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Public Opinion About the Party Leaders: New Evidence

UP-DATED 20/06/14: DETAILED DATA FOR THE DISCUSSION BELOW NOW AVAILABLE HERE.

In my previous post I, along with Laurence Janta-Lipinski of YouGov, described the test poll that they ran recently. While the purpose of that poll was mainly to explore any refinements to their weighting scheme that might be necessary for future polls in Wales, we were able to place on it one very interesting set of questions. This concerned public attitudes to the party leaders.

What the public think about party leaders does matter. While it is certainly true that what many people think about a leader will be shaped heavily by what they think about their party, to at least some extent the reverse can also be the case. Party leaders can be influential in several ways. For major parties, what the public thinks about their leader as a potential Prime Minister or First Minister can be very important. More generally – though perhaps particularly salient for minor parties – the leader can be important as the chief spokeperson for that party’s message to the electorate. Finally, many people seem to view the leader as something of a proxy for the party as a whole: the sort of person they elect as leader is taken to say something about the party as a whole. For all these reasons, the general consensus among scholars of parties and elections is that leaders do matter, and often matter rather a lot.

In their latest poll, YouGov repeated a standard question about the party leaders that they have asked in several previous Welsh polls, most recently in July last year, as well as in surveys elsewhere. This tried-and-tested question asks respondents the following:

“Using a scale that runs from 0 to 10, where 0 means strongly dislike and 10 means strongly like, how do you feel about…”.

The question was then asked about the leaders of the four main UK-wide parties, plus the four party leaders in the National Assembly.

There are several interesting findings in the results that were produced. The first concerns the proportion of people who chose the ‘Don’t Know’ response rather than any point on the 0-10 scale. As I mentioned here last year, when reporting the findings of the July 2013 poll that ran this question, while some people do choose the Don’t Know option because they are genuinely undecided about a particular politician, in the aggregate the proportion of people choosing this is a good indication of the public visibility of a party leader.

The table below shows the percentage who answered Don’t Know about each leader, along with an indication of changes since this question was previously asked. (In this context, a minus score in the change column is a ‘good’ result – it shows fewer people being unable to offer a definite view about that leader).

 

Leader

% Don’t Know

% change since July 2013

David Cameron

6

-3

Ed Miliband

8

-2

Nick Clegg

8

-2

Nigel Farage

9

-12

Carwyn Jones

22

-1

Andrew RT Davies

45

+1

Kirsty Williams

40

+3

Leanne Wood

39

-1

Looking at the main UK party leaders, we see small declines from last year in the proportion offering Don’t Know responses for Cameron, Miliband and Clegg – something that quite possibly reflects merely the fact that this year’s poll was conducted shortly after the European elections. The big – though wholly unsurprising – change since last year is the increased profile of Nigel Farage, who now appears to be about as well known among our respondents as the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

There is then a substantial gap between the levels of Don’t Knows for all the UK party leaders and that for Carwyn Jones. Despite having been First Minister for four and a half years, Carwyn seems to be significantly more anonymous with the people of Wales. But Carwyn, in turn, is far more well-known to the Welsh public than the three opposition leaders in the Assembly, none of whom have seen their public profile increase significantly over the last 11 months. As with the recent evidence from the BBC/ICM poll, these findings indicate the limited public awareness of devolved politics in Wales.

But what of those who did have opinions? What did they think of the leaders? The following table presents two pieces of information: the mean average score for each leader (out of a maximum possible 10, among those offering a view), and the change in this average rating since the July 2013 poll.

Leader

Mean Average /10

change since July 2013

David Cameron

3.4

+0.4

Ed Miliband

3.7

-0.7

Nick Clegg

2.7

-0.2

Nigel Farage

3.5

+0.4

Carwyn Jones

4.6

-0.5

Andrew RT Davies

3.2

+0.2

Kirsty Williams

3.9

+0.4

Leanne Wood

4.0

+0.5

A first thing that one can immediately notice from these numbers is that none of them are very high: not one of the eight leaders averages even 5 out of 10.  ‘POLITICIANS IN UNPOPULARITY SHOCK’ – remember, you heard it here first. But perhaps of more importance are two things: the relative rankings of the leaders, and the changes since last year.

Among the UK party leaders, Nigel Farage and David Cameron have seen the largest improvement in their rankings since last year. By contrast, Ed Miliband’s rating has fallen further than any other leader over the past eleven months. That the average evaluation of the Labour leader is now little better than those for the leaders of the Conservative party and UKIP, in a part of Britain that is still one of Labour’s strongest bastions, is a pretty damning indictment of Miliband’s failure over recent months to portray himself to the public as a credible alternative Prime Minister. Only 11% of Labour supporters, indeed, manage to give their party leader a 10/10 score. For Cameron and Farage what is striking about the detail of the poll is how they divide opinion: lots of people strongly dislike them, but their own party supporters are much more enthusiastic about them than Labour supporters are about Miliband. For Nick Clegg, the news is yet more gloom: he manages to attract both plenty of hostility and little fervent support.

Carwyn Jones remains by some way the most popular party leader in Wales. Yet his rating, like that of his party, has slipped notably in the last year. The official Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Andrew RT Davies, has made modest ground in his rating. But more substantial progress has been made by the leaders of the smaller opposition parties. Kirsty Williams’ ratings are far more positive than those for her UK leader Nick Clegg; her personal ratings continue to be the one vaguely positive aspect of public attitudes towards her party in Wales. Indeed, for her to be scoring so relatively well, given the generally awful political context facing her party, is little short of astonishing. Close to astonishing, too, is the progress made in public esteem over the last eleven months by Leanne Wood. Her rating has improved more than that of any other leader since last year, and on the evidence of this poll she is now the second most popular of all the party leaders in Wales. This is particularly notable for having come in a YouGov poll, rather than an ICM one: as I have noted before, YouGov appear to give systematically lower support levels to Plaid than do ICM. One imagines that Leanne’s ratings might be even stronger in an ICM poll running a similar question.

What lessons can we draw from these findings? For the 2015 UK general election, I think the Conservatives and UKIP can probably draw the most positive implications. Although David Cameron and Nigel Farage attract plenty of hostility, they are clearly popular with people who are attracted to their respective parties. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, by contrast, seem to generate relatively little enthusiasm amongst those inclined to support their parties. For the 2016 National Assembly election, the contest between the party leaders is starting to look much more even than it was in 2011, when Carwyn Jones had a big advantage over all the other party leaders in public esteem. Although Carwyn remains relatively popular, he has become a slightly tarnished asset for Labour. Kirsty Williams remains her party’s one ray of light in the current political gloom; and Leanne Wood is starting to look like a potential electoral asset for Plaid Cymru.

Comments

  • J.Jones

    Within these type of polls there are hidden truths but what is best electorally 50% giving a leader 10/10 and 50% giving 0/10 or 100% giving 5/10?

    Those who support Plaid for instance tend to do so in a wholehearted way and so I would expect that there would be lots of 10/10s. If my memory serves me well not many in the past have shown antipathy towards Leanne Wood.

    For Labour it’s different I suspect; support is more nuanced, as is always the case when a party is in power and its leader subject to continual criticism…I would expect a lower percentage of 10/10.

    Could you show a table of what I would call “Unquestioning love” versus “Absolute abhorrence” ie 10/10 verus 0/10? Or something similar.

  • J.Jones

    As I suspected Leanne Wood’s popularity is in large measure down to the unquestioning devotion of Plaid supporters…more 10/10s than any other leader and not much antipathy towards her except from Con. voters.

    I imagine that you’ve seen the Walesonline/Yougov poll which rather explains why UKIP was successful here in the EU elections. It was attitudes towards immigration in Wales, particularly amongst 2CDE voters, rather than objections to EU membership.

    Once again a question on devolution of Income tax raising powers shows that Wales is consistently against. You will be familiar with my next point; how did Silk get such a lot of people in favour in their survey?

    • Roger Scully

      Thanks, JJ. Haven’t had the chance to look at the Walesonline poll yet, but hope to do so in about an hour!

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