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Labour, the elections, and the polls

There is a tendency on the left to dismiss opinion polls, partly, and fairly, because they have proved to be significantly inaccurate in the two most important votes of the last two years, the 2015 election and the 2016 EU Referendum, and partly, and usually misguidedly, that what they tell us can always be overcome. That is not to say that it can’t, and as Jeremy Corbyn  has said we should not treat the election as a ‘foregone conclusion’, but polls should be treated seriously as they are normally not too far from the truth.

Labour’s position in the polls now is worse than at any time since 1983 for an opposition party, and Corbyn’s personal rating as leader likewise. How and why did this happen? During his first period as leader Labour averaged about 31/32, only just behind the Tories on 33/34. Although there was much criticism the position pre referendum and coup was not unreasonable, with Labour recouping its six point deficit in the 2015 election by the 2016 elections. However, The gap widened considerably in the post referendum period, with Labour averaging 26 for most of this period, with the Tories averaging 41. Reasons are the coup, with voters being well aware that Corbyn is opposed by three quarters of his MPs, the Brexit vote which inevitably meant that Labour had to adopt a ‘facing both ways’ position, and the continued failure to develop policy and divisions and departures among his staff and within  Momentum.

The Lib-Dems increased their vote from about 8 up to December, to about 10 since. The UKIP vote has declined from about 12 to February to about 10 since. Labour Remain voters have decamped in large numbers to the Lib-Dems, Leave voters to UKIP and some thence to the Tories, but many directly to the Tories. We cannot be precise about what this would mean, as swings vary between constituencies and regions, but it is reasonable to assume, as Electoral Calculus have done, that Labour could lose up to 50 seats, taking them well below 200, a post war low. It is not likely to fall much beyond this, as many Labour seats still remain relatively safe.

But it could be a much better result than this. There are a number of actual or potential factors that could prove significant.

The first is that May, as one journalist memorably put it, has ‘trashed her brand’. She has been transformed from the determined but compassionate vicar’s daughter with an absolute commitment to the country’s interests, to just another two faced politician who is prepared to alter course to suit her own (in particular) and her party’s interests, but is clearly quite happy to continue down a right wing road that completely belies her professed concern for the less well off. At least Thatcher never pretended that she was anything other than profoundly reactionary. But she seems to share with Thatcher an authoritarian streak that implies that the normal democratic processes are an unnecessary obstruction. And no, she is not going to lower herself by debating with other party leaders on TV. She is the leader, that should be enough. The ‘unmasking’ of May is  important, and is likely to lose her votes, although how many remains to be seen.

The second is that while Tory support reflects Brexit and corresponding vote transfers from Labour and UKIP, the run-up to the election will see a more widespread reflection on political problems and their possible solutions than is normally the case, and if Labour promotes this with an attractive, coherent and costed manifesto it could win back some of those who have transferred their vote to the Tories over Brexit, as they consider whether Labour is more likely to represent their interests on most other matters, and indeed on Brexit, given their seven year record of abject failure..

The third is  tactical voting. It was right to rule out any formal co-operation with other parties, which would have mainly meant the Lib-Dems, as the degree of mutual antagonism at local level would have ruled out a mass transfer of votes based on one party not standing in favour of the other. However, Compass are right to point out that there are thirty Tory seats that could be susceptible to an agreement, and hopefully some of these will fall on the basis of DIY tactical voting.

The fourth is a very large membership, much more so than for any other party, most of whom are by definition Corbyn supporters, and who constitute a formidable potential campaigning force. However, and any activist will know this, most of them have not shown any inclination to be active, either in the run up to the coming local elections or in last year’s May elections. It has to be spelt out to this largely passive membership that their active involvement in the forthcoming campaign could be crucial not only to Labour’s electoral performance but also to Corbyn’s continuation as leader.

Anyone who has been canvassing recently will have experienced anti-Corbyn sentiments on the doorstep. There is nothing new about this, and Miliband and Brown suffered at the hands of the right wing press as as Corbyn has done, perhaps not as much, as they realise that there is somewhat more at stake.

However, for this reason the local elections on May 4th may well be more favourable to Labour than the general election on June 8th.

We must now all work to get the best possible result.


  1. Karl Stewart says:

    Is this article a week old?

    If you’re whole point is about taking opinion polls seriously, then it’s not true to say Labour’s poll position is “worse than any time since 1983.”

    The opinion polls over the weekend scored Labour o. 31 per cent, 31 per cent, 30 per cent, 31 per cent, and 29 per cent.

    Every one of them, therefore, scoring Labour at least as high as under Gordon Brown in 2010 (29 per cent), all but one of them scoring Labour at least as high as under Ed Miliband in 2015 (30 per cent) and three of the five polls scoring Labour at 31 per cent, higher than both of the last two elections.

    And there’s no evidence from the latest set of opinion polls of any growth in LibDem support. Those same polls score the LibDems at 8 per cent. Where they were in 2015.

    Peter, if your whole argument is that we must take opinion polls seriously, then at least please look at them yourself.

    1. Peter Rowlands says:

      You’re quite right Karl, my article was submitted over a week ago, and I don’t know why it hasn’t appeared until now. Yes, it is out of date in polling terms, although what happened was even more bizarre than you describe.The first eight polls after the election was called (April 18th – 26th) were dreadful for Labour, with the average gap going up from 17 to 22 points. Then a series of four polls, which yo describe, saw Labour’s score rise significantly, reducing the gap to 14 points, lower than the previous six month average of 17.
      On the Lib-Dems you are wrong . Their average has gone up and remains in these recent polls at 10.
      I would have given an update, but thanks anyway for pointing out that my article was out of date.
      I find UK Polling Report best for comprehensive coverage of polling matters.

      1. Karl Stewart says:

        Hi Peter,
        Re-reading my first post, my attitude seems a bit rude with hindsight, so apols for that.

        And yes, I was mistaken about the LibDems falling to 8 per cent – it’s the UKIPs who have dropped down to there (which for me, explains why the Conservatives have climbed up to pre-Blair levels).

        Anyway, let’s hope the early trend continues.

        (And let’s hope our Shadow Home Secretary doesn’t do any more ‘mis-speaking’…)

  2. Mervyn Hyde says:

    I believe that the polls only reflect opinions that the media peddles, in truth these polls are not based on a potential outcome for labour as people I have canvassed on the doorstep, whilst initially anti, or mildly pro conservative, especially women start to open up to persuasion as soon as soon as schooling and the NHS is mentioned, the extra £2 pound on the minimum wage clearly scores highly.

    The duplicity of the Tories is becoming increasingly apparent even among ardent Tories, my fear is that with so many imposed candidates by region and the NEC, we will see too many anti Corbyn MPs get elected at a time when we could completely turn the country around.

    May could lose all credibility of being strong in Europe as Junker has already contradicted May.

  3. Tony says:

    When I went canvassing in the recent Stoke Central by election, nobody at all mentioned Corbyn. I was very surprised.I spoke to about 30 people.

    One of the many reasons Labour did so badly in 2015 was because the ground campaign advantage over the Conservatives disappeared.

    But a strong ground campaign this time can make a big difference to the result.

    I would urge everyone to get along to a suitable constituency (Labour or Conservative marginal) and help out.

    That is what I will soon be doing.

    It is worth bearing in mind that the 1983 result could have been a good deal closer than it was and there were a few rather good results in what was a disastrous election.

  4. Barry Rodin says:

    Many thanks for a very useful, interesting and thoughtful article.
    I agree that an important requirement for making progress in this election is an attractive, radical and credibly costed manifesto. Furthermore, all shadow ministers need to be well briefed of policy objectives and costs, and need to deal confidently with hostile media questions on affordability.
    An area in which Labour has been unjustifiably vulnerable is the economy. However, reviewing key macro-economic statistics over the last 50 years or so (e.g. GDP growth, levels of taxation as a percentage of GDP, unemployment rates, balance of payments, price inflation) Labour has been no less effective than the Tories and in some areas more successful.
    We need to nail this false Tory propaganda on the economy once and for all, especially given the economy’s enduring importance in all elections.
    In my view Labour’s Achilles heel is that the growing inequality of wealth and large regional variations in economic development were not radically addressed and reversed by the previous Labour Government.
    This has contributed to the alienation of many traditional supporters towards Labour, especially in poorer, more deprived areas; a trend which has been exacerbated by the current Tory government measures and also the nationalist Right through scapegoating immigrants etc. The 2015 electoral disaster for Labour in Scotland is another example of how long-term adherence to neoliberalism can result in another type of nationalism, which has taken some of Labour’s ‘clothes’ and tragically seats in Parliament.
    Added to this toxic mix for Labour is the distorting impact of Brexit on voters’ intentions.
    I believe that we urgently need to change the ‘narrative’, explaining how planning in key areas of the economy and other radical measures can eliminate inequalities and provide opportunity for all, regardless of social background and location.
    An integral part this strategy is the recognition that progress cannot be achieved in isolation in one country. The UK is part of an interconnected globalised economy and only international political and economic co-operation among progressive Parties can improve the lives of many millions, both here and abroad.
    Finally, I also agree that we need assiduous groundwork and targeted canvassing on those demographic groups who are more likely to vote Labour but historically have a lower than average turnout (e.g. younger voters).

  5. Richard MacKinnon says:

    “I agree that an important requirement for making progress in this election is an attractive, radical and credibly costed manifesto”.
    Enter Dianne stage left. Good luck with that one Barry.

    1. Imran Khan says:


      1. Karl Stewart says:

        Excellent policy. An extra 10,000 police officers, costing approx 700m and paid for out of the 2.75bn that the restoration of capital gains tax will bring in.

        Excellent policy and no wonder the Tories are desperate to talk about a minor speech mistake instead.

        But OK when the actual Foreign Secretary calls people ‘muglumps’ or ‘picaninnies’ or rambles incoherently about Nazi guards. Hey, that’s just “good old Boris.”

        1. Steven Johnston says:

          So the jobs the £700m is currently creating will be lost, but that will be offset by the 10 000 police officers created, as you cannot spend the £700 m twice. The net gain/loss to jobs will therefore be 0.

          1. Karl Stewart says:

            No Steven, the 10,000 new police officers will be paid for out of the 2.75bn that will come from the full restoration of capital gains tax.

            It’s a net gain of 10,000 new jobs.

  6. Bazza says:

    After 7 interviews in a row Dianne made a basic mistake – lession: Labour speakers on TV take a briefing sheet with you IN LARGE PRINT WITH NOT TOO MANY WORDS ON!
    Anyway I’m for Dianne’s 10,000 bobbies on the beat, ‘Dianne’s Bobbie Dazzlers’ but admit to being more worried about Theresa’s plans to lead the World in: “Preventing Tourism!”
    Yes there has been some comments on the doorstep about Jeremy but as someone said not as bad as there was for Ed Miliband but the public are fed crap by the right wing media.
    I was outside an Asda with Labour members the other Saturday when one middle class Tory (he may even be a Tory Councillor) pretended to be a lifelong Labour supporter (but forgot I had spoken to him before) and he said he wouldn’t vote for Labour with Corbyn!
    I was on form canvassing on Monday and said to those who had doubts that it is about IDEAS and Labour has some great policies and if I was about to have a life-saving operation would I stop the surgeon doing it if he was ugly?
    It is about IDEAS, what people say and will do!
    In my county there are 250,000 kids living in poverty and I said a minimum wage of £10 per hour could help ease this plus having free school meals for all primary school kids which takes away the stigma and “shame” that hundreds of thousands of poor kids feel (and don’t claim them) and this went down well.
    We are left wing democratic socialists and should argue for what we believe confidently and in simple language – let IDEAS drive us.
    Without ideas as citizens we are nothing!
    Finally saw a poem on Facebook:

    1. Steven Johnston says:

      Bazza, keep up the good work!

      With men like you out there campaigning for a Labour victory, how can they lose.

      1. IBazza says:


  7. Bazza says:

    Ooops surgeon “if he or she” see another tired human Ha! Ha!

  8. Giles Wynne says:

    Oh ye of little faith. Jeremy thinks he can win. Theresa thinks she can lose. Tim Nice but Dim is suffering Coalition Disease.
    The Manifesto have yet to come out and so have the Tories Election expenses fraud. Banana skins aside there are 38 shopping days to the Election Day and I have this sneaking feeling that voters are not telling the pollsters the absolute truth. I pulled in £250 when JC was elected Leader and I have a modest £10 bet on him winning. So keep an eye on the odds and of course.

  9. Giles Wynne says:

    Oh ye of little faith. Jeremy thinks he can win. Theresa thinks she can lose. Tim Nice but Dim is suffering Coalition Disease.
    The Manifesto have yet to come out and so have the Tories Election expenses fraud. Banana skins aside there are 38 shopping days to the Election Day and I have this sneaking feeling that voters are not telling the pollsters the absolute truth. I pulled in £250 when JC was elected Leader and I have a modest £10 bet on him winning. So keep an eye on the odds and of course.

  10. Steven Johnston says:

    I’m sorry Karl but it isn’t. By restoring capital gains tax all you are doing is taking money from private individuals/corporations and giving it to the government. So you are raising money for the government, but the net amount of money in the country stays the same. So, the jobs that the £700m currently support will go, to be replaced by the ones the £700m the government will spend. So the net/gain loss is 0!
    BTW – an extra 10 000 coppers on the street, not very left-wing, eh comrades?

    1. Peter Rowlands says:

      No. The overall sum remains the same, but as untaxed dividend much of it would have lain idle, this way it all contributes to employment.
      What’s wrong or right wing with providing extra security and protection for ordinary people?

      1. Steven Johnston says:

        But it doesn’t remain idle! If it is stored in bank, the banks lend it out…that then contributes to employment.

        So either way the overall sum remains the same so the net gain/loss of jobs created is still nil.

        1. Peter Rowlands says:

          No. In a capitalist economy money in the private sector is only invested in job creation if it is likely to be profitable.That’s why large amounts lie idle.

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