Page last updated at 17:09 GMT, Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Poll Watch: Review of 2008

David Cameron faces Gordon Brown and his front bench team in the House of Commons
David Cameron's party has been ahead in the polls throughout 2008.

By David Cowling
Editor, BBC political research unit

What a difference a year makes. Or does it? In January, a Populus/Times poll registered a 4% Conservative lead over Labour - precisely the same lead they recorded in December.

However, the bit in the middle has been fairly interesting as can be seen here by the month-by-month averages from major opinion polls in 2008:

No. of polls Con Lab Lib Dem

January 7 38% 33% 18%

February 4 39% 33% 18%

March 5 39% 32% 19%

April 7 40% 31% 19%

May 5 43% 29% 18%

June 6 45% 26% 19%

July 7 44% 27% 17%

August 4 45% 26% 17%

September 5 43% 27% 17%

October 6 42% 30% 17%

November 8 42% 33% 16%

December 5 39% 35% 15%

They show that between May and October, double-digit Conservative leads became the norm, rising to a 28% lead in MORI's September poll.

However, as the credit crunch developed into a ferocious international firestorm the trend in the polls changed and by December Labour found itself a relatively healthier 1% to 5% behind the Conservatives.

Some of this revival seems due to the recovery of Gordon Brown's personal standing in the country. Populus/Times recorded that recovery in the latest findings of their regular question on who is most trusted to handle the economy.

They have regularly asked this question: With Britain's economy facing problems in the months or years ahead, who would you most trust to deal with it in the best interests of Britain?

In November 2007 35% said David Cameron and George Osborne compared with 28% saying Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling.

More volatile

After a Spring recovery for the Labour pair, Cameron/Osborne then established a 10 point (40% vs 30%) lead in May 2008. They held that lead through the summer and were still seven points ahead in October.

But then the Brown/Darling team bounced back to lead by 36% to 33% in November and 40% to 31% when the question about the economy in December.

So, Gordon Brown's personal standing has improved significantly but he has not yet been able to translate that credit into the promise of general election success.

Many respondents regard him as the best person to steer the country through the present economic crisis but not necessarily to lead the country after the next election.

However, it would be wise to view these opinions with some caution. No-one has seen the scale of the current recession for 70 years.

Conventional wisdom about how voters react in 'normal' economic downturns may not be helpful in what could be a truly dire situation for the world economy. And in any event, these days voters are more volatile than ever.

ICM/Guardian (sampled 24-25 September, 2008) asked respondents whether they were strong supporters of the party they said they would vote for, or might consider voting differently at the next election.

ICM had asked this same question in 1996, prior to Labour's 1997 landslide general election victory and the differences are interesting.


In the 2008 poll 52% of Conservatives, 56% of Labour voters and 37% of Lib Dems described themselves as strong supporters of their party.

In the 1996 poll 67% of Conservatives, 75% of Labour voters and 53% of Lib Dems said they would consider themselves to be strong supporters of their party.

So there has been a general decline in the proportions of people who describe themselves as strong supporters of their party.

This means that whereas three-quarters of Labour voters in 1996 declared themselves to be strong supporters of the party, only just over half of Conservative voters said the same of their party in 2008.

This is a timely reminder that next year's economic uncertainties are matched by political uncertainties as well.

Will a major recession create a public reaction that sweeps the incumbent government away?

Or will the sheer scale of the economic horrors to come persuade people that change is the last thing they want and that sticking with nurse is the best policy?

There are over 40 million electors in the UK and how they will react in the face of the crisis engulfing us cannot be predicted for certain. But it seems fair to say that 2009 is likely to be a lively political year.

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Poll Watch: Review of 2007
21 Dec 07 |  UK Politics
Poll watch: June 2008
08 Jul 08 |  UK Politics

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