Leaders' debate: Will Ed Miliband show his tough side?

If the Labour leader performs well tonight the party could reclaim its lead on voting intention

April 02, 2015
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Last week’s TV leaders’ non-debate may be making more difference than most politicians think—and raising the stakes for tonight’s actual, albeit crowded, debate.

YouGov’s poll last weekend for the Sunday Times caught a spike in Labour’s support. Conducted mainly last Friday, it showed Labour four points ahead. However, its effect on voting intention soon faded. Our three polls since last weekend have all shown the two main parties back to neck-and-neck, with no more than two points separating them.

But voting intention tells only part of the story. On Monday and Tuesday, we repeated a battery of questions about Ed Miliband that we last asked in February. We found marked improvements on every front:

  • The proportion saying he is “up to the job of Prime Minister” is up from 23% to 36%
  • The proportion saying he “has made it clear what he stands for” is up from 30% to 38%
  • The proportion regarding him as “a strong leader” is up from 12% to 20%.
These are still not great figures—even after he said “hell, yes” that he was strong enough to stand up to President Obama, a 20% strength rating is pretty dire. But the direction of travel is clear. Many voters are beginning to reassess Labour’s leader.

Five years ago, Nick Clegg’s ratings jumped by much larger amounts after the first TV debate. Sadly for him, he could not repeat his victory in the two subsequent debates, and both his and his party’s figures slipped back (although the embers from that first debate continued to glow sufficiently brightly for the Lib Dems to hand on to enough votes to deprive the Conservatives of an outright victory).

Tonight, Miliband needs another good performance. If he falls short, then he will have squandered his best chance to close in on David Cameron’s lead on who would make the best Prime Minister. But if Miliband does well, and Cameron once again struggles, then during the next five weeks Labour may be able to reclaim the lead on voting intention that it enjoyed until last autumn—and this time to hang onto it.