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Labour, Corbyn and the polls

PollOfPollsJan2017Pollsters in the UK do not have a very good standing, having got the two most important voting tests of the last two years, the 2015 election and the 2016 EU referendum, wrong by significant margins. Nevertheless, they are collectively not completely at variance with the results, and an average of the results of polls over a period of time is probably a fair indication of the actual inclination of voters towards the various parties.

As would be expected there has been variation in the polls from month to month, but not significantly except for the two major time periods, namely from Corbyn’s accession in late September 2015 to the  referendum and coup in late June, and to the period since then. In the first period, (Pre-coup) Labour averaged about 31/32, not far behind the Tories on 33/34. In the second period (Post-coup) Labour averaged about 27/28, with the Tories much further ahead on 40/41.

During the pre-coup period there was constant criticism that Labour was in a far worse position in the polls than was normally the case for an opposition, and some comment distorted the position selectively, although some left comment sought to do this in the other direction. The truth, acknowledged by most reasonably fair observers, was that while Labour would have to do better to win there had been some good results, in the London and other Mayoral elections and in three out of four by-elections, while Labour had more or less held its own in council elections in England and the Assembly elections in Wales. The only really bad result was in Scotland, which could hardly be blamed on Corbyn as Labour’s rout there had occurred at the general  election before he became leader. The official BBC extrapolation of the results of the May elections indicated that Labour had eliminated the six point Tory lead at the 2015 election and was now one point ahead. Given the enormous upheaval that his accession to the leadership had generated it could not be fairly asserted that Labour under Corbyn was a disaster, with results consistent with those achieved under Brown and Miliband, and it was reasonable to believe that this could be built upon.

With Labour polling at three to four points below that in the post referendum/coup period there is obviously less reason for such optimism. So why is Labour now doing worse than before? There are probably three main reasons.

Firstly, the coup, given as a reason by Corbyn himself. The knowledge that three quarters of the parliamentary party that he leads expressed no confidence in him only six months ago must inevitably weaken the party’s attraction, and this can only be resolved by a new leader or a growth of confidence and support over time. However, calls from McCluskey and other supporters for the necessity of improvements in the polls will be tested against the results of the pending by-elections and the local elections in May. Without an improvement these could be dire, as there are no elections in the region most favourable to Labour, London, and they are otherwise concentrated on the County Councils in England which favour the Tories. If this is the case there could be calls for a change of leader, although another full leadership contest is unthinkable. The Tories could also call an election, which Labour couldn’t realistically oppose, and which would considerably increase their majority, at Labour’s expense.

Secondly, the situation brought about by the Brexit vote which has put Labour in an awkward position, as it must seek to support the position of most of its voters, to remain, while at the same time not alienating those who voted to leave. This has left the field open to the Lib-Dems to put themselves at the head of a second referendum now campaign, and is the reason for their huge success in the Richmond by-election and their good showing in the other by elections, and Labour’s poor showing in all of them. They have taken votes from Labour, although these have in part been replenished by pro Remain votes from the Tories and elsewhere, but the big losses have been pro Leave voters to UKIP and the Tories, although probably not enough for UKIP to capture seats from Labour. Labour therefore has no alternative to trying to retain those from both camps, and Keir Starmer is doing quite well in promoting such a position.

Thirdly, the failure to develop policy. The leadership election, with Corbyn’s ten pledges and even some of the better ideas from Owen Smith could have heralded the start of an intense discussion among a wide cross section of the membership, but this hasn’t happened, and there is a palpable sense of drift. At no level is policy being developed or clearly enunciated, and it must be if Labour is to gain the support it needs.

A recent Fabian article ‘Stuck. How Labour is too weak to live, and too strong to die’ concludes that Labour cannot win on its own, but might through some sort of pact with other parties, a proposal also floated by Compass. I am sceptical on both counts, partly because politics is so volatile at the moment that even a Labour victory in 2020 cannot be ruled out, although the current polls render that unlikely, and partly because a pact with the Lib-Dems would be difficult to bring about and would be very divisive. Some progress might be possible here through unofficial tactical voting.

If the Tories can deliver a Brexit within two years that looks reasonably satisfactory and is before any big economic downturn or industrial/banking exodus has taken place then they may be in with a chance, but that is unlikely in my view, and May’s government gives no indication that it has the faintest idea of what to do. If they fail the Tories would get the boot, and there could be a more general political realignment.

It is very difficult to divine what might happen in the next two years, and Labour may benefit from the stance it has taken over Brexit, but that needs to become apparent fairly soon.


  1. John P Reid says: is a goo was of assessing the amount of M
    Ps ,if you instantly take off 30 for Scotland,and depending on if the boundary changes happen, take another 30 off too
    It’s based in British results not u.k, so if say the Tories were in 40% add 1% , also if the polls are normally 3% understate the Tories and overstate labour by 3% and the fact there’s normally a swung back to the incumbent,

    If could revel labour get as little as 90 MPs at the next election

    1. Matty says:

      The pollsters have adjusted their methodology based on how likely they think people are likely to vote so that they are actually overstating the Tories and understating Labour in comparison with polls before 2015

      1. john P Reid says:

        really! like the referendum,witht he idea that right wing voters would lose or the same in America

        I hope you’re right as it means they’ll be 120 Labour MPS

  2. John Penney says:

    The likely next General Election result for Labour certainly looks distinctly bleakly “Pasok-like” for Labour. However , it is the Labour Right , in close cahoots with the entire mass media, that have systematically destroyed the limited credibility remaining to Labour amongst key sections of our core voter base.

    And in Scotland this should be doubly obvious – it took 30 years or so of cronyism, corruption, and Right labour neoliberalism, for Labour to be utterly destroyed as the natural party of the working class – outflanked comprehensively on the Left by the cynical Left-posing petty nationalists of the SNP.

    The “Corbyn Surge” extraordinary Left-oriented Labour membership explosion was always a very flukey event – entirely running counter to the dire fate of Social Democracy right across Europe. What, in the rest of Europe, over the febrile period since the 2008 Crash, led to the emergence of new radical Left parties (and of course even more successful Far Right ones), in the UK, because of FPTP and the Right hubris caused fluke of “Corbynism ” , has been akin to the temporary “heart re-start” of an electric shock fibrillator, for a profoundly sick , disease-ridden patient. Unfortunately the Labour “patient” is still a terminal case – riddled with neoliberal politics, and an entirely careerist neoliberal-politics-holding majority across the Party Machine, PLP, and local councils.

    This political cancer-ridden Party had but one hope to avoid the fate of all European Social Democracy – that “Corbynism” , as a mass insurgent movement, would fight for a root and branch transformation of the Party – inevitablity involving “amputation” of a sizeable chunk of the neoliberalism diseased Party, so that, smaller but politically healthier, a revitalised Left party could rebuild on a solid, radical Left reformist basis.

    Corbyn and his circle (and it has to be said, much of the new ,politically naïve, essentially Left liberal, new membership too ) simply weren’t, and never will be, up to this brutal challenge. So, yes, I agree with the hint by Peter, that pretty soon, Corbyn will “stand aside” for a new “leftish” leader – possibly someone like Clive Lewis, on a political platform which will still be entirely lacking in solid analysis and Left programmic solutions to the UK
    socioeconomic crisis, but will be big in vague soundbite promises. (but will remain pro Trident, pro Austerity, pro privatisation, and in reality entirely hitched to the politics of the massively entrenched Labour Right generally).

    Whether much of the 500,000 “Corbyn Surge” membership will stay the course with a Labour Party , under a new Leader, still entirely unchanged in policy terms , and PLP composition, from the Miliband era, which is now too damaged and politically incoherent to reverse the damage done by the Right for over a year of utter chaos , is a moot point.

    It is more likely that the Tories will get a epochal landslide General Election win in 2020, on the entirely bogus promise of “a major reduction in net migration after Brexit” , and as “champions of Brexit”, with Labour destroyed as a mass party. This happening long before the Tory lies about “reducing net migration” and their toxic neoliberal plans for the post Brexit UK, become clear to the millions of working class voters who have, and are, deserting the still entirely Right-Labour neoliberal dominated Party. a Party that the Corbyn Leadership victory has failed to change in any significant way at all, even in securing a single pro-Corbyn new MP in Parliament.

    1. Bill says:

      Thanks John for this insightful comment. I wonder how many more of us are concerned that 300,000+ new members will be lost within 12 months due to disillusionment that despite voting for Jeremy Corbyn and ‘left’ candidates for NEC its still as you say business as usual for the P.L.P.

      There has been ZERO cultural change in the party from a hierarchical top down organisation with arcane rules and procedures unfit for the 21st Century.

      1. Tim Pendry says:

        You have made a very good point there, Bill. Internal party reform to engage this mass movement seems to have come to a standstill and there seems no communication back to the members by e-mail or other strategies.

        This reminds me of Obama mobilising a massive force to get him into power and then effectively abandoning it. He got his two terms, of course, but the frustration was inherited partly by Sanders and partly resulted in people shifting to a new populism of the Right where the incoming President is now maintaining communication with his movement (much to the consternation of liberals) beyond his win date.

        This is not a direct comparison, of course – but those enthused during Corbyn’s first surge to power and then who backed him in the attempted coup must be feeling a bit lost unless they are lucky enough to be in a vibrant university centre or certain London or inner city boroughs. Even Momentum scarcely communicated for quite some time – which is why I walked away from it myself. Maybe it is doing more now.

        1. Tim Pendry says:

          I correct that by saying that our local Party is very good at communication … I am really speaking of national communication which is what a lot of people want without the Party procedural gobbledygook.

      2. Tim Barlow says:

        Damn straight, Bill!

        I attended a couple of days of The World Transformed event happening alongside last year’s party conference in Liverpool and came away enthused, inspired and optimistic about the future of the party. Since then, Zilch! I’m glad I’ve held back from joining as a member because there’s been no follow-through. It’s as though seeing off the Blairites at the 2nd leadership contest was the one and only objective. Since achieving that they’ve been treading water and you’re right to say it’s been business as usual for the PLP with zero cultural change.

        What the hell are Seamus Milne & co playing at?

  3. Karl Stewart says:

    Clearly we’ll all have a better idea of how things really are when the two by-election results are in.

    But I’m starting to think that Labour’s ‘neither Brexiteer nor Remoaner’ stance might actually be an intelligent piece of positioning in the longer term.

    It might turn out to be the best tone to set, given the fairly close referendum results and the way that reflects across the country as a whole.

  4. Tim Pendry says:

    A very good analysis of the current situation – especially the lack of policy that can appeal to the wider population – but it falters on speculation about the future towards the end.

    I am not one of those who think ‘Corbyn is the problem’ per se but the constant denigration of him by outsiders is matched by his lack of commitment to presentation and of compromise on one or two signal issues (free movement of labour above all but also perceived strength on ‘national security’) that require some shift in order to reach out to voters who distrust his urban liberalism.

    Brexit too is a serious problem for the party and the Starmer strategy, though weak, is probably all that the Party can work with for the moment. Given the probability (despite the media) of the 2020 electoral timetable being held to, then the appropriate strategy, frustrating though it is, must be to help get Brexit through so it is no longer divisive and ensure Labour stands for the retention of the rights that will be automatically transferred under the Great Repeal Bill, and come out hitting with a radical populist policy programme on the day after the Bill is passed, so that Leavers have no cause to distrust the Party.

    That gives two years or so to build a policy platform behind the scenes that has nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with not merely retaining the best of the embedded European legislation but actually doing better – above all on the key failures of the Tory Government: NHS, social care, housing – all of which were drivers for revolt last summer.

    Things will go up and down, up and down, but the real test is when Leavers start to trust a Party apparently dominated by urban liberal graduates and Remainers accept that the EU is irrelevant politically and that their ‘urban liberal’ beliefs and values (including a collaborative approach with the European Left on external issues) can be maintained within a Labour Party ‘building a better Britain’.

    The speculation around electoral alliances misses the point because the Right won’t play ball. UKIP won’t seriously challenge the Tory Party but only the Labour Party until Brexit makes it irrelevant. Remainer Tories will return to the Party for self-centred socio-economic reasons once Brexit is done and dusted.

    Allying with the Liberal Democrats on what would amount to an implicit Second Referendum programme would not win over Remainer Tories but would simply extend the distrust of Left-Leavers beyond the critical date of the Repeal Act and ‘infect’ the two years of new policy promotion. Distrust of Labour on Brexit would extend to distrust of Labour on other policies fueled by the media.

    The almost certain way of ensuring that there would be no Labour Government (given some leadership weaknesses) would be to throw away the two years of tough policy campaigning on national interest concerns for a soft fluffy alliance of liberals, greens and urban graduates, all looking backwards to reverse a policy that the general public (by then) considered done and dusted.

  5. Bazza says:

    I would hope there is still time for the left to seize the moment and to be proactive instead of being reactive to events; make history, don’t let history make you.
    Those at our top don’t at times seem to know what they want but I do.
    We need to get left wing policies and rule changes to conference to give more power to members.
    We need to get the left on the NEC, CAC, NPF (whilst it exists though I would replace this with working groups of experts and experts by experience) and more CLP places on the NEC.
    It was great JC put out 10 statements on policy but we should have had added to these with 12 or so simple policy bullet point sugggestions on each statement which should be sent to CLPs etc. to take out to the Community a policy area at a time to be debated, amended, added to; this could be done up to the general election every 3/6 months or so, so we are starting the election campaign and engaging with communities.
    It just needs someone to write them to stimulate discussion.
    Left wing socialists should also pick left wing socialist MPs.
    I want a left wing democratic socialist society in the UK and every country of the World.
    With Brexit it’s Theresa’s Neo-Liberal Barmy Army v The Lib Undemocrats (they just won’t accept the democratic Referendum result) v Labour Best Brexit for Working People in the UK, Current EC migrants, and UK citizens living in the rest of the EC.
    But perhaps ours at the top need to hone their political responses to the Tories so they are razor sharp.
    May said with things like NATO she leads whilst Jeremy leads protests but when the US says ‘Jump’ May says “How high?”
    Theresa the Appeaser!
    May talks of a new trade deal with the US – chorine or acid washed chicken and hormone injected meat for British people from the US, free reign for US Healthcare companies in our NHS.
    Theresa the Appeaser.
    And whilst the disputed CETA deal with Europe and Canada will have open cases involving TNCs complaints against governments (which shoudn’t be allowed) looked at by European judges overseen by the European Court of Justice, will a trade deal with the US have secret such courts as the Tories have said they want to pull out of the European Court of Justice!
    Theresa the Appeaser to Big Business Neo-Liberal Capitalism.
    So come on left at the top, know what you want, have a vision, have a strategy of how we are going to get there then put it into practice.
    Make history or you allow events to overtake and restrict you.
    Neo-Liberalism had 20 years of think tanks etc. before it captured the Tory Party; I remember reading an old book by William Keegan (I think it was called ‘Mrs Thatchers’s Evangelical Economic Miracle’ or something) and how he described how Thatcher had to be sat in a room by Keith Joeseph and others and taught moneterism) and of course Trump is surrounded now by chosen Neo-Liberal capitalist hawks and right wing think placements such The Heritage Foundation – he is just the performer!
    We may not be as prepared as we would have liked to have been but we have one as yet mainly untapped fantastic asset – the collective life experiences and reading of our 543,00 members.
    We should tapp these ideas from below to help to offer exciting anti-austerity, redistributive policies which should appeal to the masses and perhaps our experinces could be shared with sister parties in other countries.

  6. Craig Stephen says:

    With such comments above who needs the mainstream, pro-Tory media to give Labour a good kicking?! We seem to be doing a very good job ourselves.
    I believe the by-elections will result in two wins for Labour as voters see the folly of the overblown, hyped UKIP lie machine in one, and see what a decent candidate can do in the other after years of an ineffective, divisive representative. Then the fightback can begin again.

    1. Karl Stewart says:

      I think so too. I think people are seeing sense in Labour’s honest and reasonable position.

      It actually reflects the concern and uncertainty of the country as a whole far better than the definitive positions of all the others.

      Labour is being honest, the other parties are posturing and playing games.

      I feel that, in the long run, Labour will benefit from this.

      1. Craig Stephen says:

        There are people here “predicting” that Labour will drop down to 90 MPs! I don’t know where they get that from, but it clearly is ridiculous. And even irresponsible. The public mood can change very quickly, and Labour needs to be a strong, campaigning and united party in order to win over that mood when it comes, and it could be soon.

  7. David Pavett says:

    Thanks to Peter Rowlands for a calm and careful summary of Labour’s electoral standing and possible prospects. Polls and electoral contests are measures by which that standing is tested but decisive though those measures ultimately are they deal with the output of Labour’s efforts. More fundamental is the input , what Labour has to offer. As Peter says “At no level is policy being developed or clearly enunciated, and it must be if Labour is to gain the support it needs”. Several of the repsonses above repeat tge same thing.

    We keep saying the same thing and some solid policy ideas and questions are offered in these columns. This sometimes leads to fruitful debate. The problem is that this produces no recognition from left activists holding positions on policy forming bodies such as the NPF and the policy commissions. The people we elect do not participate in these efforts.

    I agree that Labour’s structures have not been reformed to make them more democratic and therefore more responsive but there is much that could be achieved short of that. As Tim Pendry say there is a communications failure and this is not a matter of lack of means or expertise. It is a cultural failure. Labour doesn’t know how to organise informed debate. This is not just a question of the leadership, even if its failings on that front are a major disappointment. It is not something which can be blamed entirely on the right of the party and its apparatchiks. The left is just a moribund when it comes to policy debate.

    The Policy Forum website is a monument to Labour’s inability to organise debate and the lack of pressure from the left. I may hope to return to a appraisal of this website soon. For now I will state my opinion that anyone with a basic grasp of what is involved in informed debate can see its deficiencies in a few minutes. I have been assured several times that the site is being re-jigged but this seems to have gone no further than changing its name from Your Britain to Policy Forum.

  8. Peter Rowlands says:

    Some comments.
    As ever, John P exaggerates about the hold of the right and is unduly pessimistic, but it is difficult to deny that there is much to what he says.
    Bill and Tim make I think a valid comparison with Obama and disillusionment.
    Tim P thinks that I ‘falter on speculation’. I must admit that I have become increasingly loath to predict anything, after many years of having done so quite incorrectly, topped by the experience of 2016. However, what he says is I think right, the battle will shortly become not Brexit but the terms of Brexit, which will be more favourable terrain for Labour.He is also right on a rainbow alliance, and I should have made that clearer.
    Craig and Karl are confident of success at the forthcoming by-elections. I fervently hope they are right.
    Lastly, David P is absolutely right on the reluctance of the great and the good in the shadow government and NPF to engage in debate with lesser mortals like ourselves.This must change, but there is little sign of it doing so.

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