Trevor Fisher says Labour would be foolish to take much from current opinion poll figures and voices concerns of a return to New Labour mark II
Opinion polls rule political debate, creating both optimism and pessimism. Currently a mood of optimism is relieving pressure on the Labour leadership, poll data fuelling the view that Boris Johnson’s time is short. Personally, I doubt Bojo is under any real pressure, but what can be said is that while the opinion polls are favourable they are no real basis for assuming current strategy is working.
The following comment is typical of mainstream thinking:
“New polling released by Opinium over the weekend saw Labour overtake the Tories in voting intentions for the first time since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister… Margin of error aside, the research suggests that the Party can smash the glass ceiling of 40%… This is a big boost for Keir Starmer and a development that will be interpreted by his team as a vindication of his approach to opposition during the crisis, despite what the Labour leader’s Gogglebox critics might say.”
A comment on the poll boost provided by the winter of Partygate? No, this is Sienna Rogers, editor of Labour List, writing on 28th September 2020. The seventeen-months-plus since she wrote this has produced nothing which suggests Labour can gain the 125 extra seats for a majority of one. Certainly this is why the progressive coalition bandwagon is rolling, as there is little chance of a Labour landslide.
The immediate issue is what opinion polls actually show. In February, the i paper’s political editor, Hugo Gye, put his finger on key issues. Having stated that “Labour has held a robust lead in the polls since mid-November”, he glossed this, arguing the poll tracker used by his paper, which gave Labour a lead of 9%, was possibly misleading. One leading poll firm was revising its methods, and the tweaks changed a lead of up to 10% into just 3%. And the pollster making these crucial changes was the Opinium group cited by Sienna Rogers in September 2020.
The crucial tweak was to stop discounting voters who say they will not vote at the next general election. The voter group this most affects are Tory voters in 2019 unhappy with Partygate. These are partly responsible for the drop in Tory support shown from November onwards, but they are not voting for other parties. It is important for Labour to win their support, but they cannot be the priority – which seems to be the view in LOTO.
Gye reminded us that it is commonplace for voters to stop voting for an unpopular party but return to the fold when the crisis passes. The so-called ‘shy Tories’ explain much of Labour’s poor electoral performance over recent decades. Gye commented that “Labour officials are well aware of this danger – a source close to Sir Keir Starmer suggested that the priority was now to convince people who have switched from the Conservatives to Don’t Know that they should take a gamble on the opposition”.
This report chimes with Starmer’s move away from the soft left to the hard right. While he has always been obsessed with the Red Wall seats, appointing Deborah Mattinson as his strategy advisor is a deeply questionable move. Mattinson is a New Labour veteran whose 2010 book, Talking to a Brick Wall, is essential reading for the Brown era. However, her 2020 book, Beyond the Red Wall, makes the claim on the dust jacket: “Why Labour lost, how the Conservatives won, and what will happen next”. Labour did not lose in 2019 because of the Red Wall seats – it had already lost three elections and had held the Red Wall seats in 2010, 2015 and 2017. Winning them back is vital; but, as Staffordshire shows, other seats have to be won to get back the majority – like my seat of Stafford, so solidly Tory that David Cameron stood in it in 1997 only to see it as a brick in Blair’s landslide. Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme were the last seats in the county to go, but their loss in 2019 was only a step to the Johnson landslide. Labour lost its majority in 2010 when Stafford and other seats went Tory, and local activists watched in amazement as the lessons were not learnt and previously solid Labour areas like Stoke lost Labour seats with no shift in approach. To win a majority, Labour needs the seats it won in 1997 and lost in 2010 after Brown had lost the plot – which Mattinson’s first book helps to explain.
Sadly, the 2020 book is an attempt to unlearn these lessons and claim the New Labour formula works. New Labour appointments to LOTO positions, and statements that Peter Mandelson could be a behind the scenes advisor, suggest a return to the failed New Labour politics.
Or, more controversially, a ‘New Labour-plus’ model. In the period up to and after the 1997 election, the left was put into a ‘sealed box’, relatively easy to do with a double-digit lead in the polls but less easy when the headline figure is a single-digit lead. The strategy may be more controversial. The suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the PLP was officially a temporary measure pending an apology of ill-judged remarks he had made. However, it now appears that this is to be permanent, with a named substitute being lined up for his seat. The parliamentary selection process is about to start, and some within the PLP wish to sacrifice a few left MPs to buy Tory votes. The tactic is based on blaming Corbyn for the 2019 defeat – a half-truth: Labour has been losing votes for over 20 years – but encourages a dangerous path of a purge of leftists, which is becoming what the media expect.
Internal battles have been mercifully absent since the general election of 2019, but the publication of the Forde Inquiry is likely to open old wounds. Coupled with likely attempts to remove Corbyn – and perhaps other mainstream leftists – the result could be internal party strife. This is unlikely to improve Labour’s poll ratings, but for a resurgent New Labour this may become a price worth paying for what they believe to be the road to success: a party safe for Tories to support.