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What 2014's Polls Don't Tell Us About 2015's General Election

23/12/2014 18:49 GMT | Updated 22/02/2015 10:59 GMT

It's easy to think British politics has been particularly eventful in 2014. A close fought Scottish Independence Referendum, tensions in the coalition, various re-launches of Ed Miliband and - of course - electoral breakthrough for Ukip have made it a busy year in politics and for the country.

But for all the activity, announcements, and excitement of the year it is remarkable how little the polls have shifted.

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Through combining individual waves of polling into monthly aggregates, with 10,000s of interviews each month, we're able to see a more stable picture in polling - free of the volatility that naturally affects polls.

Labour started 2014 in the mid-to-high 30% range, and end the year still in the mid 30% range. The Conservatives have progressed from being just under 33% at the start of the year, to a little under 34% at the end of the year. UKIP and the Liberal Democrats have barely moved, remaining at 13% and 9% mark respectively.

There's an important lesson here: most ordinary people aren't paying attention to politics most of the time. Polls move slowly and the gaffes, battles at PMQs, and details of the Budget or Autumn Statement that interest Westminster, very rarely shift public attitudes.

Over the course of 2014, the Conservatives have - gradually - narrowed Labour's lead. Labour started the year with a modest 4.6% lead in both January and February. The year ends with the Conservatives just 1.4% behind Labour. While the closing of the gap is, undoubtedly, welcome for David Cameron and colleagues heading into an election year, there's little sign of the Conservatives enjoying a 'bounce' from the recovering economy. Indeed, polling in November and December suggests - despite official statistics - that most still aren't feeling the recovery. A voteless recovery remains a possibility.

Of the major GB wide parties, it is Labour that have experienced the greatest loss in support in 2014. Labour started the year in January with support at 37.5%, a figure that has steadily declined to 35.2% in December. While most electoral forecasters believe Labour enjoy an inherit advantage in the UK electoral system in converting vote share into seats, it will alarm Ed Miliband and his team that in the year before the General Election they are losing rather than gaining ground.

While Ukip have made electoral breakthroughs - first in the European Elections, and then in by-elections - these successes haven't meant a surge in support at a national, Westminster, level. Ukip support is up in 2014, but only slightly at +0.6% (indeed, the Conservatives growth in vote share is greater at +0.9%). But the party has, clearly, avoided the collapse in support many predicted after the European Elections.

Perhaps the Green Party and the SNP that have the greatest reason for seasonal cheer. For the former, support has increased from below 3% in the first part of the year to above 4% now, with some polls even putting the Green Party ahead of the Liberal Democrats. The latter has enjoyed a much discussed surge in support, and growth in membership, after the Independence Referendum.

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The final Populus poll of 2014 put Labour and the Conservatives even: both on 35% and neither, despite re-launches or Autumn Statements, with any obvious election winning momentum. Add in the complexity of the rise in support for Ukip and the SNP, and the need to understand the different patterns within the most marginal seats, and we end 2014 as we started it: with the outcome of May 2015's General Election very far from clear.