Tory governments age well in the memory. Labour governments turn sour.
No recent Prime Minister was popular as they left office. Each of the last five had net satisfaction scores – the proportion satisfied minus the proportion dissatisfied – below minus 20 points in their final month, according to MORI’s satisfaction data.
Thatcher was the most unpopular, with 71% dissatisfied with the job she was doing. The least unpopular was Gordon Brown, who still had the support of 35% before the 2010 election.
If the Scotsman’s relative popularity seems surprising, that’s because of what’s happened since his defeat. In the time after each Prime Minister left office, the collective memory of their effectiveness has been transformed.
This week’s Opinium poll for the PB / Polling Matters podcast found that Thatcher has gone from being the least popular recent Prime Minister, when she left office, to the most popular now.
Over the same time, Blair and Brown have fallen from being the Prime Ministers with the joint-highest satisfaction scores (along with Major) as they were leaving Downing Street, to being seen as the ones that did the worst job.
With Cameron moving up the ranking, the picture is clear – Tory governments are remembered increasingly well over time, while Labour governments become less popular.
The reason for this is Labour voters. While current Tory voters have views that you’d expect – overwhelmingly believing Tory Prime Ministers did a good job and thinking the opposite of Labour ones – Labour voters are more reluctant to support their party’s leaders.
Only one in three Labour voters thinks Blair did a good job (he’s more popular among Lib Dems) while even fewer think the same of Gordon Brown.
This ambivalence does Labour no good. Tory voters can draw on several examples of what they consider successful Tory Prime Ministers. If even the now-diminished ranks of Labour voters don’t believe that past Labour governments were much good, it’s hard to see who will resist the charge that Labour administrations always spend too much for too little benefit.
Labour supporters might come up with many reasons to justify their unease about Blair and Brown’s governments. But Tory voters have overcome their previous reservations about the woman who left office as the least popular Prime Minister in recent history. If Labour is to become an election-winning machine again, it will need to do the same for its own past leaders.
Leo Barasi writes about public opinion at Noise of the Crowd. Leo is co-founder of the Polling Matters podcast. Listen to the latest episode on this polling, Article 50, and the German SPD surge below.