Curious things, General Elections. Politicians go to the public, who are effectively their bosses, and lay their best arguments on the table as to why they should keep their jobs. This election campaign, the details of which at least some of the electorate pay attention to, has produced a particularly interesting change in public mood.
Pollsters have noticed that as of this month, the Coalition has never been more popular. Well, “never” captures a quite excessive amount of time, so let’s frame it like this: The Tories and Lib Dems are this month perceived to (a) work better together, (b) be better news for everyday people, and (c) find more people agreeing with their decision to work together in the first place than at any time in the last four years.
So, after years of remarkable harmony within a Hung Parliament, during which time the Coalition as a whole has had dismal approval ratings, we have now entered a campaigning period which even today has seen the Lib Dems viciously attack their coalition partners over welfare cuts, and yet the public think that they are the most harmonious and positive than they have been since 2011.
The graphs above show how approval ratings for the Coalition have soared since the start of the year. This is our starting point, because the levels of confidence (or lack thereof) in the Coalition prior to this time were at a fairly consistent level for the years previous.
First, it is true that these ratings are on the whole still in net negative territory. That is to say that more people are still against than for the propositions being put to them. But our electoral system doesn’t require positive net approval for governments to be formed, as we are reminded by Labour’s winning of a sizeable overall majority in the 2005 General Election with just 35% of the vote. That’s a net score of -30% of everyone who voted; 35% who did, minus 65% who did not. Granted, the 2005 election results produced the lowest threshold in British history that allowed a majority government to be formed, but the precedent is there.
Second, this puzzle is easier to solve than might first appear. We are witnessing, first hand, a phenomenon in public opinion which has nearly always been true at General Elections; that the incumbent benefits from a late surge of support. For all of the rhetoric of deep dissatisfaction, or of a disaster should the status quo not be altered, election day produces patterns in voting behaviour which seldom change. This polling data suggests that it is a pattern that appears to yet again be one of the few constants in a highly unpredictable campaign. Oppositions, whoever they may be from time to time, know that they have a hard job to overcome this bias. They are a force of the untested and the unknown, competing against incumbents which can point to at least some sort of provable, positive effect from their time in government.
The big questions remain, how much will this underlying sentiment give the incumbent parties a bounce? Will this bounce be dispersed as it is spread across two parties? Or is the public coming round to the idea that they like the idea of coalition, and the combination of parties within the status quo is the most attractive (or indeed, least feared) option?
We’ll know for sure in seven days time.
“David Cameron and Nick Clegg in Paris / David Cameron et Nick Clegg à Paris” by UK in France is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.