This is the thirty-ninth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

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This month’s Polling Observatory comes after a month of political twists and turns – most notably with the resignation of Baroness Warsi over the Israel/Gaza crisis and the general election gate-crashing act performed by Boris Johnson. Last month we reported a slight rebound in the polls for Labour but were cautious over the presence of a ‘Junker’ bounce in Conservative fortunes, despite much fanfare in the media. This month’s estimates suggest the Conservatives have made some recovery, but despite one poll putting the Conservatives ahead, and another showing Labour in front by 8%, the underlying position remains a narrow but significant Labour lead.  The Conservatives have posted a solid gain in support in July, rising 1.2 points. They now are at 32.0%, close to their highest level of support since the beginning of 2012. However, Conservative support still remains within the 30-32% band they have settled into for over two years, a band they must break out of to have any prospect of being the largest party in 2015.

Labour also gained significantly this month, up 0.7 points, at 35.3%. This blunts the impact of the Conservative rebound, and is the second significant gain in the row for the party, who are now about 2 points above their low ebb in the late spring, though still well below the high-30s range they typically enjoyed last year. Labour’s lead over the Conservatives is now 3.3 points – close to the all time low found in our March estimate.

The narrow gap at the top will give the blues a boost, but the Conservatives are still persistently behind the opposition and time is ticking away. Interestingly, these changes are in line with what we would expect from our forecasting model – with both parties expected to receive greater support in May 2015 than they are currently polling.

To some it is difficult to comprehend that Labour is holding a steady poll lead despite the strong negatives of their leader and the continued view from the electorate that the party is partly to blame for the continued economic travails of the UK. However, the reality is that Miliband’s negatives are already ‘priced in’ to Labour support, while Cameron also suffers from relatively anaemic leader ratings by historical comparison. Further, for all Labour’s negatives, the party retains the image of being well-intentioned if flawed and ineffectual, whereas the Conservatives are toxic with large parts of the electorate, and have done nothing to address this, aside from a fewlast minute electoral giveaways. With Boris Johnson on manoeuvres for the leadership of the party, and several MPs stepping down ahead of the election (including several of the 2010 intake), party discipline is in a fragile state – leaving Chief Whip Michael Gove with a crucial role before the general election.

After a sustained surge in support, UKIP have fallen back, down 1.5 points at 13.3%. This fallback is in line with what we saw in 2013, when UKIP surged after electoral success brought them media attention but fell back somewhat over the summer. Last year, the party retained quite a bit of its new support, levelling off at about 10%, several points above their level in 2012. Their current 13% share is well above where they were at this time last year, but only time will tell whether they are able to retain the new recruits won in the European campaign. The UKIP narrative surely will return to the top of the media agenda ahead of the May 2015 general election, providing the party with another possible  shot in the arm, and UKIP’s membership and political donations are currently at record highs.  Farage’s fox is not shot yet.

Despite their fall-back, UKIP remain well above the Liberal Democrats who are flat-lining below the 10% level, specifically, at 8.8%, with no change on last month. For both parties, however, the national share of the vote will be less important than their local strength in seats that they are trying to take or hold. The recent Ashcroft poll of Tory marginals revealed that UKIP is outperforming their national figures considerably where they have a strong local campaign – and where features of the constituency are in their favour. Earlier Ashcroft marginals polling suggests that the Liberal Democrats also do better in the seats where they are well entrenched and seeking to hold off Conservative challengers, though Clegg’s party is in deep troublewhen Labour is the challenger.

The same story also applies, to a lesser extent, to the larger parties. Strong incumbents often enjoy a local bonus in support which can help them weather a national swing away from their party, while weak challengers can under-perform. The local social and demographic mix of a seat can also play an important role – as seen in 2014 local elections where Labour performed strongly in diverse London boroughs while UKIP surged in seats with concentrations of older, white working class “left behind” voters. The 2015 election is not a national popularity contest but 650 local popularity contests.

As we roll out our constituency-level forecasts in the coming months, we will start to analyse how to translate the national picture into a map of the local constituency battles which will ultimately decide who governs after May 2015.