A polling review – a good start for Labour but more to do

You don’t have to be a political analyst to work out the Government are in a bit of mess. A minority Government, bogged down by the impossibility of Brexit, tearing it self apart and led by a Prime Minister who looks like she couldn’t win raffle. A transformed Corbyn now leads a Labour Party more behind him than ever, dominating PMQs and in Parliament Labour are making life very hard for a minority Government.

So what does historical polling show us about where we really are? Is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour really heading for an election victory? Are the Conservatives going through a slow death, for the first time since John Major?

In this article I examine the factors that are critical to turning mid term poll leads into election victories, rather than VI (voting intention). The key questions that voters ask themselves before voting in a General Election are:

  • How well is the Government doing?
  • Which party leader will make the best Prime Minister?
  • Which party is best trusted to run the economy well?

I will look at polls since the 1992 election, and the data source up to 2010 is the excellent database maintained by Mark Pack. For the data from 2010, I took information from Yougov’s archives. The images below can enlarged by clicking on them.

1992 – 1997

Government Approval (% approving – % disapproving)

The effect of Black Wednesday is clear. The Government’s approval fell sharply and never fully recovered. Net approval fell to -70%, and rose a little by the end of the parliament.

Which Party Leader would be the best Prime Minister?

Following Black Wednesday John Major’s rating fell sharply and he was overtaken by John Smith’s.When Tony Blair became party leader his rating rose to around 40%, and held a commanding lead over John Major for the whole parliament.

Which party would be best for the economy?

Following Black Wednesday Labour maintained a substantial lead for the whole parliament.


As can be seen, following Black Wednesday, John Major’s Government trailed in all indicators. All the signs indicated a substantial Labour win in the 1997 election, which indeed did occur.

1997 – 2001

Government Approval (% approving – % disapproving)

Labour’s honeymoon started to slip from a peak of +60% after five months in government, and ended the term at around 0%.

Which Party Leader would be the best Prime Minister?

Tony Blair led William Hague for the whole period, with a rating no worse than 40% and mostly over 50%. The Opposition Leader never got above 24%.

Which party would be best for the economy?

This period of government saw Labour lead by about 20% for most of the time, with the exception being the fuel protests in Autumn 2000. After the protests stopped, Labour regained their lead very quickly.


Despite a slip in government approval, Labour’s approval rating was very still good historically. Tony Blair was seen to be the best PM by far, and Labour the best party for the economy. The subsequent 2001 election unsurprisingly delivered another Labour landslide.

2001 – 2005

Government Approval (% approving – % disapproving)

Government approval averaged about -30% throughout the term, and finished at -23%.

Which Party Leader would be the best Prime Minister?

Despite leading the UK into an unpopular war, Tony Blair was still perceived as the best party leader to be Prime Minister. The big lead over IDS was narrowed by replacing him with Michael Howard, but Tony Blair led Michael Howard by around 10% by the time of the 2005 GE.

Which party would be best for the economy?

Labour were nip and took with the Conservatives as best for the economy until the 2005, when Labour took a clear lead, and went into the GE at 15% above than the Conservatives.


Labour’s approval in government declined from the 1997 – 2001 term, but when voters went to the GE in 2005, they perceived Tony Blair was a better prospect as PM, and Labour still led on the economy. No more landslides, but a reduced, yet workable Labour majority followed.

2005 – 2010

Government Approval (% approving – % disapproving)


Very early on the Labour Government’s approval fell sharply. There were a few mid-term improvements, but by the time of the 2010 GE it had recovered to about -45%.

 Which Party Leader would be the best Prime Minister?

Tony Blair’s lead as best PM evaporated when a fresh-faced MP called David Cameron became opposition leader. Tony and David tussled around 25% until the Prime Minister was replaced by Gordon Brown. Gordon’s honeymoon lasted for six months, until David Cameron took  clear lead. Despite a short term rise in Gordon Brown’s ratings in late 2008, David’s ratings came back and he led for the last year up to the election in 2010, taking a 10% lead up to polling day.

Which party would be best for the economy?

By the summer of 2006 the Labour lead had changed to level pegging. In 2007, from spring to Autumn Labour did improve, and their lead returned. However by the end of Autumn 2007, the Conservatives quickly established good lead, something they retained up the 2010 election. Ar that point the lead was about 10%.


This was the term the Labour Government finally lost it’s grip on power. By the end of 2007 approval for the government fell to -40%, David Cameron was ahead on the best PM rating and the Conservatives were judged to be the best on the economy.

The 2010 delivered David Cameron and the Conservatives as the largest party.

2010 – 2015

Government Approval (% approving – % disapproving)

Government approval rating fell to around -40% in April 2012, but had recovered by the 2015 GE to around -10%

Which Party Leader would be the best Prime Minister?

It is quite clear that David Cameron had a large lead over Ed Miliband as best PM for the entire parliament. The average lead that David Cameron enjoyed was 14%.

Which party would be best for the economy?

The Conservatives enjoyed a lead up to May 2012, were level pegging up to February 2013 and the increased their lead up the 2015 election. By that time the lead was 18%.


Ed Miliband trailed substantially David Cameron for the whole period, and Labour were behind on best for the economy most of time, trailing the most up the 2015 GE itself.

David Cameron’s party went on to win a majority.

2015 – 2017

Government Approval (% approving – % disapproving)


From the 2015 election, government approval fell to about -35% by March 2016. This flat lined until the EU Referendum, and replacement of David Cameron by Theresa May. By the last data point before the 2017 GE (March) this had risen to about -7%.

Since the election this year, approval has dropped back to the -30 to -35% level.

Which Party Leader would be the best Prime Minister?

From entering Downing Street as Prime Minister Theresa May has a lead as best PM of over 30% over Jeremy Corbyn. However, from calling the GE in April 2017, this lead reduced sharply to 13%

Which party would be best for the economy?

The Conservative lead up to the 2017 election was an average of about 20%. Even when the best PM ratings closed sharply, this seemed to have no impact on the how the public judged Labour and the Conservatives as custodians of the economy.


Theresa May went into the 2017 GE still ahead as best PM, with the Conservatives ahead as best for the economy, alongside a government approval rating of -7%. Theresa May did win most seats and formed a minority government with the assistance of the DUP.

Summary of key indicators versus election result

Election Year

Government Approval

Best PM

(Gvt – Opp)

Best for Economy

(Gvt – PM)






Gvt Lose





Gvt Win





Gvt Win





Gvt Lose





Gvt Win





Gvt Win






The data shows that from the 1997 election onward, an opposition has only won when their leader is ahead as best PM and their party is ahead as best on the economy. A negative net approval is not enough.

History shows that Labour has led on headline VI mid term (Ed Miliband 2010-2015), and it comes to nothing if when the real election comes, voters prefer someone else as PM and another party to run the economy better.

So how does it look for Labour from here? Despite a poor government approval, the best PM and best for economy rating of Theresa May and the Conservatives looks to be a real barrier. The Labour team has to persuade the voters they are a better bet for the economy, and Jeremy Corbyn is a better potential PM than Theresa May for now, or her replacement in the future.

Current political predictions are hard to make, and Brexit could overturn everything. However, before Labour start preparing for government, they have a lot of work to do.In the 2017 GE Labour and Jeremy Corbyn climbed a mountain. The reality they have a few more to climb yet before winning the next GE.

My current estimation of the next GE is another hung parliament.

2 responses to “A polling review – a good start for Labour but more to do

    • Given circumstances, I don’t think TM can improve her best PM rating. As she will not stand at the next election, what matters here is how JC does vs her replacement.

      On economic credibility, the next few years look rough for the government too, with little opportunity for improvement too.

      There is a gap Labour can potentially fill, but it can’t be taken for granted. It needs more on the economic front.

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