Team Corbyn learnt that Labour would lose the 2019 general election three months before a voter had gone to the polls. On September 22, the Sunday morning of the party’s annual conference in Brighton, John McDonnell walked with his wife, Cynthia, to a meeting room in the bowels of the Metropole hotel. What the shadow chancellor was about to find out would prove difficult to stomach.
In the last days of August, Niall Sookoo, Labour’s director of elections, and Tim Waters, its head of data, had commissioned a poll from YouGov that turned the optimism of Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle on its head. According to a poll of 20,000 voters, it would end the campaign with just 138 MPs — its worst result since 1918*.
Sookoo invited those who would run Labour’s campaign to this private meeting to warn them of the calamity ahead. With McDonnell and his wife sat Ian Lavery and Andrew Gwynne, the national campaign co-ordinators, and Carl Shoben, director of strategy from the leader of the opposition’s office. Nursing hangovers from the first night’s festivities, they convened at 9am and gathered round a television with Danish pastries to watch the Labour leader sit down for his traditional conference interview on The Andrew Marr Show on the BBC. McDonnell fidgeted with the remote control but could not get the TV to work. By the time room service arrived to provide technical support, Corbyn’s interview was over.
Lavery was in no mood to listen, even though the poll suggested he would lose his own seat of Wansbeck, in the heart of the Northumberland coalfield, to the Conservatives. “People in the north just won’t vote Tory,” he boomed. “It just won’t happen!” Waters suggested that he had misunderstood the nature of the problem: remainers were abandoning Labour. The Liberal Democrats would almost quadruple their 2017 result and win 44 seats, overturning majorities of more than 20,000. They would also deprive Labour of enough votes in “leave” seats to let the Tories in through the middle. The Conservatives were even projected to win Vauxhall, where 78% voted Remain, thanks to a Lib Dem surge at Labour’s expense.
McDonnell listened in silence. His worst fears had been realised: despite his best efforts to cajole Corbyn into supporting a second referendum, Labour was repelling pro-EU voters. As Waters sat down, the shadow chancellor delegated the inquisition to his wife. Cynthia, like Lavery, struggled at first to believe what she had been told. She had spent much of her career at market-research companies and queried whether the research was watertight.
An angry Lavery went further. YouGov, attendees recall him fuming, had been founded by card-carrying Conservatives, a charge he raised with Waters and Sookoo repeatedly. He insisted that they could not and should not trust a “Tory firm”.
There’s some fascinating excerpts in today’s Sunday Times about the Labour party’s 2019 general election campaign, there’s some absolute corkers like ‘When Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader, invited [Labour deputy leader Tom] Watson to defect and run in Lewes, he considered it, a friend said, “for five minutes”. Politics was no longer fun. It was time to go.’ and then there’s Corbyn acting like a petulant child during the campaign but for me the main thing was a YouGov poll commissioned for the Labour Party was dismissed because of they were a ‘Tory firm.’
Yes they were founded by someone who is now a Tory MP but that’s irrelevant anyway, YouGov has a consistently good track record in polling. Their MRP in 2017 turned out to be very accurate when most of their competitors were indicating a decent Tory majority in 2017. Their track record in leadership elections has been spot on for nearly twenty years.
Quite simply their brand would be ruined if their methodology was a pro Tory position, additionally thanks to the BPC we can see the methodology of the pollsters, so it is very difficult, if not impossible, to hide a biased methodology. Such things would have been exposed a long time ago. Whilst I have doubts that Vauxhall would have gone Tory I can understand how such an MRP might have shown such a thing, with 2019 being one the most volatile political years I can recall, the odd quirk like this can happen.
When the likes of Mike Smithson, Britain Elects, Matt Singh, and myself tweeted polls between 2015 and 2019 Corbynite supporters regularly replied that YouGov were a Tory firm and their figures could be ignored. I viewed these people as idiots, I had no idea the chairman of the Labour party shared such views, it probably explains why Labour got absolutely smashed in 2019 and is now experiencing an existential crisis because such idiocy was emanating from the very top of the Labour party.
If the likes of Lavery and Corbyn were in denial about the polling it might explain why they agreed to an early election, they thought Corbyn could work his magic again, but that was a forlorn hope as the electorate got to know him better. Jo Swinson and Jeremy Corbyn agreeing to an early election will go into the annals of great electoral blunders, up there with James Callaghan not going for a 1978 general election and Mrs May going for a snap election in the expectation of achieving a 294 seat majority.
*1931 was a worse defeat than 2019.