Why Aren’t Labour Further Ahead in the Polls?

This government is a shambles. Since losing their majority, May & co. have presided over a dumpster fire of u-turns, uncertainty and warring egos. They’re bound together by little more than a fear of Labour, and are riven apart by the nauseating helter skelter of Brexit negotiations.

Why, then, do they have such a solid standing in the polls?

Labour have maintained momentum since bouncing back in June with the biggest poll surge in modern political history. They’re constantly campaigning, and style themselves – not unfairly – as a government-in-waiting. And yet, according to YouGov, 41% of voters would still vote Conservative; only 2% less than Labour. ICM pegs both parties at an even 41%. If the Tories really are so weak, why aren’t Labour 20 points ahead?

Firstly, there’s a roof on the support any party can earn. In a different political landscape, Ed Miliband’s Labour peaked at 45% and a 15% lead over the Tories in February 2013. At the height of the banking crisis, Cameron notched up a near 20% lead over Gordon Brown, outperforming his general election score by 10%.  However, you’d have to go back to the 1970s to find parties earning over 43% in the voting booth.

Going much higher would be tougher for Corbyn’s Labour: a lot has happened during his two years as leader, and although moving leftwards clearly energised thousands, it also created a pool of people who would now never consider voting Labour. These are people appalled by the idea of a socialist government that, they believe, would bring immediate economic chaos and not just Winters of Discontent, but springs, summers and autumns too.

Corbyn polls at roughly the vote share New Labour achieved in 1997

The biggest anti-Labour block is the over-60s. Although there are a scandalous 1.9 million people living ‘pensioner poverty’, older voters generally haven’t felt austerity as harshly as younger generations. They are less likely to have been exposed to the depression of wages, the destabilising of work, or the impenetrability of the housing market.

Statistically, they also tend to be more socially conservative. This all makes Labour’s socially liberal, anti-austerity message less appealing.

Moreover, not everybody will follow their failures that closely. Political wonks see these incidents such as Priti Patel’s holiday diplomacy or Boris Johnson ill-judged remarks about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, as proof of Conservative ineptitude, the average voter might have only heard about them in passing.

Tory failure does not automatically mean people flock to Corbyn’s doorstep. It’s up to Labour to not only maximise their own vote but to depress the Conservatives’.

One of the most prominent figures writing ‘Must Do Better’ on Labour’s 2017 report card is Tony Blair. Blair’s analysis relies on the historic idea that oppositions need to command large opinion polls leads as a cushion in the electoral cycle.  His own stratospheric polling translate into a vote share of 43% and a tidal wave of red seats. Corbyn polls at roughly the vote share New Labour achieved in 1997 but might only muster a slim majority or minority government.

In 1997, the Conservatives took 31% of the vote, but the Liberal Democrats took 18%. Disillusioned Conservatives had somewhere else to go if they still did not trust Labour. Many of that 18% would have voted Blair - but not all, as Lib Dem to Tory defections showed in 2015. Instead, he got the best of both worlds, a weakened Conservative party and enough tactical voters for a triumphant win.



Labour are allowed to be optimistic, but nothing can be taken for granted

The coalition years destroyed the Lib Dems’ credibility. They earned just 7.5% in June, and, trapped in between two noisy main parties, an uptick under Vince Cable seems unlikely. UKIP’s political capital was spent on Brexit, and the SNP’s domination of Scotland coming to an early end: we have returned to two-party politics on a scale unseen in over 40 years. It’s a sign of a polarised electorate – if you’re not voting for Labour, chances are you’ll go straight to the Conservatives.  

This doesn’t mean Labour are doomed to forever fall short, though. Blair’s analysis might be wrong. Brexit and a different Labour party might have broken the old electoral cycle. Corbyn may be a Marmite politician. But so was Mrs Thatcher. A majority Labour government is possible.

To win Labour needs to mobilise the young or first-time voters. By continuing to build support in demographics where they are already strong with positive policies, while attacking the Tories where they stronger they might win the numbers game that will make up the next election.

This year went better than Labour dared to hope. They’ve got a right to pop a champagne cork or two as they look to the future. But the Conservatives are still, ultimately, in power. And as pitiful as they seem, they’re certainly not facing electoral oblivion. Brexit might be tearing them apart, but let’s be clear: Theresa May was a gift. Uncomfortable and uninspiring, she was reluctant to even defend her dud of a manifesto. Although their pickings are slim on the leadership front, the Tories might not always be so weak.

We ought to brace ourselves for the next election, whenever it may be. Labour are allowed to be optimistic, but nothing can be taken for granted. It will take months, maybe even years, of fighting to ensure that their narrow poll lead translates into a decisive Labour victory.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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