Labour, Corbyn and the Polls

Pollsters in the UK do not have a very good standing, having got the two most important voting tests of the last two years, the 2015 election and the 2016 EU referendum, wrong by significant margins. Nevertheless, they are collectively not completely at variance with the results, and an average of the results of polls over a period of time is probably a fair indication of the actual inclination of voters towards the various parties.

As would be expected there has been variation in the polls from month to month, but not significantly except for the two major time periods, namely from Corbyn’s accession in late September 2015 to the   referendum and coup in late June, and to the period since then. In the first period, ( Pre ref/coup) Labour averaged about 3i/32, not far behind the Tories on 33/34. In the second period ( Post ref/coup) Labour averaged about 27/28, with the Tories much further ahead on 40/41. 

During the pre ref/coup period there was constant criticism that Labour was in a far worse position in the polls than was normally the case for an opposition, and some comment distorted the position selectively, although some left comment sought to do this in the other direction. The truth, acknowledged by most objective critics was that while Labour would have to do better to win there had been some good results, in the London and other Mayoral elections, in three out of four by-elections, while Labour more or less held its own in council elections in England and the Assembly elections in Wales. The only really bad result was in Scotland, which could hardly be blamed on Corbyn as Labour’s rout there had occurred at the general  election before he became leader. The official BBC extrapolation of the results of the May elections indicated that Labour had eliminated the six point Tory lead at the 2015 election and was now one point ahead. Given the enormous upheaval that his accession to the leadership had generated it could not be fairly asserted that Labour under Corbyn was a disaster, with results consistent with those achieved under Brown and Miliband, and it was reasonable to believe that this could be built upon.

With Labour polling at three to four points below that in the post ref/coup period there is obviously less reason for such optimism. So why is Labour now doing worse than before? There are probably three main reasons.

 Firstly, the coup, given as a reason by Corbyn himself. The knowledge that three quarters of the parliamentary party that he leads expressed no confidence in him only six months ago must inevitably weaken the party’s attraction, and this can only be resolved by a new leader or a growth of confidence and support over time. However, calls from McCluskey and other supporters for the necessity of improvements in the polls will be tested against the results of the local elections in May. Without an improvement these could be dire, as there are no elections in the region most favourable to Labour, London, and they are otherwise concentrated on the County Councils in England which favour the Tories. If this is the case there could be calls for a change of leader, although another full  leadership contest is unthinkable. The Tories could also call an election, which Labour couldn’t oppose so it would go ahead, and would considerably increase their majority, at Labour’s expense, and without the addition of many Lib-Dem MPs, even if their vote increased considerably.

Secondly, the situation brought about by the Brexit vote which has put Labour in an awkward position, as it must seek to support the position of most of its voters, to remain, while at the same time not alienating those who voted to leave. This has left the field open to the Lib-Dems to put themselves at the head of a second referendum now campaign, and is the reason for their huge success in the Richmond by-election and their good showing in the other by elections, and Labour’s poor showing in all of them. They have taken votes from Labour, although these have in part been replenished by pro Remain votes from the Tories and elsewhere, but the big losses have been pro Leave voters to UKIP and the Tories, although probably not enough for UKIP to capture seats from Labour. Labour therefore has no alternative to trying to retain those from both camps, and Starmer is in my view  doing well in promoting such a position, not helped, it must be said, by pronouncements by Corbyn and Abbott on free movement.

Thirdly, the failure to develop policy. The leadership election, with Corbyn’s ten pledges and some decent ideas from Owen Smith could have heralded the start of an intense discussion among a wide cross section of the membership, but this hasn’t happened, and there is a palpable sense of drift. At no level is policy being developed or clearly enunciated, and it must be if Labour is to gain the support it needs.

A recent Fabian article ‘ Stuck. How Labour is too weak to live, and too strong to die’ concludes that Labour cannot win on its own, but might through some sort of pact with other parties, a proposal also floated by Compass. I am sceptical on both counts, partly because politics is so volatile at the moment that even a Labour victory in 2020 cannot be ruled out, although the current polls render that unlikely, and partly because a pact with the Lib-Dems would be difficult to bring about and would be very divisive.Some progress might be possible through unofficial tactical voting.

There is greater detail on polling and voter movement in the Fabian article. 


  1. David Pavett says:

    I agree with the argument developed by Peter Rowlands in the above article. I would like to echo his point about the failure to develop policy. When there is no way of arguing policy alternatives people will inevitably fall back on personalities and that is what has happened. If policy is not developed and secured by discussion throughout the Party then a set of bad election results in the coming months will not only give Labour’s traditionalist right their chance to remove Corbyn but it will provide it with a near-clean slate on which to write its uncritical programme of tinkering on the margins of our increasingly unequal and unfair society while leaving its basic nature intact. I understand that Corbyn’s leadership is hemmed in by all sorts of institutional barriers but the failure of his team to take the party beyond headline aspirations means that a change of leadership will produce a reversion to the stultifying nostrums of the Blair/Brown/Miliband years. That failure has been a dereliction of leadership duty. I could have been done in a variety of different ways. It hasn’t been done and the promise to put party members in charge of the party has so far proved hollow.

    • Andy Howell says:

      The failure to properly develop policy — or even to create an effective mechanism for it — is suicidal. However, if the Leadership can’t work across the relatively small routing of the PLP there seems little hope that they would be able navigate a membership-wide consultation process.

      we are now getting to the point in the cycle where we should be developing policies.

    • This is a most useful coiroibutntn to the debate

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