Much has been written this week about the Yougov poll, commissioned by the Evening Standard which shows a reasonable satisfaction level for Boris Johnson’s performance as Mayor for his first year, caveats about honeymoon periods providing an unreliable polling background excepted.
There isn’t any getting around it for those of us of a more sceptical bent – Boris’ support is sound, albeit relatively limited, and beating him in 2012 isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Not, of course that that should mean adopting the desperate measure of attempting to draft the eminently unsuitable Sir Alan Sugar, regardless of current polling evidence.
But there is another set of numbers, also released this month, which have had a lot less publicity. These tell a subtly different, but far from irrelevant story. Each year, the GLA commissions an Annual London Survey, asking questions about residents’ perceptions of living in London. Generally, the media either ignores or scorns the Survey, because it shows a picture that doesn’t fit with their narrative: Londoners feel pretty safe on their streets and the transport system serves most people pretty well. The surveys from Ken Livingstone’s terms in office are available here, whilst the latest is here. There is a gap for 2008: for reasons of purdah it couldn’t be produced before the election and, understandably enough, it looks like the new administration pushed back the dates to allow for a bedding-in period.
Interestingly, the new survey has seen the GLA abandon the well-known IPSOS Mori, who conducted all previous surveys, for an outfit by the name of BMG Research. I doubt there is anything sinister in this (unless those who know a bit more about market research know otherwise), but it should be borne in mind when comparing the 2009 survey with earlier ones.
One of the questions asked in the survey relates to satisfaction with the Mayor’s performance. The YouGov survey found a net satisfaction rating of +25%; the GLA’s +18%. Still a good figure and within a similar sort of range (caveat emptor: the GLA polling took place in January, three months before YouGov’s). But the net figures are a bit misleading. From YouGov, the net figure is arrived at through a satisfied:dissatisfied rating of 46%:21%; the equivalent for the GLA’s polling is 30%:12%.
The reason for the massive discrepancy between the scale of the figures is that the GLA’s polling found that almost one third (32%) of Londoners simply had no opinion of the Mayor’s performance. Add to this the 26% who were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied and you have 58% of Londoners professing themselves to be effectively apathetic about the Mayor. That, by any standard, isn’t good news. YouGov, on the other hand, found only 4% ‘didn’t know’. This may reflect what I think is a key weakness in their model: very few genuinely apathetic people are going to self-select to be part of a polling panel. Whilst weighting means that YouGov’s voting intention figures can be pretty accurate (and if you miss out some people who would never vote, it doesn’t really matter), it works less well for attitudinal questions. Nevertheless, YouGov also found 29% as being neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, so there is some agreement there.
So apathy is one problem for Boris Johnson. However, the other is that, whilst healthy, his GLA polling satisfaction figures aren’t all that special on the basis of a historical comparison. Whilst taking into account what I said earlier about the change in polling company carrying out the GLA surveys, it is worth making some comparisons between Johnson’s and Livingstone’s results. Whilst in 2009 Boris Johnson is getting a +18% satisfaction rating, in 2007, Ken Livingstone was getting +22%, on the basis of a 44%:22% ratio, with only 10% having no opinion. And we all know what happened to Ken Livingstone the next year. Now, the point can be made that Johnson is still in the early-ish days of his administration, so the figures between 2007 and 2009 shouldn’t be directly compared.
In their full report, BMG do provide a comparison (on p.55) between the 2009 figures and 2002, which show two important variations between Livingstone’s performance and Johnson’s. Both had satisfaction ratings in the same range (Livingstone 27%, Johnson 30%), but Livingstone had a net satisfaction rating of 0%. That means Johnson is performing better, doesn’t it? Well, only up to a point. Livingstone, basically, succeeded in ensuring that the voters who weren’t going to like him decided on that earlier on in his term of office. Johnson’s ‘No opinion’ score is, astonishingly, almost double (32%) that of Livingstone’s (17%) at the same juncture.
That’s a real problem for Boris Johnson and, I think, demonstrates the real weakness that could prove to be his administration’s undoing in 2012: the lack of narrative, a sense of direction or purpose. To have the majority of Londoners having either no opinion or being neither satisfied or dissatisfied with you a year into your term of office is a deeply worrying trend. And the sense of directionlessness will, over the coming years, likely be intensified as a result of today’s London City Charter, so massively over-hyped by the Standard. Blogger 853 makes excellent points on this: there is nothing ‘revolutionary’ or ‘democratic’ about handing strategic powers currently held by the GLA to borough councils for whom fewer people have voted. Splitting powers over strategic transport or policing over 32 separate decision making bodies is not just a recipe for a lazy and directionless Mayoralty: it is a sure-fire way to deliver a directionless city too. Perhaps someone should write Boris a short history of the successes of London governance 1986-2000. It would be a very short history indeed.