Thursday, 13 November 2014

The day Labour truly began to fear its fate


Yesterday was the day that the UK Labour Party really began to feel that it might lose the next General Election. It had always known that, of course - with a relatively unpopular leader, the public mainly still blaming Labour for recession and austerity, and with not all that much cash to fight an election campaign, its chances of coming out with an overall majority were always fairly slim.

But now the party can actually viscerally, emotionally, truly, madly and deeply touch the great danger it is in. Labour's recent polling numbers are dire. It has now touched 29 per cent - the same score as in its disastrous 2010 election showing - in three separate polls. The detail in the latest, from Ipsos-Mori, is devastating. Not every poll is full of doom and gloom, and it's important to look at all of them rather than just the ones that make a big impression on our emotions and our senses: Labour's lead in the daily YouGov series, for instance, has actually gone up to a whole three per cent this week. But even saying that, the electorate have clearly concluded that they are not impressed by Ed Miliband (above) and although that judgement is rather unfair, there now seems little that Labour can do about that except make a virtue of his toughness and continuing stickability. That's what he attempted to do today in quite a good speech (since you ask), actually - though most of the voters will either never hear those words, or will have stopped really listening some time ago.

What should really make Labour MPs worry about the situation that's now unfolding is some of the economic data that we've been getting. On the same day as the Ipsos-Mori data should have made them choke on their dinners, word came in that average earnings were finally outstripping the rise in prices. After the worst fall in real wages since the late nineteenth century - the squeeze on bottom, middle and top that Mr Miliband has made such hay with - last month was only the second in this Parliament when pay went up year-on-year. What that means is that even the bread and butter agenda that Labour has quite rightly been pushing - for controls on energy prices and predatory banks - will now begin to have much more resonance.

It was a tiny little rise, of 0.1 per cent, but it matters a lot in terms of the election narrative. Private sector pay rises were a bit better, and since very low inflation is probably going to be with us for some time to come, it does now look as if pay packets will be just a little bit bigger going into the election. That might explain why there was a hint about renewed economic optimism in the Ipsos-Mori data: why 42% now think things will get better over the next year, against only 23% who think they'll get worse.

Put that together with Labour's ever-worsening situation in Scotland - Ipsos-Mori actually had the Scottish National Party touching 60% of the Scottish vote in its sub-sample from that country - and overall net seat losses are now possible. No wonder Alec Salmond, the SNP's now ex-leader and outgoing First Minister of Scotland, is so chipper. He lost the referendum campaign by quite some margin, but Labour's rudderless post-referendum turning in on itself has gifted him the after game. It's possible that the SNP will now win between 30 and 35 seats in the General Election, making itself the third party in the UK Parliament and possibly making the House of Commons completely unmanageable if they refuse to enter into a coalition with anyone.

It'll be tight. The best modelling we have suggests that Labour might still be the biggest party. But deep in their souls, the party has begun to fear going backwards and not pushing forwards come May 2015. That's what's behind the vicious and ruthless attack on Labour's less-than-popular leader. The blood in the water is attracting the sharks: Labour's rivals and enemies can smell their weakness and their uncertainty.

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