At some point LAB will take the lead
Labour has not led in any GB poll since 28 July 2019, four days after Boris Johnson succeeded Theresa May as Prime Minister. They did so with a share of just 30%: one more than the Tories and one less than the combined Lib Dem and Brexit Party shares. It seems a lot more than eleven months ago.
Clearly, a huge amount has changed since then but the Tory position at the top of the polls has not. This isn’t all that unusual. Prime ministers usually give their parties a boost on taking office, and parties winning election – especially when they’ve gained seats in doing so – will tend to extend their lead in the aftermath too, which is what happened.
Following the December election, every poll through to late May gave the Tories a double-digit lead, with all bar one of them in excess of the 11.8% advantage at the election. At the peak, in late-March through to mid-April, in the period immediately after the Coronavirus lockdown, the Conservatives routinely led by more than 20% and four times hit 26%.
We should note in passing that Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader on April 4 didn’t make any great impact on those numbers. Labour’s problems clearly ran well beyond Jeremy Corbyn as an individual and the previous five years have deeply tainted their brand as a party.
From there though, the decline in the Con lead has been marked, falling around 15% in May: from about 20 down to five per cent. There are of course multiple causes of that; Cummings’ bolt to Durham, the Covid-19 death figures, Starmer demonstrably getting a grip on Labour, to name but three. The question now ought to be how long it will be before Labour secure a poll lead?
In truth, it oughtn’t be that long, for three reasons. Firstly, history. We’re approaching seven months since the election. That’s usually around the timespan by which the government falls behind in the polls. Clearly, each parliament is different, faces unique challenges and opts to take different policy choices, and this one has been more unusual than most. Even so, a glance at the record shows a good degree of consistency. These are the periods before the opposition first recorded a lead since 1979:
1979: 7 weeks (first poll of the parliament)
1983: 8 months
1987: 10 months
1992: 3½ months
1997: 3 years, 4 months
2001: 2 years
2005: 7 months
2010: 4½ months
2015: 10 months
2017: 2 days
Obviously, there’s quite a spread there but of those 10 occurrences, four land in the 7-10 month frame, with four below that and two above it. Notably, the four shortest honeymoons were for four of the five smallest majorities (including minority / coalition governments) – 2015 being the exception, another example of Corbyn underperformance. Similarly, the two longest honeymoons were for the government that won the two biggest landslides. On that basis, Johnson ought to be looking at getting on for a year.
However, he might not get there, not least for the second reason: margin of error. The average poll lead is now small enough that it might well only take one outlier to eliminate it entirely. Outliers are, by their nature, rare – and twice as rare for them to be in a particular direction i.e. in this case, pro-Lab. Still, there’s no saying when chance might throw one in.
However, it’s the third factor which is the most potent: political fundamentals. Keir Starmer has a considerable lead over Boris Johnson in terms of favourability, and is more-or-less level in ‘Best PM’ rating. Labour, as mentioned earlier, still has some way to go to win back the public’s trust but against that, the Conservatives have overseen a response to Covid-19 that’s been poor by international standards, and the economic effects of the lockdown are beginning to be felt on a wide spectrum, with job losses being announced regularly. With Covid-19 cases still in the mid-hundreds per day and local lockdowns still a risk, the chances of a V-shaped recovery seem low as even those businesses and other organisations which are in a position to begin recruiting again are likely to be wary in doing so.
The government does still have things going for it politically. The coalition it put together on Brexit isn’t likely to fracture too much while Brexit remains a live issue, as it will through to the end of the year at least. Also, there’s no obvious challenger on the right. The Conservatives retain a much higher floor to their support than they did in 2019.
All the same, I reckon that chances are that Labour will score its first poll lead in around a year before the beginning of September.