Polling and Labour’s prospects

By Owen Jones / @owenjones84

Labour’s current position in the opinion polls is disastrous. This isn’t written as a counsel of despair, but because we have to recognise political reality if we are going to turn it around. In the latest YouGov opinion poll, the Tories are on 42%; Labour languish at 26%. In this month’s opinion polls, Labour are consistently polling below 30% while the Tories are consistently above 40%

For some dedicated Labour loyalists, there is an understandable reluctance to accept such terrible polling as accurate. Unfortunately this undermines any efforts to turn it around, particularly when any call to address Labour’s challenges is treated as treachery by some.

‘Polls schmolls’ is the attitude of some. Look at how often polls are wrong! I get some tweeting me that the polls are actually made up, suggesting that the pollsters’ proprietors are Conservatives who are fixing the results (which would mean destroying their professional credibility for limited political gain). The problem is when polls are significantly wrong, it is almost always to the detriment of Labour. The two big polling disasters of recent times were in 1992 and 2015: on both occasions, the reality was much worse for Labour. In the 13 general elections since 1966, eve-of-election polling has only understated Labour’s results 3 times: a tiny amount in 2010, in 1983 (when Labour’s result was still calamitous) and in the first 1974 general election, which produced a hung Parliament.

The truth is the current polling could turn out worse for Labour in practice. Here’s why:

1) As above, Labour normally underperforms polling in a general election.

2) In a general election, there is normally a swing-back to the government.

3) At this stage of the last Parliament, Ed Miliband’s Labour had a significant lead but still went on to lose. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Labour frequently had sizeable leads and then went on to lose. You normally need a whopping big lead in the middle of a Parliamentary term if you want to even scrape a victory.

4) After last year’s polling rout, some pundits suggested we should have focused more on polling that showed Ed Miliband far behind David Cameron as preferred Prime Minister. According to current polling, when asked to choose who would make the best Prime Minister, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, or Unsure, Corbyn comes third (May on 51%, Unsure on 31%, Corbyn on 18%). In a general election, that could mean a soft Labour vote including either mass defections to the Tories, 0r a depressed Labour turnout.

5) Polling shows considerable dissatisfaction on the part of those 30.4% of the British electorate who voted Labour in 2015.

6) Labour is way behind on the economy: one poll shows that 70% of voters prefer the Tories’ economic team.

7) The headline polling is even worse in England, and likely to be even worse in the marginal seats.

8) There are dozens of Labour-held seats with a majority of 5,000 or less which would tumble in a rout.

9) The Tories will launch all-out-war against Labour’s leadership. They haven’t even got started yet.

When confronted with this polling, some reach for explanations. Firstly, the mainstream media. I’ve written two books which, in large part, focused on media bias, so I couldn’t be more naturally sympathetic to this argument. Our press is extremely aggressive and ideological: they’re mostly owned by highly political oligarchs who use their dominance over the means of information to wield political influence. Fine: but there’s not much that can be done about it. Complaining about it is like barking at thunder. The storm is not going to go away.

The second is the actions of Labour MPs in the aftermath of Brexit. The farcical decision to plunge the Labour party into very public and pointless turmoil at a time of national crisis when all the focus should have been on the Tories obviously damaged the party’s polling.

Two points though. Firstly, the polling slid badly, but from a mediocre position: Labour have not been ahead in the average of polls (which is what counts) since before the last general election. Secondly, if Labour faces a disastrous defeat, all of the party’s various sides might blame each other, but that won’t be much comfort in the years of Tory rule stretching into the future.

We have to turn it around for these reasons:

1) A terrible Labour defeat could break the party as a political force, consigning it to the wilderness for a very long time to come: that would mean not just losing the next general election, but the election after that, too.

2) Labour’s electoral failure means the people the party was set up to represent pay the price.

3) We’ve been up against Tory party implementing ideologically-driven cuts for the last few years: we’re now facing a UKIPised Conservative Party. Progressive Britain risks being swept away by a tidal wave of right-wing xenophobic populism.

4) The left will be blamed for a terrible defeat, which could see it marginalised for a generation or more.

5) When the Tories win a general election — particularly if it’s an overwhelming victory — politics overall shifts sharply to the right. Look at how Thatcherism succeeded in dragging the political centre of gravity sharply to the right in the 1980s.

There are some who believe that somehow things will be different this time and the polls should be ignored. This is putting hope above evidence and precedent, and is a fatal mistake.

A snap general election next year looks increasingly likely, which — as things stand — would be devastating for Labour — and for the country as a whole.

That’s why everybody has responsibilities. The Parliamentary Labour Party need to avoid doing anything that undermines the leadership: that’s in their interests, because if Labour is heading for a defeat, they need the leadership to own it. The hundreds of thousands who have joined the Labour Party all need to dedicate as much as their life as possible to knocking on doors and talking to voters outside the left-wing bubble. The Labour leadership needs to offer a clear coherent vision, backed up with message discipline, and exploit the divisions of a Tory leadership heading for a harsh chaotic Brexit, rather than a Brexit that puts the economy, jobs and living standards first.

Even spelling out these realities will upset some. Better to upset people now than to wake up after a general election that decimates Labour and consigns us to right-wing Tory rule for a generation to come.

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