The map of British politics has settled firmly into new borders during 2012, according to a new Guardian/ICM poll.
Labour's standing of 40%, the Conservatives' 32% and the Liberal Democrats' 13% are all unchanged on last month, and this is the third month in a row in which Labour commands an eight-point lead. But if the pattern looks remarkably stable, it is very different from the way things stood at the beginning of the year. In January, the Guardian/ICM series recorded David Cameron was sitting on a five-point lead.
The big change came between March and April, when a three-point Tory lead suddenly gave way to an eight-point Labour advantage. Surveys of other polling organisations confirm the big change occurred in the spring, particularly after George Osborne's budget. Since the coalition's honeymoon began to fade in mid-2010, small leads had alternated between the two parties. Since the chancellor cut top tax rates while levying pasties, pensioners and caravans, however, Labour has held a solid if unspectacular lead.
The poll's detail sheds light on both why opinion has moved so far – and why it has not moved further. A year ago, David Cameron was comfortably outpolling his party and a coalition which 39% of voters were still ready to say was doing a good job. Today, the prime minister is less popular. ICM assessed his overall standing this year by asking voters to give him a "school report" grade for his work in 2012, and the mediocre C- average he notched up is no better than the identical average awarded to Ed Miliband.
The only comfort to either man is that the rest of the political class does worse: George Osborne (D+), Nick Clegg (D) and the coalition as a whole (D+) are all told "must do better". The Queen's B+ stands out in a year of poor performers. The European Union's D+, at the end of the year in which it won the Nobel peace prize, is a reminder that public opinion is a school of hard knocks.
When Cameron's attributes are drilled into in more detail, they have all tended to wane since Christmas 2011. Back then, by a 50%-40% margin, voters deemed him good in a crisis; today that has shrivelled to just four points, 48%-44%. Even a year ago, he was regarded as lofty, with a 59%-34% deficit on the question of whether he "understands people like me", but this gap has now widened to a more damning 62%-32%.
He is also seen as marginally less trusted by his party than before – the 63%-28% assumption that the Tories are loyal to him has narrowed a touch to 62%-29%. In all respects, then, the Cameron brand is a little – though not dramatically – tainted compared with a year ago.
Equivalent figures for Miliband also illuminate the advances that Labour have made – and the limits of these. A year ago, Miliband underperformed his party – seen as incapable in a crisis (by 44% to 21%) and failing to "understand people like me" (by 47%-37%). Today, he has improved his standing on both counts – though not by enough to move into positive territory.
On the closely watched question of crisis handling, he has rallied particularly among Labour voters, but is still judged incapable by 45%-28% overall, putting him well behind Cameron. On understanding voters "like me" he does better, and has reduced his negative to just two points. 46% say he does not understand them but 44% think that he does. He will also be encouraged to learn that by a crushing 66%-23% margin voters believe he is backed by his party. That 43-point gap is 10 points up on the net score he achieved last Christmas, and substantially higher than Cameron's rating – suggesting the public now sees Labour as more united behind its leader than the Conservatives.
Overall, then, Miliband has made definite progress, but not yet done anything like enough to reach out beyond his base to be assured of victory. And the biggest warning of the lot for Labour is visible on the crucial economic terrain.
A year ago, when voters were asked to put party preference aside and say whom they would trust to run the economy, Cameron and George Osborne stood on 44%, a 21-point advantage over the 23% who preferred Miliband and Ed Balls. As the budget and recession unfolded, that gap has trended down over the year, steadily shrinking to reach just 4% in October. This month, however, it has widened again to 11 points, with the Labour team dipping down to 24% – only a single point up on a year ago – against 35% who now say that they prefer Cameron and Osborne.
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