Joining the Lib Dems...

Conference season sees various New Statesman staff dashing around the country to take part in fringe

Down to Bournemouth to join the Lib Dems. Not literally you understand. No, I'm actually here to chair a couple of New Statesman-organised fringes: one a debate on whether digital equality matters. Another - still to take place at the time of writing - on Network Rail.

Now I have a similar attitude to computers that I do to cars - I love to drive but have next to no idea as to what's going on under the bonnet. But the issue of who we help gain access to technology is vital because it interlinks with all sorts of issues to do with education, opportunities and in the end employment. It's also interesting to hear the different views about this subject. For example, is access to the internet a human right, given all the opportunities for research, transactions and socialising it gives us?

Among the guests speaking at the fringe meeting on digital equality we had Andrew Pinder of BECTA and one of the former Blair 'tsars', Richard Younger-Ross MP, Helen Milner of UK Online Centres and Becky Hogge wearing her Open Rights Group hat.

The great fear, if you're chairing one of these things, is they'll be lacklustre so a certain amount disagreement, of give and take is vital. In the end we covered a lot of ground from the slightly off subject issue of downloading music and copyright to the numbers of UK adults now using the web. Apparently just more than two thirds.

The audience seemed to enjoy it shouting rubbish at each others comments and getting stuck in to the arguments. Well sort of. Actually it was fairly polite on the whole.

Anyway being down here is a good chance to wander around a bit and get a sense of the atmosphere at this year's gathering.

I made the mistake of remarking to Lynne Featherstone MP, who I met in a corridor, that there didn't seem to be many people here this year. She disagreed - apparently the number of registered attendees were a record high. Still doesn't feel like it as you walk around the BIC conference centre. It really is curiously empty, although Lynne said that was because of all the training sessions the party now runs.

The Lib Dems are pleased with themselves for ratifying a plan to cut taxes for low and average earners but attending a briefing ahead of Nick Clegg's speech tomorrow there was a sense the wheels might already be coming off that particular bandwagon. Certainly a lot of the Fleet Street crowd were having quite a bit of fun quizzing Danny Alexander who was fronting the press conference.

Still it'll be interesting to see tomorrow what sort of mark Clegg makes. Obviously he'll get a warm welcome but one can't help but wonder if the Lib Dem thunder has been stolen by David Cameron's 'liberal' Conservatives.

Next stop Manchester to see the state Labour's in.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
Getty
Show Hide image

Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

0800 7318496