Monday, 7 October 2019

Can Labour surge again?

So, first things first: welcome back after the summer break! It’s been nice not to have to think about politics and public policy for a while, hasn’t it? Though that brings us to second things second: the deadening pass-the-turd that passes for political life in the United Kingdom these days. Sorry, but it’s got to be done – and, given that you’re here, you might as well come along for the ride.

Given the looming near-certainty of a General Election, this month we thought we’d take a really close look at the likely prospects for such a contest. Away from the rather tawdry prospect of what one might laughably call the Government’s ‘ideas’, and its hyperventilating throw-it-all-at-the-wall approach to Brexit, the great standing fact in British politics these days is just how unpopular the Opposition is. Will that last all the way through a campaign? Let’s take a look.

Labour is very unpopular. In fact, both the party and particularly its histrionic eye-rolling leader, Jeremy Corbyn, are not so much unpopular as extraordinarily, cosmically, stratospherically loathed. There’s never been an Opposition this low in the polls just before a General Election (of which, more in a moment), and there’s never been a Leader of the Opposition who’s this unpopular. It’s hard to look beyond that to see them forming a new government.

But Labour also plumbed the depths of public opprobrium early in 2017, managing to lose a byelection that should never have been in doubt and to take a fearful hammering in that year’s local elections. Just a few weeks later, in early June, they got to 40 per cent in the popular vote – some fifteen points above where they stood early in that year’s election campaign.

We think there were four reasons for this. The first was that Labour were able to bring their undecided or wavering ex-voters back, whether it was from other parties, don’t know or wouldn’t vote. Secondly, Mr Corbyn’s own ratings improved as he moved into campaign mode – since he’s hopeless at running anything, but actually very good at rallies. Thirdly, Labour put out some really popular policies that attracted the attention of an electorate weary of seven years of public sector spending cuts. Fourth and last, the polls probably always undersold Labour, since some pollsters were putting on ‘likely voter’ screens that turned out to be based on inaccurate calls on turnout by age and outlook. So, can Labour repeat the trick? Let’s look at each of those factors in turn.

1. Don’t know and won’t vote. When Labour reached its polling nadir in the second half of April 2017, many of their voters were in a funk. They had been put off Labour by its revolving door of rows and splits, and frankly they thought Mr Corbyn a liability. In the YouGov poll of 18-19 April 2017, 22 per cent of people who’d voted Labour in 2015 said that they didn’t know who they’d vote for, or they wouldn’t vote. The figure for the Conservatives? Just 11 per cent. Then something happened that very few observers had taken nearly seriously enough: these voters started to return to their previous colours. Under conditions of forced choice, what else could they do? Vote Conservative? Many of them had cultural, familial and ideological objections to that, whatever their doubts about the new model Labour Party. So the squeeze was on – and in YouGov’s last pre-election poll, that figure for ex-Labour don’t knows plus won’t votes was down to just seven per cent.

What’s the situation now? Well, there’s still that gap between ex-Labour protestors that might come home and the same figure for the Conservatives. Except this year, it’s somewhat smaller. The last three YouGov polls have seen that weak disaffiliation run at between 17 and 20 per cent for Labour, versus 13 to 14 per cent for the Tories – a smaller gap than in 2017, but a gap nonetheless. So there’s less opportunity for a squeeze here, and of course there’s also less room to power up from other parties’ numbers – because the Liberal Democrat surge is allowing liberal Labourites and Remainers to adhere to a new loyalty that often feels stronger and more pressing than their older view of the dichotomy between Left and Right. Labour can still put the heat on these voters, especially because very few Liberal Democrats think they’re actually going to win an election, but it looks like a less likely source of votes than it once did.

2. How high can Corbyn climb? During the last election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn pushed his numbers up very quickly – even more quickly, in fact, than Neil Kinnock managed during Labour’s well-managed and glossily-packaged 1987 campaign. Alas, that still put him underwater by polling day (at -11 with Ipsos-Mori), but just a few weeks before, in Mori’s March survey, he’d been at -41. It was a phenomenal achievement, in part linked to the popular policies he was espousing (such as the end of undergraduate tuition fees in England), but also the fact that he just believed what he was saying. He’s been opposing Tory austerity from one end of a megaphone all his life. Small wonder he proved to be good at it.

Gallingly for both his own best interests and Labour’s, things went south again pretty quickly after that. Corbyn and his key allies spent all their political capital in disappointing factional battle after scarcely believable blunder after badly handled falsehood. Instead of reaching out, they doubled down. And so Corbyn’s numbers fell again, so much so that now they’re even worse than just before the 2017 campaign. His Ipsos-Mori rating is now at -60 (the worst ever for an Opposition leader).

We should again be cautious here. Then, Corbyn’s ‘best Prime Minister’ rating fell to 14 per cent with YouGov: in May 2019, he bottomed out at again at about the same level – 15 per cent. Interestingly, too, there’s just a few signs of life here. Some of Mr Corbyn’s approval and performance ratings have begun to recover a little, driven by Remainers warming to him just slightly. You can track the numbers by checking in with this very interesting Twitter account, which we recommend. All this looks to us like Mr Corbyn can indeed recover again, just like Ed Miliband did in 2017. But it’s a deeper hole than before. Are those real signs of life? Or just the wiggling legs of an upturned Texan armadillo cooking in the desert? It’s not entirely clear, but if we had to bet, we’d say it’s all uphill from here.

3. Labour’s new policies. What a great big slice of the public really wants is just some respite from the torture their political class have been putting them through. Brexit: make it stop. Austerity: take it away. Public services: get them working. You get the picture. So when Labour in 2017 came out with a load of anti-austerity spending plans, albeit ones that were so fuzzily funded they looked like a blurry shot of Bigfoot striding through the mountains, people liked it. More police officers? Great. No more cuts to schools and hospitals? Super. Fighting the rising scourge of homelessness? Sign us up. So far, so explicable - and right. More deeply, the understandable feeling has risen and risen among the electorate that there’s much that’s not fair and not right about British capitalism. That’s natural enough after nine years of right-wing government. So a dash of nationalisation and a side order of redistribution went down nicely. Polls show that a number of Labour’s flagship policies were and are (more or less) popular.

Now, there’s more room for doubt. Both quantitative and qualitative evidence shows that the more radical shores of Corbynism 2.0 unveiled or passed at Labour’s recent conference are not going to go down nearly so smoothly. Abolish private schools? The public don’t like that idea one bit. Step in to save the travel agent Thomas Cook? No – in widescreen. Big likely increases in Inheritance Tax via a lifetime gift tax, possible land taxes, extra income tax rises to fund all of Labour’s even bigger spending plans that time round, freer movement of peoples, state pharma, even a four day week – most voters are unlikely to think of these as the radical, but still plausible and believable, plans they heard in 2017. It’s not clear in what state any of this will make Labour’s manifesto, of course, but if it sounds like that shopping list, fewer voters will go out and buy it.

4. Counting the voters. One reason pollsters missed the Conservative majority of 2015 was down to turnout. They were, quite simply, sampling the wrong people. Their ‘frame’ was out. Older, conservative Britons were just more likely to actually turn up on the day. So some of the pollsters – notably ComRes, which pointed out the discrepancy on the eve of poll in 2015 – started to weight all their numbers like that. Young, urban, renting? Your scores got marked down a bit. What this meant – when for instance older Britons appalled by Theresa May’s proposed social care charges sat out the 2017 election – was a set of polls out in the other direction, scratching off some Labour numbers and puffing up the Tory score. That’s a very, very crude description of what was going on, and we wince to write it. But stay with us here.

This time, there’s a bit of feeling about that the polls might be overstating Labour slightly. The party’s final polling average just before the European Parliament elections was about 19 per cent. They actually got 14 per cent of the vote in Great Britain. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, were registering at about 16 per cent in those same polls, but they managed to attract 20 per cent of the vote. Something kept the Labour numbers too high, and pegged back the Liberal Democrats. What seems to be happening is that pollsters who weight by recalled past vote – ComRes, for instance – are boosting the Labour vote share. People are forgetting they voted Labour, and to beef up the ‘2017 Labour’ share of the sample, surveyors are pulling more Labourites in. That inflates both the number of past Labour voters and the Labour score in the final voting intention headlines, as work by both Kantar and YouGov has demonstrated (both open as PDF).

So there we have it. Some of the context now looks like 2017. In particular, the number of ex-Labour voters wary of saying they’ll vote Labour next time is not vastly lower than in 2017 – though there are indeed fewer of them. Jeremy Corbyn’s numbers have already started to show a tiny bit of life, though on some measures he’s starting from lower down this time. But other elements, both in terms of Labour’s new and more Corbynite stance as well as geeky details hidden deep within the polling methodology, militate somewhat in the other direction. Can Labour climb again? Yes. Will they? Almost certainly. Will it be as steep an upward curve as last time? It looks unlikely.

Here’s the real kicker, though. The lift-off doesn’t have to be as vertiginous. Some – but only some – of the elements that made for Labour’s afterburners last time are there again. Some of them might not work as well this time, but they don’t have to. That's because the Tories are lower, and not so far ahead. If we look at the polling averages, they’re about eight points in front of Labour, not the 16 per cent of April 2017. Boris Johnson is nowhere near as popular as Theresa May was then: his Ipsos-Mori score is -18 to Mrs May’s +13 just before the 2017 campaign. Yes, voters think of Mr Corbyn as an unpalatable mix of Wolfie Smith and Keith from Nuts in May – but in Mr Johnson he faces a nasty old cross between Billy Bunter and South Park’s Cartman. Shilling shop Rasputin versus penny shop Disraeli: no wonder voters are uncertain.

To reiterate: can Labour surge once more? Yes. Can the same forces behind their 2017 surprise work for them again? Not to the same extent. Will they achieve critical velocity this time? No-one knows. They can and might close the gap enough to govern as a minority. That’s all we know. Sorry, but them’s the facts. As we always say: it’s not nothing, but it is something.