Visibility of politicians in the Bay

Roger Scully delves into public attitudes towards the party leaders

One of the factors that scholars generally agree shapes a political party’s electoral success is its leader. It’s difficult to be precise about how much a leader matters – that will be influenced by numerous contextual factors. But leaders plainly matter, and in several respects.

First, the leader is important as the chief spokesperson for the party – the most prominent advocate of the party’s message. Second – at least for major parties – the leader matters as a potential leader of a government. They have to convince the public that they would be effective at running the country. Thirdly, many voters seem to take a party’s choice of leader as a broad indication of what sort of party this is. When 61 per cent of Conservative party members in 2011 took the view that Iain Duncan Smith was a more convincing potential Prime Minister of the UK than Ken Clarke, much of the public understandably interpreted this as indicating the party had taken leave of its collective senses.

So how do the main UK and Welsh party leaders currently fare in terms of public esteem? The recent poll run by YouGov for the Elections in Wales blog asked directly about this, as follows: “Using a scale that runs from 0 to 10, where 0 means strongly dislike and 10 means strongly like, how do you feel about…” applied to all the main UK and Welsh party leaders. This is a question that has been used before in YouGov surveys in Wales and, indeed, elsewhere. Therefore we can readily compare the results from the current poll with those from previous surveys.

It is interesting to look first at how many people chose the ‘Don’t Know’ option for each leader. While some people do choose this option because they are genuinely undecided or totally indifferent, in the aggregate the percentage of people choosing Don’t Know seems to work well as an indicator of the visibility of a particular party leader.

Given that we are between election times, we would expect the public visibility of the Welsh party leaders to be lower than it will be during the Assembly election campaign in 2016. However, there has also been concern expressed at the low public visibility of devolved politics in Wales. The results from our poll tend to reinforce this concern. The percentage of respondents choosing the Don’t Know option for each leader were:

David Cameron 9%
Ed Miliband 10%
Nick Clegg 10%
Nigel Farage 21%
Carwyn Jones 23%
Kirsty Williams 37%
Leanne Wood 40%
Andrew R.T. Davies 44%

After being First Minister for more than three years, Carwyn Jones appears to have a lower profile in Wales than Nigel Farage – leader of a party with no MPs or AMs, and only limited support in Wales! And over two-fifths of respondents had no opinion of the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly.

What about those people who did offer a view? The same question was asked in the 2011 Welsh Election Study, immediately after the May 2011 Assembly election. The mean average rating then for each leader was the following:

David Cameron 3.6
Ed Miliband 4.6
Nick Clegg 3.1
Nigel Farage n/a
Carwyn Jones 5.8
Kirsty Williams 4.4
Ieuan Wyn Jones 4.4
Nick Bourne 3.1

Perhaps the most obvious thing to stand out here is how far ahead of all the other leaders was Carwyn Jones. Indeed, a direct comparison with data from the 2011 Scottish Election Study (which asked an identical question) showed that Carwyn was even more popular in Wales than was Alex Salmond in Scotland. He was by far the most popular party leader in Scotland, but had an average rating of only 5.5 out of 10.

So how have the leaders fared since? The same question has been asked in three surveys over the last 14 months: in April 2012, February 2013 and now our latest poll this month. The average ratings in these three polls were:

April 2012 February 2013 July 2013
David Cameron 3.1 3.2 3.0
Ed Miliband 3.8 4.3 4.4
Nick Clegg 2.7 2.9 2.9
Nigel Farage n/a 3.6 3.1
Carwyn Jones 4.7 5.0 5.1
Kirsty Williams 3.5 3.5 3.5
Leanne Wood 3.9 3.8 3.5
Andrew R.T. Davies 3.0 3.2 3.0

Perhaps the most obvious feature of the results is the general decline in ratings compared with those gathered immediately after the Assembly election. We should probably not be surprised about that, as we are comparing a survey conducted straight after an election campaign – when all the parties have been spending weeks striving to present themselves in the best possible light – with ones conducted in mid-term.

The other thing that leaps out of the findings is that Carwyn Jones remains consistently well ahead of all the other – UK and Welsh – leaders. He continues to be a significant electoral asset to Labour in Wales.

David Cameron’s ratings have fallen further than those of the other UK leaders. A notable feature of the poll is the high level of hostility towards Cameron. In the latest poll, fully 36 per cent of respondents gave him a 0 out of 10 rating (compared with 30 per cent for Clegg, 27 per cent for Farage, 19 per cent for Miliband, and below 20 per ent for all the Welsh party leaders). A lot of Welsh voters have come to really dislike the Prime Minister.

Among the other Welsh leaders, the replacement of Nick Bourne by Andrew R.T. Davies has apparently done nothing to give the Welsh Tories a popular leader. Although the party may reflect that this didn’t seem to do them too much harm in 2011, they might alternatively consider how much better the Welsh Tories might fare with an attractive and effective personality at their helm. Despite the relative unpopularity of her parties, Kirsty Williams is doing reasonably well. However, there is no sign yet that Leanne Wood is making any major breakthrough with Welsh voters.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University.

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