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‘Peak Corbyn’ is a myth providing false reassurance to his opponents

May 11th, 2018

Last week’s local elections were underwhelming for Labour, writes Keiran Pedley but that does not mean Labour is heading for defeat.

As the dust settles on the 2018 local elections, it is clear that Labour did not hit the heights that they hoped to hit. A very strong showing in London offset somewhat by a frustrating lack of progress for the party in the rest of the country. The projected national vote share produced by the BBC suggested a tie, with a share of 35% each for Labour and the Conservatives (Rallings and Thrasher on the other hand gave the Tories a one point lead). A full recap of the results can be found on last weekend’s Polling Matters podcast at the end of this post.

Several leading elections analysts have shown why this result does not bode well for Labour’s hopes of winning the next General Election when it comes (see Matt Singh here and Steve Fisher here). The basic premise being that opposition parties producing the sort of performances that Labour produced last week do not go on to form governments.

History provides an ominous warning for Corbyn’s Labour party then. So how worried should they be?

Well, on the face of it, ‘very worried’ and there are signs that people within Labour are too. An internal Labour Party report, leaked to The Times today read “Overall these results are slightly worse than 2014 and nowhere near the level that oppositions have recorded before winning general elections.” The report goes on to say that, “Labour will need to improve significantly in the non-metropolitan marginals to have any realistic chance of a majority in a future election”. Public polling provides little solace for Labour either. A YouGov poll published on Thursday has the Tories 5 points ahead with May leading Corbyn on who would make the best PM by 14 points.

So all in all, not a lot of good news around for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn. These numbers have prompted some commentators to ask the question of whether we have reached ‘Peak Corbyn’? The idea presumably being that 2017 represented something of a high watermark for the Labour Party under his leadership that is now receding. In short, denying the Tories a majority in 2017 is as far as it goes for Corbyn. He will never be PM.

This may yet to turn out to be true but I think people are getting ahead of themselves by asking this question now. We have a long way to go. I wonder whether a lot of journalists and politicians that never thought Corbyn could win, or cannot reconcile themselves with the prospect, are lulling themselves into a false sense of security based on only a partial analysis of the current political situation. Put simply, the numbers look bad for Labour now but there are reasons to believe they might change in the future.

The problem with the ‘peak Corbyn’ analysis is it places far too much weight on past precedent and nowhere near enough on the political context of the time. The Tories may cheer last week’s local election results and their lead in the polls but the future may not be so rosy. There are still some fundamental facts of political life that they have to contend with. Firstly, they are a minority government negotiating Brexit – the biggest issue of our generation – with no consensus on what they want to achieve and no idea if the E.U. will give it to them.

Secondly, the next General Election will likely be fought by someone other than Theresa May and it is not remotely clear how a Tory leadership contest plays out or if the eventual winner will be any more effective at holding the party together or more popular in the country than May. Finally, politics in Scotland continues to look volatile and it is not certain that Ruth Davidson can sustain her heroics north of the border that kept the Tories in power in 2017 – though of course she might. The point is that the Tories face several major political hurdles this parliament, all in the context that the smallest of swings against them next time will leave them unable to form a government.

None of this necessarily means that Labour will win next time either. Indeed, a Labour majority government looks as far away as ever and the current numbers should be a cause for concern in the party. Nevertheless, we saw how volatile public opinion can be less than a year ago when Corbyn’s Labour dragged a hung parliament out of the jaws of a landslide defeat. The political conditions of our time are unpredictable. For the Tories to get through Brexit negotiations and a leadership change in one piece will be some achievement. If they do not manage it, then public opinion could look very different in a couple of years to how it looks now. Therefore, the idea that we have reached ‘Peak Corbyn’ feels very premature with a fair amount of wishful thinking thrown in for good measure.

Keiran Pedley



Listen to the PB / Polling Matters local elections recap below.