Conferences? What Conferences?

Normal service has resumed. Parliament is back; for all bar a small, obsessive minority, memories of the party conferences have faded. As usual, they provided polling as well as political dramas...

Normal service has resumed. Parliament is back; for all bar a small, obsessive minority, memories of the party conferences have faded. As usual, they provided polling as well as political dramas: a small Liberal Democratic bounce in the first week at Labour’s expense, allowing the Conservatives briefly to draw level; then Ed Miliband’s controversial commitment to a 20-month freeze in gas and electricity prices gave Labour to an equally short-lived 11-point lead; then the Tories reviving their support with a freeze on petrol duty up to the election. Oh, and in the middle of all this UKIP held their conference, which did not go quite as Nigel Farage wanted.

YouGov’s latest Sunday Times poll, conducted a clear week after the Conservatives dispersed, allows us to measure the overall impact of the conference season, when the short-term effects have had a chance to fade. Here are the main figures, comparing the latest Sunday Times figures with those the week before the Lib Dem conference.

The story is simple. Only one thing has changed significantly: Ed Miliband’s standing. At the start of the conference season, his rating was dire. Just 21% thought he was doing well as Labour’s leader. At the end of Labour’s conference week, it jumped to 30%.

Something similar happened last year, but his conference bounce swiftly faded. This time, the pattern is different. One week later, his rating had slipped only one point to 29%. However, that poll was conducted at the height of the controversy over the actions of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday towards his father (Daily Mail) and deceased uncle (Mail on Sunday). The public plainly sided with Labour’s leader: this may explain why his rating held up.

That story has now faded, yet Miliband still scores 29%. It’s far too early to say there has been a permanent change in the way at least some voters view him; but if there is one victor, in polling terms, from the conference season, it is he.

However, before Labour leaps with joy or the Tories descend into despair, the Miliband bounce needs to be put into perspective.

First, his rating is still poor. Twice as many people, 59%, think he is doing badly; his net rating (well minus badly) is still minus 30. True, it was minus 46 before the conference season. His bounce has lifted his position from catastrophic to lousy.

Second, Miliband’s bounce has had little impact on his party’s fortunes. Labour led the Tories by 5% before the conferences; it leads by 5% afterwards. Perhaps there has been a rise of one percentage point or so in Labour’s support; and in a close election that could be vital. But equally, any such change might be a product of sampling fluctuations. The fact remains that Labour’s lead is too low for comfort for an opposition party 18 months before an election.

Where, then, do we go from here? As usual, and barring unforeseen events, the economy will be the biggest influence on party fortunes between now and the election. One thing the conference season did tell us was the narrative both main parties will use to win swing voters. David Cameron’s narrative will be that the economy has turned the corner, the deficit still needs tackling but, meanwhile, the Tories will help young people get onto the housing ladder.

Miliband will stress the government’s record on unemployment, prices and living standards, and Labour’s ability to make life better on all three fronts. To explore these issues, a YouGov / Times poll asked people which would be better on each of these six issues. This is what we found:

These results show that the economic argument has not been won conclusively by either party. If Labour can make prices and living standards the dominant topics at the election, it will have the advantage, while of the Tories get voters thinking more about the overall economy and the size of the deficit, then Cameron will be the likely victor.

Part of that battle will turn on what actually happens to living standards and the economy over the next 18 months. In principle, the two should not diverge – a growing economy ought to mean rising living standards. Yet that has not been the story of the past three years. The GDP figures have been bumpy, but the economy is now around 3% larger than it was when the coalition came to power. But average earnings have lagged behind prices. Millions of families are now worse off than they were in 2010.

If that pattern continues, then Labour may be able to exploit voters’ resentment that the benefits of economic growth are being hogged by the few, not shared with the many. But if the Government can ensure that the disposable income of normal people starts to rise faster than prices (whether in the form of higher earnings, lower taxes or more generous cash benefits, or some mixture of the three) then the Tories (and Lib Dems) should be able to overturn Labour’s lead on living standards.

For the moment, our figures slightly favour the Tories. They lead on their topics by an average of 16 points, whereas Labour’s average lead on its topics is just 8 points. Overall, the Tories are ahead in the arguments about the economy, but not by enough to declare final victory. That will depend on whether economic growth now accelerates – and, if it does, how widely its fruits are shared.

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