Labour, The Election and The Polls

There is a tendency on the left to dismiss opinion polls, partly, and fairly, because they have proved to be significantly inaccurate in the two most important votes of the last two years, the 2015 election and the 2016 EU Referendum, and partly, and usually misguidedly, that what they tell us can always be overcome. That is not to say that it can’t, and as Jeremy Corbyn (JC)  has said we should not treat the election as a ‘foregone conclusion’, but polls should be treated seriously as they are normally not too far from the truth.

Labour’s position in the polls now is worse than at any time since 1983 for an opposition party, and JC’s personal rating as leader likewise. How and why did this happen? During his first period as leader Labour averaged about 31/32, only just behind the Tories on 33/34. Although there was much criticism the position pre referendum and coup was not unreasonable, with Labour recouping its six point deficit in the 2015 election by the 2016 elections. However, The gap widened considerably in the post referendum period, with Labour averaging 26 for most of this period, with the Tories averaging 41. Reasons are the coup, with voters being well aware that JC is opposed by three quarters of his MPs, the Brexit vote which inevitably meant that Labour had to adopt a ‘facing both ways’ position, and the continued failure to develop policy and divisions and departures among his staff and within  Momentum. The Lib-Dems increased their vote from about 8 up to December, to about 10 since. The UKIP vote has declined from about 12 to February to about 10 since. 

Labour Remain voters have decamped in large numbers to the Lib-Dems, Leave voters to UKIP and some thence to the Tories, but many directly to the Tories. We cannot be precise about what this would mean, as swings vary between constituencies and regions, but it is reasonable to assume, as Electoral Calculus have done, that Labour could lose up to 50 seats, taking them well below 200, a post war low. It is not likely to fall much beyond this, as many Labour seats still remain relatively safe.

But it could be a much better result than this. There are a number of actual or potential factors that could prove significant. The first is that May, as one journalist memorably put it, has ‘trashed her brand’. She has been transformed from the determined but compassionate vicar’s daughter with an absolute commitment to the country’s interests, to just another two faced politician who is prepared to alter course to suit her own (in particular) and her party’s interests, but is clearly quite happy to continue down a right wing road that completely belies her professed concern for the less well off. 

At least Thatcher never pretended that she was anything other than profoundly reactionary. But she seems to share with Thatcher an authoritarian streak that implies that the normal democratic processes are an unnecessary obstruction. And no, she is not going to lower herself by debating with other party leaders on TV. She is the leader, that should be enough. The ‘unmasking’ of May is  important, and is likely to lose her votes, although how many remains to be seen.

The second is that while Tory support reflects Brexit and corresponding vote transfers from Labour and UKIP, the run-up to the election will see a more widespread reflection on political problems and their possible solutions than is normally the case, and if Labour promotes this with an attractive, coherent and costed manifesto it could win back some of those who have transferred their vote to the Tories over Brexit, as they consider whether Labour is more likely to represent their interests on most other matters, and indeed on Brexit, given their seven year record of abject failure.

The third is  tactical voting. It was right to rule out any formal co-operation with other parties, which would have mainly meant the Lib-Dems, as the degree of mutual antagonism at local level would have ruled out a mass transfer of votes based on one party not standing in favour of the other. However, Compass are right to point out that there are thirty Tory seats that could be susceptible to an agreement, and hopefully some of these will fall on the basis of DIY tactical voting.

The fourth is a very large membership, much more so than for any other party, most of whom are by definition JC supporters, and who constitute a formidable potential campaigning force. However, and any activist will know this, most of them have not shown any inclination to be active, either in the run up to the coming local elections or in last year’s May elections. It has to be spelt out to this largely passive membership that their active involvement in the forthcoming campaign could be crucial not only to Labour’s electoral performance but also to JC’s continuation as leader.

Peter Rowlands

May 2017.

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