Tuesday 22 November 2016

Labour could be staring at a historic defeat

History matters in elections. In this year’s US Presidential contest, political science models based on past relationships – involving, for instance, incumbent popularity or economic growth – did better than short-term modelling based on opinion polls. Most such models predicted a very close race, which could go either way, and in some notable instances predicted a Trump victory. Local election results from the 2010-15 Parliament were the clue that allowed forecaster Matt Singh to predict that opinion polls were failing to pick up the true levels of party support running up to the UK’s 2015 General Election.

So if we want to look ahead to the next General Election, and for all opinion polling’s recent problems, it is probably still useful to look at where we are now in UK polling. It should be quite a simple job to look at present levels of support for Labour in Opposition, and the Conservatives in government, and to project what will happen next based on past experience. 

We've done this before, of course, and this is but the latest installment of a long-running series tracking Labour's chances, on the lines of historic trendlines, all the way to the next election - whenever it comes. We've had a go at these sums on three separate occasions - last November, then again in January, and for a third time in April. It's fair to say that none of it was particularly good news for Labour. In November we thought that they would win between 26% and 29% at the next election. In January those figures stood at 25% to 28%. In April, the average had improved a little - to 27% - but that pitiful number wasn't much to set Labour hearts aflame with hope. Perhaps nothing can, these days.

So - let's go again, to test how the main Opposition party's poll ratings are tracking past performance. Let’s start with the deficit between Labour’s numbers and those of the Conservatives. Right now, if we take each pollster in the field’s last results at an average, Labour is a long, long way behind – thirteen per cent or so. They have never before been so far behind while in Opposition at this stage of a Parliament, about nineteenth months following the previous General Election. The nearest they have come is the eight points by which Neil Kinnock’s Labour lagged the triumphant Thatcherite Conservative Party in December 1988. Oppositions have more often actually led the Government in the polls at this point: even in 1980, with Labour deeply divided, Michael Foot in his very early days as leader was able to enjoy an eleven-point lead over a very unpopular government struggling with high inflation and unemployment.

An even worse picture emerges when we look at what might happen between now and the next election. At no time in the modern era, if we take that as meaning the period since 1970, has Labour in Opposition gone up in the polls from this point (see above). They basically stood still between 1993 and 1997, as a youthful and popular Tony Blair managed to keep their ratings very high all the way through to an election: between October 1993 and May 1997 Labour’s polling score fell only by 0.4%. But they have more usually fallen quite a long way. The unwanted record for such a decline is held by Michael Foot’s Labour between 1980 and 1983 as the party split and threatened to break up altogether. In less than three years, Labour’s polling score fell by a huge 19.6%. In fact, the party has on average while in Opposition lost 7.2% from this point in the Parliament. Since the party now stands at 29%, that would imply a score of 21.8% at the next election.

It is possible to put a rather more positive gloss on these apocalyptic numbers. Labour at each General Election has been historically overestimated by polls – by perhaps 1.5%, or a little more. If pollsters’ new post-2015 methods have eliminated this polling error (a very generous assumption, but one which might prove sustainable), then 1.5% or even more of the expected polling ‘fall’ from this point to the next election has already been eliminated as an artefact of the polls alone. So given the extent of pollsters’ post-2015 reassessments Labour might actually hope to receive 23.3%, or even slightly more. Let’s avoid the perils of false specificity on as generous a basis as we can muster, and round this number up to 24%.

Realise this: Labour's rating is therefore failing to track even their pathetic polling performance over the winter, when on this exact basis the party might aspire - at best - to touch between 26.5% and 27.5%. Its numbers are still sagging, still dropping away from historic norms. It's like a slow puncture rather than a blow-out.

What, though, of the Conservative Government’s likely score? Well, at the moment they stand on average at 42%. The honeymoon effect of a new Prime Minister is probably still affecting this rating, although we should also bear in mind that the Conservatives still probably have a lot of scope to soak up UKIP voters if that party does implode in the way that certainly seems possible. In any case, the evidence since 1970 is that the Conservatives’ vote share at the next General Election might be a little higher than it is polling at the moment – by an average of 1.8% or so. Let’s again not be too precise, and call the gain 2%. That would see Theresa May’s party attracting 44% at the polls

The last stage of this analysis is to look at how these very rough figures might translate to numbers in the House of Commons. A result which saw Labour gain 24%, and the Conservatives 44%, would mean on old boundaries a Conservative overall majority of around 150, with Labour down on about 160 seats. On the new boundaries likely to come into force late in 2018, these shares of the popular vote would again give the Conservatives an absolute majority of perhaps 150 in a smaller 600-seat Commons, with only something like 150 Labour MPs returned. That would be the party’s worse showing since 1931

If Labour do indeed receive a score down in the lower- to mid-20s, and the Conservatives something over 40%, the next General Election will see Labour very badly, indeed historically, savaged: it is possible that the party will suffer a ringing, enduring defeat that will be hard to recover from in any near or foreseeable future. It should be stressed that this is a very crude way of looking at these numbers. Labour will probably do better in urban seats, and particularly in London, than this raw data suggests. And in these surprising political times, during which so little seems solid, Labour might somehow be able to escape the fate that its previous experiences suggest is likely. But right now, the historical auguries are very, very ominous indeed.

Note: an earlier version of this blog first appeared on The New Statesman Staggers Blog on Monday 21 November, under the title 'This is the Moment When Labour's Polling Gets a Lot, Lot Worse'.