any discernible progress at all. When, in January 2012, the Conservatives were last - albeit briefly - narrowly ahead in the polls, on average 4 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2010 indicated that they would now vote for Labour. Eighteen months on, that figure is unchanged. When it comes to persuading voters that Labour represents a more attractive option than their principal rivals for power, it seems that the party has been doing no more than treading water.

At the moment at least, the source of David Cameron's electoral difficulties is not the row of Labour frontbenchers facing him across the Westminster dispatch box. Rather it is be found among the regular travellers to Strasbourg. That the Conservatives are now at just over 30 per cent in the polls instead of just under 40 per cent is more or less wholly accounted for by the heavy switch of voters from Tory to Ukip during the last 18 months. At the moment, Miliband's hopes of winning power seem to rest on Nigel Farage's balloon remaining afloat. That can hardly be regarded as a comfortable or secure position for Labour to be.

Labour might have suffered a heavy defeat in 2010, but its road back to power should not look as long and steep as that fact alone would seem to imply. Thanks to the formation of the Coalition, Labour should be able to present itself as the only serious destination for voters disenchanted with the incumbent government. Yet despite the fact that the Coalition has presided over an era of economic austerity, that advantage is not being seized. Unless Labour begins soon to persuade voters that it does represent an effective alternative, they might well come to the conclusion that perhaps, after all, they should simply stick with the devil they know.

This article appears in issue 20(2) of Juncture, due out shortly.


1 On Labour's standing on the important issue of economic competence, see Curtice J (2013) 'Time for Labour to establish economic credibility', Juncture, 19(4): 253-257; also at ^back

2 Michael Howard became leader less than two years before polling day but his ratings were predominantly negative too. ^back