Coverage around the publication of Tony Blair’s memoirs this week has raised the question of whether Labour might have won the 2010 general election if Tony Blair had still been leader instead of Gordon Brown. Of course, such questions can never be answered for certain: we shall never know what might have happened in the leaders’ debates, for example, if Blair had been taking part instead of Brown. (Or perhaps Blair would not have agreed to the debates in the first place.) But the polling evidence during the election suggests that, contrary to the popular assumption, Gordon Brown was not significantly weaker than Tony Blair had been in 2005 – the difference was that he faced a stronger opponent.
It is certainly fair to focus on the party leadership as a significant factor in the election result. Even before the leaders’ debates, we found – for the first time since we began tracking this back in the 1980s – that the public felt the leaders were as important to them as the party’s policies in deciding which way to vote. But was Gordon Brown the problem?
Consider his satisfaction ratings. Brown's position in 2010 was hardly strong: in March 2010, our last poll before the election was called, a third (34%) were satisfied with the way Gordon Brown was doing his job as Prime Minister. But how does that compare with Tony Blair? In fact their ratings were almost identical. Blair's final three monthly ratings before the 2005 election were 33%, 35% and 34% satisfied, while Brown's in 2010 were 33%, 36% and 34%. But there was a clear difference in the perceived quality of the alternative: only 31% were satisfied with Michael Howard in March 2005, while 42% approved David Cameron's performance in March 2010.
Despite this, Brown was in some ways rather better viewed by the public when compared with David Cameron and Nick Clegg than much of the media gave him credit for. Our poll in April – immediately after the first debate, when Nick Clegg was at the height of his popularity and Brown’s weaknesses ought to have been most apparent – showed Brown preferred to his two rivals on almost every criterion, in some cases by a wide margin.
Table: Image attributes of the leaders, April 2010
But we can go further, and make comparisons between Brown’s image and Blair’s. After the election dust had settled, in the third week of May, we wrapped up our polling programme with a more detailed view of the public's perceptions of the leaders. In these surveys we show respondents a list of possible descriptions of politicians, and ask them to pick as many or as few as they feel fit each of the three party leaders (the descriptions were chosen many years ago following extensive work in focus groups to identify the characteristics that voters find most important in judging the leaders). We have used the same question in the past to measure Tony Blair’s image (and that of other party leaders), and we can make a direct comparison of Brown's ratings with those of Tony Blair a few weeks before the 2001 election (Blair's 2005 ratings are not too dissimilar, but the comparison with 2001 is preferred to avoid any contamination of the figures by opposition to the war in Iraq: here we see the public's view of Labour's most successful election leader in his prime, just before being re-elected with a second landslide majority).
Table: Leader Image, Gordon Brown compared with Tony Blair
As would be expected, Blair far outshines Brown on “has got a lot of personality” and also as a “capable leader”, but on other positive descriptions there is much less difference, with Brown having the clear advantage as being “good in a crisis” and understanding both “world problems” and the “problems facing Britain”. Similarly, Brown was much less seen than Blair as being “out of touch with ordinary people”. Nor did many feel Brown was inexperienced, as some still felt of Blair even after four years in Downing Street. (By 2005, Blair had rid himself of the inexperience tag but also, among other changes, had lost much of the perception that he was “more honest than most politicians”). Overall, in fact, Brown’s score is better than Blair’s.
The difference, again, is in how their opponents were rated. Compared to Blair’s and Brown’s net scores of close to zero, David Cameron's net score was +5.9 (having scored barely higher than Brown on the positive descriptions but with many fewer people applying the negative ones), In 2001, William Hague scored -13.2 on the same scale while Michael Howard in 2005 scored – 7.1.
On the other hand, Brown undoubtedly had a problem in that he was not widely liked. Another of Ipsos MORI's regular polling measures is to ask the public to say whether they like the party leaders and whether they like their policies. Whenever we tested Gordon Brown’s image in this way, more people said they disliked him than liked him: in April, during the election campaign, 45% said they liked him and 52% that they disliked him. (See table). This makes a considerable contrast with Tony Blair just before he fought his first election as leader, in 1997, when 53% felt they liked him and only 33% that they disliked him.
Table: Like him? Like his policies?
But that is not the whole story - Blair did not succeed in retaining such high ratings throughout his years in office. By the time of the 2005 election, he had slipped to being liked by only 44% and disliked by 47%, barely better than Gordon Brown’s scores in 2010. In any case, likeability is not the be-all-and-end-all: a 51-to-40 majority in his favour didn’t save John Major in 1997 from going down to an even heavier defeat than Gordon Brown. More relevant, probably, is that the public felt they disliked Gordon Brown’s policies in 2010 by more than they disliked Blair’s in 2005 – but how much of that difference could Blair have avoided, and how much was inevitable for any government seeking re-election on the back of the economic crisis that dominated the issue agenda in 2010?
The case can be argued either way, then, but it is certainly not a foregone conclusion that Blair’s three previous election victories show he had a better chance of scoring a fourth than Gordon Brown did. Labour’s position was already perilous under Blair in 2005, it seems – he may simply have been lucky that the Tories were not yet ready to exploit it.