Labour and the Conservatives are level on 33% in this week’s Ashcroft National Poll, conducted between Friday and Sunday. The result reflects a tightening found by other pollsters in recent days: Populus found the Labour lead narrowing from four points last week to one point today, and on Friday Ipsos MORI put the Tories a point ahead.
It is worth remembering, though, that we should not pay too much attention to individual surveys or movements between one poll and the next. The numbers can move around (as I explained here) but what matters is the longer term trend. In the ANP this is clear: since early June the Conservatives have been within the margin of error of 30%, and Labour within the margin of error of 34% – a national advantage for Labour that reflects the average of all published polls. We will see whether the Scottish referendum or the looming conference season – or indeed anything else – changes this picture in the months that remain before polling day.
The Labour Conference begins in Manchester this weekend. Last year Ed Miliband used the event to launch his pledge to freeze home energy bills, but passed up the opportunity to address people’s bigger concerns about the party: whether they had learned the right lessons from their time in government, could be trusted with the public finances, or were still the party of the slob on the sofa.
Those doubts remain. In this week’s ANP I found more than two thirds (68%) of swing voters – who do not know who they will vote for or say they may change their mind – thinking Labour “have not made clear what they would do to improve things”. There is still time for Labour to put that right, but that will have to include reassuring people on their more specific worries.
More than six in ten swing voters (62%) said one of their concerns about voting Labour was that “they might spend and borrow more than the country can afford”. More disturbingly for Miliband, this was also a worry for more than a third (34%) of those who currently say they will vote Labour. Will they stay with the party despite their doubts, or peel off when it comes to the decision?
Nearly two thirds of swing voters (65%) and more than a third of current Labour supporters (35%) said Labour have “not learned the right lessons from their time in government”. Even more Labour voters (38%) and nearly as many swing voters (61%), together with a majority of the electorate as a whole (57%), said one of their doubts was that they “don’t think Ed Miliband would be a good Prime Minister”. Nearly half of swing voters (48%) and nearly three in ten Labour supporters (29%) said they were worried that “Labour might undo some of the current government’s policies on immigration or reforming benefits”.
Looking further into the question of whether Labour had learned its lessons from the years before 2010, I found nearly a quarter of the party’s voters (24%) saying they thought the last Labour government “did a pretty good job, and I don’t think they have to learn lessons in order for me to be happy for them to run the country again”. Rather fewer swing voters (15%) thought this, however; they were much more likely to think “Labour have not yet learned the right lessons from what went wrong during their time in government, and cannot yet be trusted to run the country again”. Nearly two thirds (64%) of swing voters said this, as did a majority (59%) of the wider electorate. Only a quarter of all voters, and only just over a fifth (21%) of swing voters, were prepared to say “Labour have learned the right lessons from what went wrong during their time in government, and can be trusted to run the country again”.
Starting in Manchester next week, Labour have just under eight months to assuage these doubts – or they can gamble that people’s desire for change will mean they don’t matter.