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The hurricane on Labour’s horizon

September 21st, 2019

Labour can’t rely on election campaign miracles every time

As Labour gathers for its annual attempt to spread a veneer of forced goodwill over ruthless power-plays, rather like a Game of Thrones family Christmas, they ought to be asking a rather different introspective question than ‘how does Momentum increase its control?’. They should be asking ‘how do we get out of this disastrous polling position?’. They almost certainly won’t.

Because the truth is that Labour’s polling position – buttressed by real votes in real elections – is appalling. It’s easy for familiarity to breed complacency. With the polls having Labour’s share hovering around 25% on average since the European elections four months ago, these are numbers we’re now used to so rather than being shocked, we just accept them as the new normal.

The reality though is that the latest poll of each of the ten companies to have released results based on fieldwork carried out this month put Labour between 21% and 28% (inclusive). Even the best of these is slightly below what Labour polled in 1983, when their GB share was 28.3%; everything else would certainly be their worst result since 1918. As the two polling companies whose polling got closest to the actual result at the EP election (also the two companies least likely to be affected by false voter recall) give Labour 21% and 24% respectively, chances are the true share is at the bottom end of that range.

Put another way, these polls imply that Labour has lost almost half its vote – over six million voters – since the 2017 election.

It’s true that the Tories are also well down on their own 2017 share: the same ten polls put them in the 28-38 range with an average of 32 and shares from Mori/YouGov of 32-33. That’d be a decline of around 10%, equating to a quarter of their 2017 vote or around 3.5 million votes. That’s bad but in the context of a worse Labour decline, it’s still a net swing to the Blues.

These voting intention figures are backed up by other data. This month’s Mori leader satisfaction ratings saw Corbyn poll the worst-ever net rating for a Leader of the Opposition since the series began in 1977: -60. That’s around 30 points worse than Hague going into the 2001 election or Kinnock going into the 1987 one; it’s 15 points worse than Foot’s rating two months before the 1983 poll.

As this tweet notes, there’s a clear (but not always consistent) relationship between the gap in leader ratings and the eventual election result. Although we don’t yet have this month’s rating for Johnson, the most recent figure that we do have implies a very healthy Con majority.

If you prefer real votes we could equally take the local by-election results this week. Labour’s vote declined in all six. Or looking a little further back, Labour’s vote share suffered double-digit declines in the two summer Westminster by-elections (note that while Labour started in third in Brecon this year, when Blair was leading Labour back towards government, Labour put on vote share in similar by-elections such as Littleborough & Saddleworth or Perth & Kinross – being squeezed isn’t inevitable in such circumstances). Alternatively, we could look at the EP elections, where Labour finished third, with fewer votes than the Lib Dems – the first time that’d happened in a national poll since 1910; Labour failed to win a single constituency.

Of course, this might not matter. The election won’t be tomorrow; it might not be for months. Much could change between now and then. There will be an election campaign and Corbyn might perform another miracle to match the one from 2017 but it’s unlikely.

2017 has entered Labour mythology but the truth is that the cards fell perfectly for Corbyn. Having called the election on the issue of Brexit – where the Tories were reasonably strong at the time – Nick Timothy then sabotaged the Conservative campaign by producing a manifesto which was massively unpopular and which also had the effect of dragging the election debate onto domestic policy where Corbyn was far more comfortable. On top of which, Theresa May practically hid in a box for the duration, while Tim Farron wasted the Lib Dems’ media exposure by becoming embroiled in a bizarre controversy about Christianity and gay sex. They gave Corbyn a far clearer run than anyone expected, and made the most of it.

It would be optimistic in the extreme for Labour to expect such a favourable ride again (and of course, both Labour and Corbyn are more unpopular now than they were before the 2017 vote). Labour’s Brexit policy is confused and if the row over the Deputy Leadership is going to set the tone for Labour’s conference, chances are the divisions on Brexit policy won’t be healed. If so, the question of whether Labour is an ‘in’ or ‘out’ party will dog them throughout the campaign.

Labour could quite simply be sleepwalking into a catastrophe the like of which they cannot imagine. It’s easy for commentators to slip into the comfort zone, predicting small changes. Most elections do produce relatively small changes. However, the electorate is becoming ever more transactional and identifying less with parties, as this very good Prospect article explains and inertia only takes you so far. As happened in Scotland this decade or across the UK in the 1920s, change, when it comes, can come quickly and ruthlessly. No party has a right to the top table (Boris Johnson and co might want to take note there too, in passing).

This isn’t to say that Labour will suffer the kind of wipe-out that Scottish Labour did in 2015 (which actually just repeated what happened in 2011); not straight away anyway. But there is a whole dashboard of warning lights flashing. They should not be ignored.

David Herdson