Labor’s good news in the opinion polls continues this morning, with an AC Nielsen poll in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald showing the federal ALP with a commanding lead, 54% to 46% in two-party-preferred vote – a 2% shift since the previous poll. The approval ratings and “beauty contest” numbers have also moved in Labor’s favour.

The poll also shows a large majority, 56% to 39%, for the view that Australian troops should be withdrawn from Iraq – thus answering, as Michael Gordon points out in The Age, Alexander Downer’s recent question of what we should do now.

Despite the poll joining the two issues, it seems unlikely that Iraq is having much effect on voting intention – domestic factors are probably much more important. But the figures might help to put to rest the ever-popular canard that “troops home by Christmas” (or the like) is a negative for Labor.

The continued movement towards Labor holds particular interest in light of last week’s controversy about the interpretation of Newspoll results. In Saturday’s Australian Dennis Shanahan came out swinging in defence of his own approach.

The whole article is worth reading; Shanahan has some very useful things to say about polls. But his basic point – “that both the party and the leader have to be competitive and one cannot succeed without the other performing well” – is I think seriously misguided.

Approval ratings are not entirely meaningless: in particular, they can influence internal party perceptions. But they do not decide elections. People vote for parties, not leaders, and they may well decide that an incompetent opposition leader would nonetheless be a better bet in government than the alternative (and, of course, vice versa).

Peter Brent at Mumble makes the same point, and also answers Shanahan’s obsession with the primary vote. The mythical 40% primary vote that Labor is supposed to need to win government is at best a rough rule of thumb (in any case, Nielsen has Labor now at 42% primary). Fundamentally, in Brent’s words, “a [two-party-preferred vote] that relies on lots of preferences is worth exactly the same as one that doesn’t.”