Every day this week ConservativeHome is dedicating YourPlatform to a different take on the first 100 days of David Cameron’s leadership. Today Stephan Shakespeare looks at David Cameron’s opinion poll strategy. Stephan is co-founder and CEO of YouGov.
It is only fair to judge the Cameron Project on its own terms, and that is its success or failure at attracting public support. So the one shining clarity about DC’s campaign is that it will be defined entirely by opinion poll ratings and how the party does at local and other elections. The Cameron team is wasting little energy on intellectual or moral leadership. There are only passing attempts to struggle with the difficult policy challenges that Britain is facing – nothing serious on how we should deal with the new economic dynamics of China, the Middle East and India. Nothing to fundamentally challenge the model of ever higher spending on ever less efficient public services.
This may not be a flaw, but David Cameron’s distinctive genius. The Tory leader sees it as his job to win elections. Hundreds of MPs and candidates agree with that. If you don’t win elections, you can’t achieve anything else, they argue. So do whatever it takes to win. If that means re-inventing the Conservative Party to make it fit more comfortably within the frame of centre-left identity, then that is what must be done. It may be the best possible strategy.
The test of that re-invention, the measure of success, is therefore the shifting probability of winning the next general election. Pollsters like me of course enjoy this situation. Our polls matter more and more. We bring the verdict of the electorate, and upweight its influence. I say this with no irony: it is perfectly arguable that the will and the collective wisdom of the broad electorate is a better guide for future action than the disparate thoughts (and political gaming) of a few self-defined experts in Westminster. Maybe that’s real consumer democracy. So, thinking about the first 100 days of project Cameron, what is the verdict of the people?
The public have certainly warmed to Cameron more than to any other recent Conservative leader. His approval ratings are similar to those enjoyed by Tony Blair when he first became Labour leader and while a large proportion of people haven’t mind their minds up yet, polls so far suggest that Cameron is seen as a likeable, charismatic, caring and reasonable family man – everything a party leader should be. The only question mark is whether or not he can be trusted – 63% think Cameron “talks a good line but it is hard to know whether there is any substance behind the words”.
On the Tory party’s image he has also made progress. Certainly people think he is moving the party in the right direction – 60% of people think the party has a new vitality. Populus’s recent polls show that 38% think the Tory party “cares about ordinary people”, which is up 4 points since Cameron became leader. However, there’s still a big gap to make up: Labour scores 48% on that.
YouGov’s polling shows that Cameron himself is seen as more centrist than Michael Howard was. On a left-right scale from minus100 to plus100, voters at the last election put Michael Howard on +53. They now put David Cameron on +34. But he hasn’t yet managed to drag the image of the party with him: back in 2004 voters put Conservative MPs in general at +52, now they put them at +53. The polls suggest that Cameron himself is popular, but he has only just begun to mend the image of the Tory party.
What about on voting intention? Cameron has managed to increase the level of Conservative support in voting intention polls to the high thirties. Then again, there were times when his two predecessors also managed to put the Conservative party ahead. So should we be expecting more? Some say that the Conservatives should be further ahead if they are to have any chance of beating Gordon Brown in three years, because public opinion usually re-trenches to the governing party during a campaign, especially if nothing is going horribly wrong.
But that doesn’t seem fair. We shouldn’t have any confidence in such poorly-understood ‘patterns’. And when the job involves a year or two of re-invention, it is absurd to judge it on its immediate results. Changing an established brand takes a long period of sustained creativity before it pays off properly.
Even so, some will object that the heavy task of building a credible and responsible alternative government requires a lot more than clever brand-management. One is beginning to hear some such objectors among Conservative Party members, those saying that first you must have principles, understanding, vision, before giving sway to the packaging merchants. And in this context the Cameron project must also be watching very carefully the monthly ConservativeHome polls of party members. Between January and February, we saw a slight lessening of enthusiasm for DC, and more importantly a decrease in the numbers who thought it likely that he would become PM. If those numbers drift down too far, that could be a problem. Not that there is any chance of David Cameron being subverted, but nevertheless members and other supporters do matter. Without their enthusiasm, energy and belief, you can’t win elections. So it’s not only the polls of the public that should be watched: the views measured by ConservativeHome’s members panel may also play a vital role.
DAVID CAMERON WILL BE WRITING EXCLUSIVELY FOR CONSERVATIVEHOME TOMORROW. ON FRIDAY THE PLATFORM WILL BE GIVEN TO THE TAXPAYERS’ ALLIANCE. Previous entries in this series were Peter Franklin on the environment, Iain Murray on raiding Labour’s heartland vote and John Hayes MP on social justice.