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Labour’s poll hiccup

Political people are a fragile lot. It doesn’t take much for herds of us to start quaffing at the Last Chance Saloon. Two polls – admittedly “gold standard” polls – place Labour two points behind the Conservatives. Not ideal at all, far from it. Then one of the them, the ICM poll for the Graun, puts Labour trailing UKIP AND the Tories in next week’s European elections. Not the music of an election victory party echoing from the future to the present. Naturally, two swallows don’t a summer make but the excellent reputations ICM and Lord Ashcroft have, and these results’ congruence with converging poll trends point to movement in the minds of the electorate, and that movement is not to the red team’s benefit.

So what on Earth is going on, and what can be done about it? As you might expect, everyone’s offering their two penneth and dispensing advice. My stat-happy comrade Éoin Clarke offers 10 points for consideration. They include atoning loudly and often for past mistakes – a stratagem which, in my opinion, hands the Tories both the initiative and a get out of jail free card for their own record. And something called “economic nationalism”. Hmmm. Mark Ferguson writing on LabourList demands all hands on deck. The party needs shaking out of its torpor, he argues. Mary Dejevsky sets her sights on personnel change and calls for Ed to drop his Balls. And, as usual, Dan Hodges rolls us some finest despair and invites Labour supporters to take a drag

Dan argues in a fashion the most mechanical Marxist would find embarrassingly clunky that an improving economy = incumbent poll leads. He also argues that part of Labour’s problem is that it expects the electorate to come to it, rather than the other way round. That may well be true. For example, voters are in favour of renationalising rail, utilities, and Royal Mail. They want more people to pay a 50% income tax rate. And, among other things, they want to see the back end of Academies. Labour are only shuffling towards those positions, if at all. Dan also notes the party “isn’t credible” on the economy; that talking about a ‘cost of living crisis’ gifts the Tories an open goal. I imagine his advice would be for Labour, say, to commit itself to the government’s projected spending plans for a post-election interval to dampen down jitters and uncertainty. Someone tell Ed Balls. And, Dan being Dan, there’s Ed Miliband’s hex-factor, of which more in a moment.

While these rebuttals undermine Dan’s argument for a re-run of 1997, the point is on his two crucial measures – listening to “the people” and establishing “economic credibility” – Labour is already occupying that ground, so why has the poll lead melted? I think the arguments by Andy and Hopi are persuasive. First off, the general election polls are inflected by the hype surrounding UKIP’s surge. Its “sod the lot of them” message has and will continue to attract support among “normal people”. And despite the hopes of some professional commentators who should know better, UKIP ain’t going anywhere. Both Andy’s and Hopi’s argument point to the same problem – for Andy, the way our antiquated electoral system works incentivises the chasing of a putative middle ground in key marginals which has a blanding effect on politics. Hopi’s points build on this by suggesting that the disjuncture between a perceived Westminster elite and the rest means people have little faith in politics any more. Hence whether you shrink or widen Labour’s “offer” doesn’t really matter, no one believes things can change. And in that situation the incumbent holds all the advantages.

Then there is the Ed factor. Moan as much as you like, despite efforts at making British elections more presidential people tend to vote for the party, not the leader. In fact, a study based on the 1992 elections – the last time ‘leadership’ was deemed a significant factor by the media – it was found to have a negligible effect on overall outcomes. Is it likely to have changed qualitatively in the years since? With the declining power of unaccountable media frames, I doubt it. Sure, Ed is awkward and wonky, but do people seriously think replacing him with Yvette Cooper, who – let’s face it – is pretty much the same, will make any difference? Time and again, history shows ditching leaders in the short run up to elections is doomed. Remember Australia?

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. There are no magic wands to hand. The only way to tackle anti-politics, as Lord Ashcroft’s study of UKIP voters found was for Tories, and by extension Labour, is for parties to keep their promises, demonstrate evidence their policies are working, and show leadership on a range of issues. That’s easier for an incumbent. For Labour, to win demands we turn up the activism – it’s no accident bad polling comes at a time the party hasn’t really made an effort in these European elections. It’s necessary to tackle the Tories, UKIP, anti-politics, and voter abstentionism head on. They’re the enemies. The LibDems, the Greens, the far left; they’re distractions. And finally, I’ve blogged many times about Labour being trapped between principle and expediency – in short, we need more leadership. More unambiguous ‘Labour will do this, Labour will do that”. No shilly-shallying, no prevarication, no denying the radicalism of what’s being proposed. Let’s grab UKIP’s ground and who what a real alternative looks like. In short, though the tinder is damp with cynicism Labour has to strive to capture the popular imagination. Difficult, yes. But there is no other way.

This post first appeared at All that is Solid

18 Comments

  1. Andy Newman says:

    Thanks for the kind words, and for pointing to Hopi’s excellent article, which I had missed

  2. Dave Roberts says:

    Phil you ave more or less summed up the problems in what you said and what you didn’t say. It’s necessary to tackle the Tories,UKIP, anti politics and voter abstentionism head on”. I totally agree and for that reason immigration and its effect on housing, schools and social services will have to be addressed by Labour, this article doesn’t do that and neither does Labour.

    Unfortunately for Miliband he is seen as a weak leader, performs badly at question time, hasn’t been able to pin declining standards of living on the Tories and is now facing a recovering economy, or recovering enough for most people who are likely to vote.

    Until Labour takes the bull by the horns and confronts immigration as the issue that most voters are concerned about it will remain in opposition.

  3. Ric Euteneuer says:

    There’s a tendency – within Progress at least – that has not missed a single chance to badmouth and undermine Ed since his election, and who still dream of Miliband (D) riding in on his white charger and winning the election for our centre right groupscule.

    1. Mark Webster says:

      The last time I saw D. Milliband on TV he was talking about the importance of ensuring that women in refugee camps all had torches so they could find their way to the toilets. As he’s now found his level I doubt he’ll be returning anytime soon.

  4. Mark1957 says:

    As is so often the case, the left is it’s own worst enemy.

    We spend our time raging against each other rather than the right, the number of people I’ve spoken too who have said “I usually vote Labour, but this time it is UKIP”, is astounding and depressing.

    The numbers I see on forums saying “Labour are the same as the Tories” is alarming, to say the least.

    Why isn’t the Labour message being heard, or when it is, why is it being dismissed?

    1. PoundInYourPocket says:

      Fortunately I haven’t met any confirmed Labour to UKIP converters, however I agree, that he Labour message isn’t getting through. There are too many people on the door-step saying “I won’t vote” , “they’re all the same”, “it makes no difference”.
      We need to show voters that their vote will make a difference, and that means presenting a clear difference and dividing line between Labour and Tory policy. Otherwise they have a point, it doesn’t make such a difference. I’d like to be able to say with confidence. “Look – this is how your vote for Labour will make a difference for you”. But that approach is hamperred by the lack of clear vision and bold policy. Hopefully we’ll have something soon we can build into a posiive narrative and start to sell.

      1. Mark1957 says:

        The points I make are usually: Energy freeze, Rent control, more houses, fairer taxes, standing up to fat cats and saving the NHS.

        This is often met with ill-informed comments about immigration and how Labour got us into this mess.

        In my opinion allowing that last lie to stand unchallenged has been Labour’s biggest mistake…

      2. Mark1957 says:

        The points I make are usually: Energy freeze, Rent control, more houses, fairer taxes, standing up to fat cats and saving the NHS.

        This is often met with ill-informed comments about immigration and how Labour got us into this mess.

        In my opinion allowing that last lie to stand unchallenged has been Labour’s biggest mistake…

      3. Mark1957 says:

        The points I make are usually: Energy freeze, Rent control, more houses, fairer taxes, standing up to fat cats and saving the NHS.

        This is often met with ill-informed comments about immigration and how Labour got us into this mess.

        In my opinion allowing that last lie to stand unchallenged has been Labour’s biggest mistake…

  5. swatantra says:

    Its always been about personalities and not politics in this media savvy age. Agree that Yvette is no solution but a problem, and D Milliband had his chance in 2007 and missed it; he won’t be back. Whichever way you look at it, Labour are nothing like the Tories, so the electorate don’t know what they are talking about.

  6. David Ellis says:

    The objective conditions for successful opportunism, also known as reformism, have disappeared. Its last throw of the dice was Tony Blair’s Third Way and Gordon Brown’s Dodgy Growth Theory which exploded in 2008. New Labour is now just another Tory party that is failing to trickle down some of the super profits of imperialism to the labour aristocracy as it was set up to do mainly because there are none. Imperialism isn’t working. Globalisation is in reverse.

    UKIP do at least offer something radical. Race War and War on the Poor. Short term it’s true but with the middle classes and labour aristocracy perched on the edge of an economic precipise they need radical proposals and they need them now. They cannot wait any longer.

    This is where the left should be stepping in but what do we get? Left Unity doing a New Labour mini-me and neo-Stalinist sects apeing UKIP and cheer leading for Putin. Without a radical programme for the transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialism the far right will step in and will win.

    1. PoundInYourPocket says:

      The “dictatorship of the proletariat”.
      I didn’t realise anyone still used this style of language. I thought I was as left as you could get , but really , the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Have you any idea of the vision of horror that phrase creates ? Are you still in the late 19th century ?

      1. David Ellisd says:

        Indeed for the opportunist the idea of the proletariat imposing its dictatorship over capital (full employment, living wage, etc) always causes nervous tension and headaches. Still with the begging bowl. That’s about as left as you get.

      2. David Ellis says:

        No doubt the idea of the working class imposing its dictatorship over capital through such measures as living wage and a regime of full employment (not just a wish for or policies in pursuit of) still gets pseudo lefties quaking in their boots.

        1. PoundInYourPocket says:

          There’s definitely a gulf between the “lefties” such as me and the hardcore 19th century hardcore such, perhaps, as yourself. I expect we would like the same thing , the problem is always the language we use or abuse. Whenever i hear the old phrases such as “the dictatorship of the proletariat” it sends a chill through my bones. That’s probably because I think of 1984 rather than utopia. Ideally I would readily dispense with capitalism and seek a mean of sharing resources on an egalitairian basis. But as ever no one has a clear prescription or vision for this post capitalist world , so we tolerate it. And no wonder we tolerate it if the best alternative is a “dictatorship of the prolatairiat” which conjoures up images of Stainist Russia. How about a more more appealing image if your trying to win us over to a post capitalist age ?

  7. William Jones says:

    “PIYP”.Whilst its interesting you make historical observations,of course I well remember the phrase of your username being used by Harold Wilson,was it in the 60’s!

  8. Ric Euteneuer says:

    Weird how 2 fairly mild comments here taking some points 2 other posters made get hacked out and deleted by the mods – a bit pathetic, truth be told. At least have the decency to let me know why they were deleted.

  9. David Pavett says:

    “In short, though the tinder is damp with cynicism Labour has to strive to capture the popular imagination. Difficult, yes. But there is no other way.”

    That is certainly true but doesn’t it raise the question of the point so often made in these columns that (1) Labour’s policies fall far short of providing the materials to make that possible, (2) Labour’s internal control freakery and lack of democracy make Party members cynical and (3) the Shadow Cabinet is full of jobsworth political careerists with hardly a radical idea to share between them.

    When it comes to Labour’s message not getting through I would like to ask those who say this “Just what is that message for education?”. Labour’s message on that has therefore got through to me. The problem is that it provides nothing to get enthusiastic about – as I have argued in this columns. Is Labour’s dreary educational performance the exception? If it is then which major policy area has Labour proposals that we can feel answer to our desire for transformative policies?

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