The claim
“I don’t think that people are turning to the Conservatives. Their support has flat-lined since the election that nobody won. I think what is happening is that people are withdrawing from politics.”
Tessa Jowell MP, BBC News, 27 September 2011

The background

Tessa Jowell tried to brush off today’s humiliating slip in the leadership polls with the retort that no political party does well when the economy’s in the doldrums.

“Benign times of growth are always easier for political parties,” she said, adding that it’s both a challenge and an opportunity for Ed Miliband.

The news that the Tories have overtaken Labour for the first time since last October came as a huge blow to Mr Miliband as he delivered his keynote speech.

According to a ComRes poll, the Conservatives are on 37 per cent, with Labour just behind at 36 per cent and the Lib Dems at 12 per cent.

But Ms Jowell says this has more to do with people withdrawing from politics, than signing up to the Tories.

FactCheck calls up the pollsters.

The analysis

Let’s take support for the Tories first. The pollsters ComRes, Ipsos-Mori and YouGov all agree that support for the Conservatives has largely levelled off since the election, give or take some minor fluctuations.

It was running at 36 per cent at the time of the general election, and today it is up by 1 per cent to 37 per cent, according to ComRes.

Take a look at this chart from Ipsos-Mori:

A flatline in support would imply zero growth. What the chart shows is that support for the Tories has stayed largely within what pollsters call the “three point” comfort range.

What’s interesting is that Labour, on the other hand, began the year with a huge 10 per cent lead on the Tories with a 43 per cent share of the voting intention.

A spokesmen for Ipsos-Mori told FactCheck: “It is worth noting that Labour picked up votes largely due to Lib Dem voters coming across to Labour.”

Indeed the chart shows that the surge in Labour support is largely matched by the drop in Lib Dem support.

But in recent months – though support for Labour is still well above the level it was at the time of the election –  it is now on the wane.

Andrew Hawkins, chairman of polling organisation ComRes, confirmed to FactCheck: “Labour has done quite well throughout 2011, but the boost they’ve enjoyed since the spending cuts seems to be wearing off.”

So what’s happening? Mr Hawkins said: “What we do know (from the leadership polls) is that people don’t like Miliband and they really don’t like Ed Balls. They trust them significantly less than Cameron and Osborne.”

Data from Ipsos-Mori backs this up. Ed Miliband’s leadership satisfies just 51 per cent of his voters, according to Ipsos’ figures. In fact, Mr Miliband is only doing 1 per cent better than Nick Clegg – whose support from Lib Dem voters has plunged from 90 per cent to 50 per cent today.

On the other hand, Tory voters are 78 per cent satisfied with the way David Cameron is doing his job.

But Ms Jowell wouldn’t be drawn into the debate over Mr Miliband’s leadership.  Instead she suggested that it is the economic climate that is forcing people to withdraw from politics altogether.

“They’re withdrawing into the safe intimacy of their own families, close friends and their own communities,” she said. “And that is both a challenge to our politics, but I also think it’s a great opportunity.”

Mr Hawkins disagrees. His figures show that if there was a general election tomorrow, 52 per cent of people would vote.

That has slipped slightly from 59 per cent during the 2010 election, but he insists this isn’t enough of a drop off to indicate any disenchantment.

“Voting intention flits about a bit – and after such an intense general election as 2010 was, you’d expect this. I don’t detect any real disengagement,” he told FactCheck.

Ipsos-Mori also confirmed to FactCheck that there has been no noticeable trend in voting intentions that would indicate people are so fed up they wouldn’t vote.

Peter Kellner meanwhile, president of polling group YouGov, cuts to the chase: “There’s no point in beating about the bush…Voters think the (Labour) party is doing badly and its leader is doing worse”.

The verdict

To say that support for the Tories has “flatlined” is putting rather a strong spin on it, because in reality voting intentions for the party have swung between 34 per cent and 40 per cent – and support is actually up 1 per cent since the election.

Ms Jowell’s efforts to deflect the attention from the debate over Ed Miliband’s leadership have – in this instance  – served to highlight the fact that Labour is losing the bounce in support it enjoyed earlier this year.

Voters aren’t withdrawing from politics, but some have begun to turn away from Labour.

The challenge for Mr Miliband is to bring that support back, and as Ed Balls said yesterday, it will all come down to winning the public’s trust on the economy.

By Emma Thelwell