Gordon Nardell

Polls Apart

Gordon Nardell

Recent national opinion polls make grim reading for Labour. But they don’t tally easily with actual election results since May 2015. Gordon Nardell, Islington North CLP, explains why there is all to play for Polls apartTHE TORIES WON THE 2015 General Election with 36.9% of the vote. Labour scored 30.4%; UKIP, on 12.6%, pushed the Lib Dems into fourth place with 7.9%. Compared with 2010, the Tories’ share (+0.8%) rose by less than Labour’s (+1.5%). But the collapse in the Lib Dems (-15.2%), combined with UKIP’s rise (+9.5%) and the SNP wipeout (up 30% in Scotland where Labour was down 17.7%), translated into an overall Westminster majority of 12 for the Tories.

As the 2015 General Election demonstrated – and as the EU referendum starkly reminded us – opinion polls can be unreliable. Coupled with the capricious effects of first-past-the-post, a party has to poll consistently in the high thirties or more, with a substantial lead over its nearest rival, to be confident of General Election success. But in polling in the run-up to May 2015, Labour couldn’t muster more than around 33-34% of the national vote, hovering between level pegging and a 2-3% lead over the Tories.

With Labour catapulted into a leadership contest, the polls quickly showed the Tories opening a sizeable lead. At the end of May 2015, YouGov and ComRes gave the Tories 41% and a 10-11% lead over Labour. In the months following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader in September 2015, Labour steadily closed the gap, with some polls in March/April 2016 showing it tied with the Tories or even narrowly leading. In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum the parties remained neck and neck, with Survation putting Labour and the Tories on 32% each (poll published 26th June, fieldwork 24-26th June). But the PLP’s hamfisted coup attempt, followed by Owen Smith’s leadership challenge, soon put paid to that. By mid-July the Tories had risen to 40%+ where they have pretty much stayed since, with a peak 14% and average 11% lead over Labour in recent polls.

These figures should ring alarm bells. If the Tories can maintain their present advantage through to a 2020 election, Labour will stand no chance of winning the 106 seats necessary for a majority. But there are good reasons to believe that the position, though challenging, remains highly fluid: in other words, there is still all to play for.

The clearest indication of this is the striking mismatch between national opinion polls and the results of actual elections, especially in the wake of the crisis precipitated by the Brexit vote.

 Between September 2015 and July 2016, election results were broadly in line with, and if anything better than, Labour’s polling trend, and overall a significant improvement on its General Election 2015 position. Labour held parliamentary seats in Oldham West (December 2015) and Sheffield Brightside (May 2016) with increases in vote share of 6% and 7% respectively. In Ogmore (May 2016) Labour’s vote fell by just under 1%, but Plaid’s 5% gain was mostly at the expense of the Tories whose share fell 3.3%.

At the local elections in May 2016, Labour’s national vote share (38.6%) was 4% down on 2012 when those seats were last contested, but up significantly on its GE 2015 vote share and well ahead of the Tories’ 27.2%. At the Tooting by-election on 15th June 2016, Labour boosted its vote share by just under 9%, not far short of the 9.5% swing necessary to take the 106th most marginal seat nationally.

Results since June have been far more mixed. The by-elections in Witney and Batley & Spen are untypical – though Witney, coupled with council by-election results including Poole, Windermere and Gloucester, suggests the Lib Dems have begun to recover from their May 2015 nadir, often at Labour’s expense. In council by-elections Labour has scored big rises in London: 11.6% in Hackney, 8% in Lewisham. Those are strongly Labour areas, but in November a by-election in Tory Wandsworth saw Labour hold a previously marginal seat with a 14% increase, taking votes from the Tories and UKIP – a bigger swing to Labour than in the 2016 mayoral contest.

Outside London, there has been enormous inconsistency in Labour’s fortunes in its heartlands. It lost badly to Plaid in Neath Port Talbot (-25%), UKIP in Hartlepool (-17.7%) and the Tories in Stockton (-5.5%, though with UKIP down 8%) while gaining ground in Burnley (+10.7%), Lancaster (+9.1%) and Middlesbrough (+37.7%). But Labour has scored some unexpected gains in traditionally more difficult territory, including gaining a seat from the Tories on Braintree Council in Essex with a 6% increase.

None of this invalidates the opinion polls as such. But it emphasises the character of national polling as a snapshot of averages, and explains why Theresa May has displayed little enthusiasm for a snap election. Wildly divergent results in demographically similar areas indicate a complex picture, with no permanent trend yet established. Labour has the clear potential to win Tory seats in London.

Elsewhere it can claw back support lost in 2010 and 2015 – including, crucially, in areas that voted strongly to leave the EU. And it can make gains well outside its supposed urban comfort zone. So this is not a time for complacency. But it is a time for hope.  

Islington North CLP.