Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The odd tale of Labour's rising poll numbers

Britain's local elections were pretty much a triumph for the Conservatives, as we outlined last week. And the party looks more than on course to win the General Election on 8 June with a substantially larger majority. But relatively unnoticed, and against expectations, the main Opposition Labour Party's numbers have begun to creep up - and by quite a lot. From their pitiful position in the mid-20s, and after a year in which they'd crept downwards in the polls almost every single week, there's been a sudden reversal of lots of those losses. Now you might very crudely say that the party sits on about 30 per cent in the polls - a big and meaningful improvement. What's behind this rather better news for the red team? Let's take a look.

Let Corbyn be Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn was an abysmal Leader of the Opposition. He only escapes the moniker 'worst since 1945' via the sheer existence of Iain Duncan Smith, a man so unsuited to winning over actual voters that Michael Howard seemed like a ray of sunshine. Lethargic, laggardly and frankly uninterested in Parliament, Mr Corbyn's leadership style meant he couldn't even stock a Labour Front Bench with people willing to work with him, let alone take on the Government. But freed from the constraints of boring old stuff like meetings, agendas, briefings and numbers, he looks much better. He likes campaigning. He clearly enjoys it. The small- to medium-sized slice of the country that likes his brand of socialism warm to him. They buoy him up. His confidence grows, and so he gives better speeches. Standing on the stump shouting about 'evil Tories', and surrounded by adoring crowds (above), he looks better on TV too. There's a little bit of enthusiasm and excitement to the images coming out of Labour - along with some very popular policies (and savvy media tricks) that have garnered the party really good headlines for day after day after day. All of which means that Mr Corbyn's numbers have begun to improve as he gets a tick from voters thinking 'at least he seems passionate. At least he seems to believe what he says'. Most voters haven't paid all that much attention to him before. Now they take their first looks, they think 'he's not quite as bad as people say'. Let's not get carried away. His polling is still dire. But he's climbed out of a polling dungeon and made it to a set of dingy underground library stacks. Next stop: the basement.

Campaigning in prose. You can contrast this fly-by-night style with that of the Prime Minister. Whisper it softly (and we've noted this before), but Theresa May is a terrible campaigner. Stiff, starchy, heavy on her feet, ill-at-ease with people, it's actually hard not to feel a little bit sorry for her personally - thrust into a campaigning environment in which she is obviously no natural. She appears only in empty factories, in front of Conservative activists, meeting local businesspeople, all the while trying to keep a grimace from her face. Eating chips? Going to a market? Talking to real people? She looks like she's never done any of it before in her whole life. Added to this are some vote-shedding blunders. Now Mrs May has votes a-plenty. She can probably afford to lose five points, let alone worry about Labour adding that amount, before she even needs to shift out of neutral. But remember two things about the British electorate. One: it's quite old, and getting older very rapidly. Two: Brits are on the whole a breed of animal-lovers. Refusing to commit to the triple lock on raising state pensions (by the greater of inflation, wages or 2.5%), and talking about bringing back fox hunting, amount to basically throwing some votes away because you know you can get away with it. But they won't attract many more Labour switchers, that's for sure.

Labour returnees. Our overwhelming impression of this election is that this country is chock full of Labour waverers - people who say 'well, I'm normally Labour, but I don't like Jeremy'. That has been confirmed to us anecdotally, from canvassing rumours, and in focus groups. It's just a standing fact. There's nothing Labour can do about that now: but what's helping them is Labour leaners returning 'home' now that there's a forced choice between 'Labour' (not 'Corbyn') and 'the Tories'. Labour's roots in England and Wales go very, very deep. It is the party of the National Health Service, public sector workers, The Guardian, The Mirror, the trade unions, the universities, teachers, social workers, liberals, socialists and more. And right now, they have nowhere else to go - especially as the Liberal Democrats' campaign seems oddly stalled (we'll come to them in another post). So they're reluctantly shuffling back into the red column. At the nadir of Labour's fortunes, when they polled just 23% in a YouGov poll on 12-13 April, just 68 per cent of Labour's 2015 voters were sticking with them. On the latest count, that's up to 80 per cent. In some ways, that's all you need to know. A good 30 per cent or so of the electorate might still just 'be' Labour, rather than choosing Labour - a remarkable achievement, when you come to think about it. It's not enough to win an election, sure, but it's still a big slice of the British people. Even Jeremy Corbyn couldn't alienate them. One wonders what would.

The return of two-party politics. Mr Corbyn and Mrs May are polarising figures, in a way, not so much in Mrs May's case because of her (almost entirely nugatory) political personality, but because of her apparent determination to lead a Hard Brexit government. Mr Corbyn enthuses young people, students and some disaffected middle class professionals - but almost no-one else. Still, you know (or think you know) what they stand for. In a complex age made all the more confusing by a blizzard of information on social media, they have 'cut through' - for good or ill. Their opponents seem paralysed. The United Kingdom Independence Party are completely eclipsed by the Conservatives' new ownership of all that UKIP used to stand for. The Liberal Democrats attempt to stand as 'the party of Europe', although pretty much all that was open to them as definition and campaign tool, seems to be failing because most Britons accept their fate outside the European Union with some equanimity. UKIP is losing vote share hand over fist, while the Lib Dems have (less noticeably) lost a couple of points. And although a lot of that UKIP vote is boosting the Conservatives, a slice of it will go back from whence it came - the Labour Party - as some of the council results from a couple of weeks back suggest. Labour is not only being boosted by its returnees: it's probably put on two per cent or so from UKIP and Lib Dem defectors.

Let's not over-egg the pudding here. Right now, Labour looks likely to lose about sixty to around eighty seats. All of this looks very much like the 1987 campaign, when a very weak and divided Labour Party surprised everyone with an energetic campaign that, for just a moment and in a trick of the light, even looked like it might carry the day. A mix of Labour returnees and UKIP-Lib Dem switchers is likely, geographically, to see the Labour vote hemmed into the party's heartlands and cities. They might lose even more seats than looks possible right now if that does indeed turn out to be the case, or those soft Labour voters do indeed decide to stay at home (note that in a way this would not be 'polling error' as such, but just Labour voters failing to turn up on the day... yet again).

Labour could lose scores of MPs even if they match their 2015 vote share of 31.2 per cent. And this little bump might be for nothing. It might peter out. The Conservatives are riding so, so high that just a bit of backsliding between now and 8 June, Labour waverers not making it to the booths, or some good old-fashioned sampling error could still turn a very, very bad defeat into a catastrophe. But Labour are definitely rising in the polls. We're not quite sure about the exact admixture of reasons. That's what makes the whole thing so fascinating.

1 comment:

  1. The idea that Corbyn's campaign in any way compares with the professionalism of 1987 is ridiculous. Yes, it preaches to choir in rallies, but this is more reminiscent of Foot in 1983. So far, we've had car crash interviews from Dawn Butler, Sarah Champion, Richard Burgon and, most notably, Diane Abbott - whose lack of grasp of her brief is celebrated in countless memes.