Try though he did, George Osborne’s renewed austerity package seems to have had little impact yet on the polls.
Having failed to come to an end last week, the world has now also failed to be reborn this Christmas. Or at least so it would seem for the comfortably familiar world of British party politics. The Guardian’s seasonal ICM poll shows the parties settling in a midterm equilibrium. All three are unchanged this month compared with last. Labour has an eight point lead over the Conservatives, 40% against 32%, exactly as in November. The Liberal Democrats are also unchanged on 13%. A small bulge in the proportion supporting other parties, up one point to 16% (a figure which includes 7% support for Ukip), marks the only perceptible change. So much for the game-changing political importance of the chancellor’s autumn statement, then. Try though he did, George Osborne’s renewed austerity package seems to have had little impact yet on the polls.
Yet if the parties are stuck in a rut with the voters, it is a relatively new rut. A year ago, the polling picture was different. The two main parties were head-to-head back then, with a 2% Labour lead in November 2011 followed by a single point Tory advantage last December. Similar boxing and coxing had been typical of the polls for most of 2011. But that pattern has not been continued in 2012. This year, Labour has pulled decisively ahead. There has not been a Conservative lead in the ICM series since March. That was the month when Mr Osborne really did succeed in changing the political weather, though not the way he intended, with his strikingly unpopular spring budget.
The position of the Lib Dems has changed in the past year too, even though less dramatically. Twelve months ago, the junior coalition party were averaging around 15%; now they are consistently a couple of points adrift of that sort of rating. Nick Clegg’s new strategy of differentiating the Lib Dems from their Tory coalition partners seems not to have impressed the voters yet, either. Mr Clegg leads a generally patient and united party, but ratings like these cannot inspire optimism.
Unlike the coalition parties, Labour clearly goes into 2013 with some wind in its sails. Today’s eight-point advantage is the latest in a string of solid leads this year in ICM and other polls. That may reflect — and be reflected in — some improvement in Ed Miliband’s standing in the new ICM poll. The improvement is still only relative — the Labour leader’s ratings are not good, merely a lot less bad than they used to be — but the perception on both sides of the Commons that Mr Miliband has grown into the opposition leader’s job during 2012 seems to be shared more widely too.
But there is no cause for Labour complacency in this poll. An eight point lead at midterm is not enough, if previous midterm polling is a guide. In particular, Labour cannot feel comfortable with this month’s swing to the Tories on the key issue of economic competence. No one likes austerity, but the coalition may be telling the voters a slightly more credible story about the economy than Labour has yet managed to come up with. This could be a decisive factor in 2015 if Labour fails to deal with it.
None of the political parties should delude themselves. Today’s poll does not show that Britain is plunged in undifferentiated gloom. The year-end post-Olympic mood is strong and upbeat in many ways. A slim majority thinks this has been a better country to live in during 2012, in spite of rain and recession. That’s quite an endorsement, all in all. Respect for the Queen remains strikingly high, and may have risen a notch since the poll after those cool 3-D glasses. Politicians can only dream of such ratings. The glib explanation is that we still live in anti-political times. That certainly can’t be dismissed. But the politicians should not assume that voters are being irrational in doubting that any of the parties can turn this country’s economic problems around any time soon. The voters could actually be right.