The Tories could still lose

They haven't yet "sealed the deal" with the electorate

The Times has more bad news for the Prime Minister. Its front-page headline proclaims: "Give us any leader but Brown, say voters".

Nine months at most from a general election, a Populus poll for the Times suggests that 48 per cent of voters believe that "literally anyone" from Labour's ranks could do better, without naming alternatives. Only a third say that Mr Brown is the best leader available to Labour.

"Without naming alternatives" is the key point, however. Other polls suggest that when alternatives are named (be they Miliband, Johnson, Harman, or whoever), Labour's poll ratings remain far below those of the Conservatives. (Then again, Polly Toynbee and others are right to remind us of the inevitable "honeymoon period" that all new leaders benefit from, including Gordon Brown in the summer of 2007.)

With or without Brown, things look bad for Labour. But, the other bit from the Times piece that sticks out is the graphic on the front page, which shows the opposition party's support ahead of various landmark general elections: in September 1978 (Thatcher's Tories at 48 per cent), in September 1996 (Blair's New Labour at 50 per cent) and, today, in September 2009 (Cameron's Conservatives at 41 per cent). As the accompanying text helpfully adds:

The Tories are, however, doing less well than Labour in opposition in 1996 (on 50 per cent) or the Tories in 1978 (48 per cent).

So isn't there still a chance of a hung parliament (as I have long suspected there might be)? The public, according to Populus, disagrees:

The number thinking that there will be a hung parliament has fallen by 5 points to 20 per cent. Some 17 per cent (up 2 points) think that Labour will win an overall majority.

But if, as in previous years, and as the Times concedes, the opposition party loses support in the final months before the general election, where will that leave Cameron's Conservatives next May? I'm no psephologist, but isn't a Tory opposition that's polling in the mid-to-late 30s in the run-up to an election contested under a first-past-the-post system with a bias towards Labour heading for a hung parliament?

As Leo McKinstry argued so persuasively and forcefully in the New Statesman back in May:

The national opinion polls are, of course, bleak for the government, but then they also were at the time of the European elections in 2004, a year before Blair's third triumph. The average Tory lead of 10-12 per cent in recent months might look healthy, but, in truth, if replicated at a general election, it would be barely enough to win. After three successive landslide defeats, the task facing the Conservatives at the next election is daunting.

Taking account of boundary changes, they have to gain at least 112 seats to form an overall majority in the Commons. That would require a 7.1 swing, the equivalent of an 11 per cent lead over Labour in the national British vote, far beyond the scale of anything achieved by a previous Tory opposition.

It is a remarkable historical fact that since the end of the Victorian age, the Conservatives have only once turned out a government which possessed a working majority in parliament. That occurred in 1970, when Ted Heath -- defying conventional wisdom and the polls -- defeated Harold Wilson's government, though even then the swing was 4.7 per cent, significantly lower than that needed by Cameron.

Every other Tory victory since 1900 has been against a dying coalition or Labour government which had lost its majority, or never held one.

So, despite today's Populus poll in the Times, the verdict of a piece I co-wrote with my colleague James Macintyre in June still stands:

In the mid-1990s, the late Roy Jenkins compared Tony Blair's mission in leading New Labour to victory to that of an elderly and frail butler carrying a priceless vase from one side of a room to another. Today, Labour is down but not out. And it should be repeated: the Tories have yet to seal the deal with the British electorate. David Cameron must hope that his fragile party doesn't slip and stumble before election day.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.