Poll watch: Tracking parties' 2010 performance

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Poll image from BBC polltracker

The year 2010 was packed with remarkable political events and opinion polls played an important part in helping us decipher them.

Who would have thought that the January ICM/Guardian poll that gave the Conservatives 40%, Labour 30% and the Lib Dems 18% would lead, following a significant Labour election defeat, to a December ICM/Guardian poll registering the Conservatives on 37%, Labour 39% and the Lib Dems 13%?

At the start of 2010 everything seemed set for a Conservative victory, despite the great number of the seats they needed to gain in order to win outright.

It was no contest when the polls asked voters to choose between David Cameron and Gordon Brown.

If our political system had been presidential then there would have been a decisive outcome on 6 May.

But it took the general election to remind some of our more excitable political commentators that the UK has a parliamentary system, based on electing not two but 650 individuals.

When we delved into the polls they showed that while many people were attracted to David Cameron as an individual, they still held the Conservative Party in deep suspicion.

As we approached the general election - when the choice was to be about government, not just leaders - Conservative poll leads began to narrow.

TV debates

And when we arrived at the televised prime ministerial debates during the campaign itself, a live hand grenade dropped into the proceedings.

The speed with which both Labour and the Conservatives were humbled in the middle of the 2010 election campaign was astonishing and unprecedented.

Image caption,
The TV debates had a dramatic effect on the polls

Nick Clegg seemed to be the beneficiary of a deep well of public discontent with establishment politics that was looking for a means to express itself.

In the event, no party won the election and the resulting coalition between the Conservatives and Lib Dems began its life with a fair wind in terms of public support in the polls.

However, the second half of 2010 was dominated by the disintegration of the Lib Dems. Having won 24% of the vote in the May general election, they ended the year with anything between 8-13% support in the polls.

And Nick Clegg's satisfaction ratings have fallen from +53% in April to -12% in December.

But the real issue posed in 2010 that only subsequent years can resolve is the public's verdict on the coalition's policy of cutting the deficit in public finances.

The polls show that the public accepts the need to reduce the nation's debt but deep divisions are emerging about the depth and speed of the required cuts.

Those divisions seem set to define future political debate and the first public verdict on this debate will be delivered in elections throughout the United Kingdom in May 2011. As the polls stand in December 2010 the coalition parties face a rough ride.